(As printed in Whyy.org) Cpl. Michael Crescenz was the only Philadelphia native to be awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the Vietnam War.
Now, a bill is being considered in Washington that would rename Philadelphia’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center in his honor.
For his surviving friends and family, the distinction is bringing back a lot of old memories.
Crescenz’s brother Joe was 12 when he found out his big brother would be leaving their West Oak Lane home to fight in Vietnam.
It was August of 1968.
“I was proud,” Joe said. “You know I figured, ‘That’s cool. They were gonna go play army.’”
To Joe, who now lives and works in Chester County, the whole thing was like watching a TV show.
“You know and that’s what you thought combat was, you know that Hollywood cool stuff, beating the Germans and all that stuff,” he said. “I didn’t realize that war’s a little bit different.”
When Michael Crescenz volunteered to deploy in the summer of ’68, he was a 19-year-old kid fresh out of Cardinal Dougherty High School and engaged to marry his teenage sweetheart.
By fall of that year, Crescenz was a machine-gunner in South Vietnam, serving as corporal.
On Nov. 20 of that year, Crescenz found himself in the middle of an Army unit moving though the jungles of Quang Nam Province, when — all of a sudden — hell broke loose.
“There was a lot of firing going on, a lot of noise, a lot of explosions,” said William Stafford, the medic in Crescenz’s unit. “I remember being scared.”
For Stafford, who’s now a drug and alcohol counselor living on Long Island, the memory of the battle remains with him.
“Your adrenaline is going 900 miles a minute,” he said. “It’s 110 degrees. Your strength that you had, you don’t have. And there’s this hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach.”
The unit came into an ambush on the crest of a jungle-covered hillside. The lead men on the patrol were immediately shot down and, as medic, Stafford rushed out to help them.
“I got out about halfway and I couldn’t move because the enemy fire was so intense,” said Stafford. “Before I knew it, I heard [Crescenz] saying, ‘I’ll take care of it, Doc, no problem.’”
Joe wasn’t there, but he’s played the story in his head a million times.
“And Mike evidently — something just went off in his head — grabbed the nearby machine gun and charged up the hill and started doing his thing,” said Joe.
Crescenz fired into the enemy bunkers and killed at least four North Vietnamese soldiers, creating space for the rest of the unit to advance.
“He relieved the fire so we were able to hold our line straight,” said Stafford. “His actions, you know, they helped me, because I probably would have been killed.”
Crescenz, though, wasn’t as fortunate.
“Just as we got to this guy,” Stafford said. “Michael got killed. He was shot in the head.”
About a week later, back in Philadelphia, the Crescenz family was settling into their typical Saturday morning routine. Joe was getting ready to go bowling with neighborhood rec team.
“Got the knock on the door, opened up the door, and there’s this soldier,” recalled Joe, who can still picture the green “pressed out” Army uniform of the soldier at the door.
He had no idea what was about to hit him.
“I said, ‘Yo, Dad, it’s a guy from the Army. I gotta let him in the house,’” Joe said.
“As soon as my mother, who was in the kitchen making breakfast for us, heard that, you heard the frying pan drop onto the floor,” he said.
Philly’s one and only
Based on Crescenz’s actions that day, his superiors recommended him for the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor — a distinction no other Philadelphian who fought in Vietnam has received.
And now, thanks to the persistent efforts of those whose lives Crescenz touched, a bill has been introduced in Washington that would rename the Philadelphia VA Medical Center as the “Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.”
Despite the pride that Crescenz’s family and brothers-in-arms have for this distinction, they warn against glorifying combat bravery.
“There’s no glory in war,” said Stafford. “[That’s] probably a statement Patton made cause he was sending everybody to war or to their death.
“What makes people stand up and do things? They do it for their comrades in my mind. They do it for other people. You protect your friend.”
For Joe Crescenz, a staunch supporter of the military, his brother’s death is proof of the wake of suffering that war leaves behind.
“I know that survivor’s guilt got to a lot of them,” said Joe. “And I tell em, ‘Hey, you can’t feel guilty, ’cause God wanted you here. He wanted you to be a grandfather. He wanted you to bring the news to other people about what the horrors of gosh-damn war is all about. It ain’t all fun and games, buddy.’”
The bill to rename the VA hospital is in committee in both the House and Senate, awaiting enough support to be brought to a vote.
In the meantime, Joe thinks of Mike in his daily prayers.
“I ask the good Lord to take care of Mom and Pop. Take care of my brother Mike and all his comrades that never made it home. Every day,” said Joe. “You can’t forget it.”