FROM THE EDITORS: Michael Crescenz enlisted in the U.S. Army not long after graduating from Cardinal Dougherty High School. He had only been in Vietnam about two months when his unit was ambushed by entrenched North Vietnamese forces on the steep, jungled slopes of Nui Chom. Seeing his fellow soldiers pinned down by enemy fire, Michael picked up an M60 machine gun and charged the enemy bunkers 100 meters away. He singlehandedly took out three positions before he was fatally wounded. For his act of valor, which saved the lives of those around him, Michael was awarded the Medal of Honor.
His story did not end in Vietnam, nor at the White House ceremony where his parents were presented with his Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon. Decades after he was killed in action, his brother Joe went on a mission of his own to have Michael moved from a local cemetery to Arlington National Cemetery so he could rest with his fellow heroes. This simple action of a devoted brother in turn inspired a city, and particularly local veterans of the Vietnam War, to find ways to honor not only Michael but all those who had served in that conflict and not received the recognition and thanks they deserved and had earned.
What follows is an excerpt from the recently published book about him, “No Greater Love” by John Siegfried and Kevin Ferris. As Veterans’ Day approaches, we highly recommend you read this tremendous story of service, sacrifice, and valor.
Prologue: Fortress in the Clouds
It was known as the fortress in the clouds, a jagged set of peaks called Nui Chom Mountain, so tall that on a clear night it was possible to see the South China Sea, 35 miles to the east. The mountain was tucked away in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam, not far from the borders with North Vietnam and Laos to the west — making it an all-important crossroads for communists looking to resupply their forces below the demilitarized zone separating the two warring nations.
Steep-sided, and coated with thick elephant grass and vines that gave way to triple-canopy jungle at the higher altitudes, the mountain posed many hidden dangers to mere mortals year round, but monsoon season made it almost impenetrable.
“One way or another, an infantryman gets wet and stays wet during the monsoons,” Sgt. George Hawkins wrote in Americal magazine in May 1969. “If it’s not the rain, it’s the rain-soaked jungle he cuts his way through; if it’s not a river-crossing, it’s an assault across a rice paddy; or it’s simply his own sweat soaking into his jungle fatigues as he climbs a rugged mountain trail.”
“It was heavily overgrown,” recalled William “Doc” Stafford, a medic in Alpha Company. “It was jungle, it was mountainous, it was rocky. There were a lot of tree roots. I remember because I fell down a few times.” In fact parts of the mountain were so steep and rocky that the men “had to crawl hand over hand, sometimes taking more than an hour to move 100 meters” — a little more than the length of a football field.
In November 1968, the mission of 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, was to take Nui Chom from well-supplied and deeply entrenched North Vietnamese forces. At sunrise on November 20, Alpha Company prepared to pit itself once more against the mountain. It was its turn to walk point, but it had progressed only 100 meters up the steep slopes when all hell broke loose.
Walking right into a fortified bunker complex, four soldiers were hit almost immediately and the company was pinned down. Doc Stafford was called forward to help a wounded soldier lying in the open under heavy fire. While he managed to reach the man, he couldn’t get him back to safety. Doc realized he could not even stand up under such heavy fire and, in desperation, dragged the man to a nearby bunker. While this offered some temporary protection, it would soon prove a trap, but every attempt to move attracted more fire, and the injured man was hit again.
The two men were alone in a sea of smoke and noise. Time seemed meaningless in such intense chaos — it could have been seconds, minutes, or even hours before Doc tried once more to pull the man to safety. But it was useless: the ground was too rough, and the bullets were unrelenting. There was nothing more he could do other than pray for deliverance.
Suddenly, Pfc. Michael Joseph Crescenz, a big, broad-shouldered 19-year-old out of Philadelphia, loomed over the medic and his charge brandishing an M60 machine gun, as enemy fire filled the air around them.
“I got this, Doc, no problem,” he said.
Chapter 1: Family
Charles Crescenz Jr. and Mary Ann McLaughlin met down the Shore. For any true Philadelphian, it’s always just “down the Shore.” Never “the beach.” And not “the Jersey Shore.” No adjective or geographic reference is needed.
Charles was born in the City of Brotherly Love on Aug. 6, 1921, to Charles and Cecilia Crescenzo, not long after his father had finished his service with the U.S. Army during World War I. The older Charles, also known as Carmine, was born in Philadelphia too, on South Eighth Street, to Angelo and Antonia Crescenzo, in 1889.
Young Charles Crescenz — family members are not clear on when or why the name was shortened and Americanized — grew up in Roxborough, a neighborhood just northwest of Center City. Then it was still considered almost a suburb, though it had been officially part of Philly since the 1850s. Carmine did well in the beer business and, along with many other Italian Americans in Philly before and since, sent his son to local Catholic schools. First, he attended St. John the Baptist Elementary, and then off to the Jesuits at the all-boys’ St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, which boasts both famous and infamous politicians among the alumni who have walked its halls since the school was founded in 1851. Charles decided to stick with the Jesuits after graduation, attending St. Joseph’s College — later St. Joseph’s University.
While at St. Joe’s, he worked summers as a lifeguard in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, where his parents owned a shore home on 46th Street. There he met the tall, slender, and beautiful Mary Ann McLaughlin. Her father, Martin McLaughlin, was a Marine veteran of the First World War who also owned a home in Sea Isle. But home base for the McLaughlins was Cecil Street in West Philadelphia. Martin was a fixture in the Streets Department — Mary Ann would say a “big shot” — back in the days when Republicans ruled the city and patronage jobs were doled out to loyalists who helped them keep control of the town.
The McLaughlins were members of Transfiguration of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church on Cedar Avenue, which wasn’t even two decades old when Mary Ann was born on October 11, 1923. She graduated from West Catholic High School for Girls, the archdiocese’s second girls’ high school, founded in 1927 to accommodate Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Catholic population. After graduation she headed west — just about 20 miles — to Immaculata, built among the hills of bucolic Chester County right after World War I as the first college for Catholic women in the Philadelphia area.
Like her three brothers, Mary Ann was tall — she was 5 foot 9 — and her sons remembered her as old-fashioned, almost Victorian, in her ways, but kind and always doing for others, treating them as she wished to be treated. Two of her many nieces, Kathleen Zippilli and Mary Lou Allen, fondly recall how good she was to all the children when the clans assembled for picnics at Cooper River Park or other family gatherings. And while she always seemed to have more than enough to do, she took time to listen to the kids — and, maybe more importantly, feed them.
“She was the sweetest, kindest woman, very much loved,” Mary Lou said. “And what a wonderful cook. There was always plenty of food, huge bowls of food.”
Kindness. Family first. Caring for others. Making time for all. They were all traits she learned as the third of six children and ones that she, in turn, drilled into her six boys.
But before there were her boys, there was the courtship, with the handsome, athletic Charles Jr. He loved playing tennis and would later try to teach his sons, finally giving up when they insisted on whacking the balls with all their might high over the fence behind their opponents. At least he always had Wimbledon to watch. He admired golf, but never swung a club. However, the young man could swim. He was powerful and fearless, especially as a youngster, often pushing himself so far out that he worried his fellow lifeguards, who called out from the shore, urging him back.
As with so many other couples, their courtship, and any future plans together, were put on hold by World War II. Charles served in Europe and forever kept his experiences to himself, at least as far as his sons were concerned. Not long after he returned home, Charles and Mary Ann finally married, on September 23, 1946 — a Wednesday, so as not to interfere with Carmine’s busy weekend days in the beer business. Eleven months later, their first son, Charles, was born. Five more boys would follow: Michael (1949), Peter (1951), Joseph (1956), Steve (1960), and Chris (1961).
Postwar life was good to the Crescenzes. Charles joined his dad in the beer business, promising Mary Ann she wouldn’t have to work outside the home. He was active in the local bowling league and it provided a welcome night out for the couple as their family grew. Friday nights they played pinochle with neighbors, the various families taking turns hosting. They bought a three-bedroom, one-bath brick twin in the city’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, at 7443 Thouron Avenue. Mom and Dad had the back bedroom, and divided the boys — and the bunk beds — evenly in the other two, Charlie, Mike, and Peter in the front room and Joe, Steve, and Chris in the middle one.
Mary Ann bore the day-to-day brunt of running a busy household with six rowdy boys while Dad was at work. “The moms were kind of like the field generals in the house,” her son Joe said, noting how both parents were tough on the kids. Everybody was expected to pitch in, and that meant the older boys sometimes kept the younger ones in line. It might, at first, have been at their parents’ urging, but over time it was just instinct. Looking out for others was a way of life in Philly’s West Oak Lane in the ’50s. Yes, each batch of kids had their own parents to answer to, but every other mom and dad in the neighborhood was also keeping watch, and they weren’t shy about letting you know when you crossed a line. Even neighbors who weren’t parents felt free to set wayward kids straight, as would older brothers and sisters, and your friends’ older brothers and sisters. It was a community that looked after its own.
“The older they got, Charlie and Mike, they took on more and more responsibility,” Joe told Bob Moran of the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of a series of interviews on Michael Crescenz in 2013 — pronouncing his oldest brother’s name as “Chollie.” “And they didn’t put up with too much crap from the younger brothers. I used to get some of those old knuckle sandwiches, or they’d dig their knuckles with their high school rings into my head, if I got smart with Mom. They protected her that way.”
She needed protection. To an extent. Mary Ann was a formidable Irish woman in her own right, and more than familiar with the chaos that comes with growing up in a big family. But most of the time it was her versus six growing, increasingly rowdy boys. Kathleen Zippilli described the Crescenz household as “bedlam.”
“They were boys.… They would throw the football around inside the house, occasionally, from one room to the next,” Kathleen told television anchor and reporter Samantha Crawford for the 2015 documentary, Michael Crescenz: Never Forgotten. “I remember my sister saying they used to ride their tricycles all over the house, inside the house. It was bedlam, but it was fun.”
There were limits to the fun. The boys knew they could only push Mom so far. The last thing they wanted to do was force her into deploying the ultimate punishment — “Wait ’til your father gets home.”
“You didn’t pull that nonsense when he came home, from the oldest all the way down,” Joe said, and that was true even when the sons started to tower over their father. “When we pissed Dad off, all hell broke loose. We got the hell out of there, because Pop would lay you low, buddy. He was a tough little half-Irish, half-Italian kind of guy, with these big-barrel Popeye arms from lifting kegs and cases of beer all day.”
Joe chuckles at the memory.
“That anger,” he said with a smile and a shake of his head. “Unfortunately, us Crescenz boys, we all inherited that pretty crazy side of us from our father.”
They inherited other things as well, including a strong work ethic and a clear understanding of their responsibilities within the family and their community.
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