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Friday, July 24, 1998

Corpus Christi honors black military hero

By STEPHANIE L. JORDAN Corpus Christi Caller-Times

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - Warren G.H. Crecy fought in two wars for the U.S. Army, received six medals, was wounded seven times and led many men. Some claim his should be a household name. Others say Crecy should have received the Medal of Honor.

But in October 1952, when a mortar shell exploded in his face and he was sent home, black men were rarely recognized as heroes.

He was referred to as "the baddest man" in his World War II unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, by Trezzvant W. Anderson, an author who documented the group's history. But when Crecy came home from war he had to sit in the back of the bus.

"That he fought and fought and sacrificed for this country, was proud to fight for his country and loved the country that had treated him that way, is just incredible to me," Arnold Villarreal said.

On Wednesday, family members and military officials gathered on Crecy Street - named in Crecy's honor in 1980 - in front of the Corpus Christi Army Depot to rededicate the street in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the integration of the Armed Forces.

The racial injustice is what led Villarreal to seek recognition for Crecy, who died in 1976 after countless surgeries and skin grafts to replace the lower portion of his face destroyed during a Korean War battle.

"That I was finally able to get the street named after him is one of the proudest moments of my life," said Villarreal, who worked in civil service for 33 years before retiring as executive assistant at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi's supply department.

Though Villarreal never met Crecy, in the late 1970s he heard of his heroism and leadership from a fellow office worker. Crecy's classmate, James Wagner, said Crecy was a born leader. "If there were 10 men standing around, they were standing around him," Wagner said.

Although Crecy weighed only 150 pounds, he was put on the Solomon Coles High School football team as a guard, and performed under incredible pressure, Wagner said.

Then one day after graduating from high school, Crecy disappeared. Later, his friends learned that he had enlisted in the Army.

"Back in those days that was just unimaginable," Wagner said. In March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor, 98 black enlisted men reported to the Armored Forces School at Fort Knox, Ky. - the beginning of the first blacks in history to serve in armor units.

The 761st had all white officers in the beginning, but Fort Knox was also training black officers, who eventually replaced white officers through attrition, said John Purde, a spokesman at the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor at Fort Knox.

The 761st was commissioned April 1, 1942, but its extensive training didn't get the all-black unit to war. Military officials had a lot of questions on whether they should be allowed to fight because of their race, Purde said.

Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied on the unit's behalf and the group was first sent to England and then went to battle in 1944.

During the long march across Europe, the men of the 761st served 183 days in combat, were awarded 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars, three certificates of merit and 296 Purple Hearts. Crecy, who had enlisted as a private, won a battlefield commission, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts in his service in World War II and Korea.

After World War II ended, Crecy remained in Germany, where he was a prison officer during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders accused of crimes against international law.

He came home in 1950 and later shipped out for the Korean War. Three months later, a mortar shell sent him home for good. After returning to the United States, Crecy spent 10 years in and out of military hospitals as doctors rebuilt his chin and jaw.

Many of his friends who saw him after the Korean War didn't recognize him, said his niece, Phyllis Ridgels.

"But he really kept up his spirits," she said. "He had always had so much drive."

Ridgels remembers visiting her uncle in San Francisco.

"He was really big on education and wanted us to go as far as we could," she said. "He was what you would call self-made. He didn't go off to college, per se, but that sure is what he dreamed for us."

That drive led him to counsel others injured in battle at Letterman General Hospital in California.

"He wasn't one who felt sorry for himself and, I was told, he actually got mad at people and told others to be glad they were alive and glad they were part of this country," Villarreal said.

His sacrifices in battle and in the hospital firmed up Villarreal's resolve to get the street to carry his name, he said. "He's done much more for this country than I did - much more than a lot of people," Villarreal said. "He's one of the many unsung heroes, but we die only when people stop thinking of us."

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Distributed by The Associated Press

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