Emotional scene as City Council honors soldier from West Oak Lane killed in Vietnam

Joe Crescenz remembers that cold morning in Nov. 1968 with a level of vivid detail that marks it as a life-defining day.

It was around 7 a.m. He was going to head off to the Boy’s Club in a little while. His father was upstairs getting dressed. His mother was downstairs making breakfast for the family. That’s when he heard the knock at the front door.

“What can I do for you, sir?” he recalls asking of the man in green U.S. Army attire who confirmed that this was, in fact, the Crescenz residence on Thouron Avenue in West Oak Lane.

“Can you get your mother and father?” the man asked. 

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That’s when his father yelled downstairs to figure out who the heck was at the door so early on a Saturday morning.

The 12-year-old yelled back that it was a man from the Army, the service branch for which his 19-year-old brother Michael Joseph Crescenz was fighting in Vietnam.

“I heard the frying pan drop in the kitchen,” Joe Crescenz said outside City Council chambers on Thursday afternoon. “She just knew. Mother’s intuition.”

Posthumous honor at City Council meeting

What the Army man was there to notify the Crescenz family about — that Michael, a corporal, had been killed while charging a hill in the Hiep Duc Valley to protect his fellow American soldiers — was also what brought Joe to City Hall on Thursday.

With a resolution sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke and read by Council member Curtis Jones, Marian Tasco and David Oh, who was brought to tears while reading it, Michael Joseph Crescenz was posthumously honored as Philadelphia’s lone recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. (That award came from President Richard Nixon in April, 1970.)

Both accolades noted the selfless heroism that ultimately took his life, and dozens of Vietnam War-era veterans packed Council Chambers at the first meeting back after summer recess.

Oh noted that Crescenz charged into battle on the day he would die, and “silenced” enemies who were firing at American forces. He was ultimately shot and killed while charging a third bunker of enemy soldiers, said Oh.

The Arlington National Cemetery’s website also offers a detailed narrative of what happened the last day of Michael Crescenz’s life.

“In the morning his unit engaged a large, well-entrenched force of the North Vietnamese Army whose initial burst of fire pinned down the lead squad and killed the two point men, halting the advance of Company A,” it reads. “Immediately, Cpl. Crescenz left the relative safety of his own position, seized a nearby machine gun and, with complete disregard for his safety, charged 100 meters up a slope toward the enemy’s bunkers which he effectively silenced, killing the two occupants of each.

“Undaunted by the withering machine gun fire around him,” it continued, “Cpl. Crescenz courageously moved forward toward a third bunker which he also succeeded in silencing, killing two more of the enemy and momentarily clearing the route of advance for his comrades.”

The wounds he suffered while doing so, however, would ultimately end his life.

Heroism recognized

Joe Crescenz said that the mood of America at that time was such that, instead of drawing attention to their loss, his parents chose to bottle it up inside. He was nonetheless proud of his lost sibling and those who chose to honor him Thursday.

“My brother touched so many people in his short life,” Joe Crescenz told a crowd which included the medic who tried to save his brother’s life that day. “And, 44 years later, he continues to touch people’s lives. We never sought any special recognition. We knew he was a hero and that was enough.”

He noted that some people have asked him why it took so long to have that resolution in his hand. To that, he said, “Who cares? This is all positive.”

He shook his head when thinking about the fact that his brother was engaged to marry his “high-school sweetheart” at the time of his death.

Then, Crescenz spoke about honoring veterans returning home, or grappling with a variation of the “Thousand Yard Stare” that leaves them unable to leave the field of battle behind.

“Please give them some space, and a helping hand,” he said. “They are going to be in need of both.”

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