Veterans, family gather for ceremony renaming VA Center after West Oak Lane war hero [photo gallery]

After a years-long effort by family, fellow soldiers and politicians, the Philadelphia VA Medical Center has officially been renamed in honor of Corporal Michael J. Crescenz, a West Oak Lane native who — after being slain during the Vietnam War — became the city’s lone Medal of Honor recipient.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and hundreds of military veterans and active-duty servicemen and women were among those who attended the Saturday morning ceremony outside the facility now known as the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten,” said former Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald Castille, who served as master of ceremonies, quoting President Calvin Coolidge. “Today, we remember the bravery of one of our nation’s defenders.”

Heroic acts

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On Nov. 20, 1968, the 19-year-old Crescenz was killed in action while charging multiple North Vietnamese machine-gun bunkers during an ambush.

Crescenz found himself in the middle of an Army unit moving though the jungles of Quang Nam Province, when — all of a sudden — all hell broke loose.

His unit was ambushed by 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,” reads an Arlington National Cemetery account of Crescenz’s last day.

“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,” it states.

“Undaunted by the withering machine gun fire around him, 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,” it continued.

“I don’t think any of us who have not been in those shoes really know what it’s like to risk your life for your country and fellow man,” said Fattah, who along with Toomey and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, pushed the renaming-focused legislation through the House and Senate.

Crescenz was one of 658 Philadelphians who lost their lives serving in the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to his family on April 7, 1970.

The ceremony

Crescenz’s battalion commander, Lt. Gen. Robert (Sam) Wetzel (ret.), told the crowd about what happened that day.

“Michael picked up that machine gun to save his buddies,” he said, “and in the course of that action, he saved the life of our doctor.”

Crescenz’s older brother Charlie, a U.S. Marine who also served in Vietnam, accepted the dedication on behalf of his family.

“I hope that having Michael’s name on the hospital will inspire those who work here to have the honor and responsibility to serve our veterans, to give our vets the very best that they have,” Charlie said.

A West Oak Lane boy and Cardinal Dougherty garduate, Crescenz enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968.

Toomey recounted a story told to him by another of Michael’s brothers, Joe, regarding Michael’s penchant for protecting the vulnerable.

“When Michael was a kid, he was walking home one day on West Oak Lane and, as he approached his home, there was a commotion,” Toomey said. “Turns out there was a small neighborhood kid who was being bullied by a couple of big kids.

“Michael told the big kids to leave him alone, but they didn’t. So Michael decided to deal with the two bullies in his own way. After that, Michael told the small kid ‘you won’t have to worry about those guys anymore.’ And he was right.”

The effort

The renaming effort began five years ago when Francis Tacey, a fellow Philadelphian and U.S. Air Force veteran, volunteered at Crescenz’s disinterment from Cheltenham Township to Arlington National Cemetery.

Tacey campaigned for the local war hero to be recognized beyond the Medal of Honor.

“For five years, once a week, twice a week, I got a phone call from Tacey telling me we have to get this done,” recounted U.S. Rep Bob Brady, who worked with Fattah to introduce the bill for renaming the medical center.

In Dec. 2014, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed the legislation.

“I view today as a new beginning,” said hospital director Daniel Hendee. “Our staff will work hard to live up to our new name and be worthy of the legacy left by Coporal Michael J. Crescenz.”

This is only the third veterans’ medical center in the nation named after a Medal of Honor recipient. Second Lt. Audie L. Murphy (WWII) and Sgt. Alvin C. York (WWI) also share the distinction with centers in Texas and Tennessee.

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