Connecticut man who refused to surrender, survived World War II slave labor receives honors, promotion 75 years later

Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant

A World War II veteran and Connecticut native who endured 3 1/4 u00bd years of brutality and deprivation was honored Monday for his exceptional grit.

Daniel J. Crowley, 98, received a Combat Infantry Badge and a Prisoner of War medal. The Simsbury man also was finally notified of his promotion to U.S. Army sergeant during a ceremony in East Granby hosted by the Connecticut Air National Guard’s 103rd Airlift Wing.

“Grace under fire, calm under pressure — easy words to use in the quietness of this auditorium,” Undersecretary for the U.S. Navy Gregory Slavonic said as he recounted Crowley’s service record.

Seeking escape from the Great Depression, the Greenwich native and two friends enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in October 1940. Crowley was sent in March 1941 to an air base in the Philippines.

“We thought it would be fun,” he said in a 2000 interview with the Courant. “We were like any teenagers. We were strong, immortal, nothing could touch us.”

Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. Nichols Field was soon lost to the enemy and Crowley and his comrades sailed across Manila Bay to the Bataan Peninsula, where U.S. forces were bottled up with no air support or supply lines.

Crowley had little training for his new role as a provisional infantryman. In fact, he said in an interview after the ceremony, he had never fired a rifle before facing Japanese soldiers at Bataan. Of his first combat experience, he had a one-word description — “Terror.”

Crowley, however, was among the soldiers who would not accept the U.S. commander’s surrender of Bataan in April. Instead, he and others, in a combination of swimming and hanging to life boats and floating debris, crossed three miles of ocean to the tiny island of Corregidor.

“Dan, that was incredible,” Slavonic, who had visited Corregidor as a young sailor, said during the ceremony.

When he hit the beach, Crowley said, a guard with the 4th Marine Regiment told him, “You’re in the Marines Corps now.”

Asked to describe Corregidor, he said the ground was covered with human feces because so many people were packed into such a small space. Crowley fought with a patchwork of defenders, but with no reinforcements or supplies, the men on Corregidor had to give up the fight in early May.

Over the phone, Crowley recited a chant from those miserable days dedicated to the Battling Bastards of Bataan — “No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam. No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces. No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces. And nobody gives a damn.”

Prisoners were taken to Manilla for what the Japanese labeled “the March of Shame” and then to Camp Cabanatuan. To escape wretched conditions at the camp, Crowley volunteered to help build an airfield for the Japanese on Palawan Island.

Suffering from dysentery, malaria and malnutrition, the prisoners were issued only hand tools to clear and level the 4,000-foot long air strip. Crowley said he dropped from about 180 to 80 pounds during his captivity.

He was taken from Palawan in March 1944 to Japan, enduring several weeks aboard one of the transports called “Hell Ships.” The Japanese, he said, “kept packing bodies in,” and when it seemed impossible that anyone else could fit, they would prod another man with a bayonet and he would fall in on top of the others.

Until he was liberated in September 1945, Crowley worked as a slave laborer in a copper mine.

“I survived,” he said in an earlier interview with the Courant, “by an indomitable burning anger and passionate hate ... and good luck.”

Part of that luck was his transfer to the copper mines. Back at Palawan in December 1944, the Japanese were under increasing air attacks and decided before they abandoned the area to kill the remaining prisoners. Using barrels of gasoline, they burned the men alive and bayoneted, clubbed and machine gunned any that tried to escape. Historians say only 11 men of 150 survived the Palawan massacre.

“Two or three nights a week,” Crowley said in a 1973 interview about his indelible memories, “I wake up in cold horror of it.”

Those feelings, he said Monday, have only increased.

“It’s up to almost every night now,” he said of the nightmares. “My wife will say, ‘Go to sleep, stop thinking,’ but you can’t.”

Slavonic thanked the veteran for his service, patriotism and valor.

“You will never be forgotten,” he said.

An Army official then presented Crowley with the medals and his sergeant’s chevrons. Somehow, notice of the promotion did not catch up with him before he was discharged in April 1946.

Crowley, who has lived in Simsbury for many years, went on to a successful career working for Northwestern Mutual Insurance. He had two children with his first wife.

Asked about his attitude today toward his former captors, Crowley said, “I haven’t carried any hate forward.”

He is one of a dwindling band of surviving U.S. prisoners of war from the Pacific Theater, a much more brutal experience than prisoners in Europe endured. Of about 26,000 prisoners of Imperial Japan, nearly 11,000 died in POW camps, as slave laborers and aboard Hell Ships, Washington, D.C.-based historian Mindy Kotler Smith said.

Of the prisoners who were liberated, “a very high percentage came back completely lost,“ said Smith, who is also the Washington liaison for the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society.

She called Crowley “a miracle” of mental toughness and endurance.

“Dan is truly representative of the American spirit and grit,” Smith said.

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com