Growing up, many of us were told not to judge people we didn’t know due to the fact that we have no idea what they have been through.
While that old lesson has stayed with most of us well into adulthood, every now and then a story that is truly “stranger than fiction” comes along that gives us a memorable reminder of just how important of a lesson it is.
One such example of that lesson was William “Bill” Crawford, who was known as Mr. Crawford the janitor by many alumni of the US Air Force Academy.
A native of Colorado, Crawford was regarded as a shy and unassuming man who blended into the woodwork and was well known as a fixture of the academy. One former officer described him as “an unimpressive figure, one you could easily overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy.”
Unknown to many of the cadets and staff today, an eight-foot statue of Crawford stands in a little town less than an hour’s drive from the US Air Force Academy, commemorating his place in history as a Medal of Honor recipient.
That’s right- the janitor of the Air Force Academy that was often overlooked and rarely -if ever- saluted was a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Joining the US Army in July of 1942, Crawford found his niche as an infantry scout in the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division and was on the frontlines in southern Italy -less than a year after his enlistment.
In September of 1943, during an attack on Hill 424 near Altavilla Silentina, Private Crawford was performing a scouting role when he came upon German resistance.
Persisting through fierce enemy fire to get to the top of the hill, Crawford’s squad became pinned by heavy machine gun fire.
Locating one of the gun positions, Crawford took the initiative and snuck his way towards the machine gun nest, killing three of the Germans with a hand grenade.
Taking advantage of the situation, Crawford’s squad moved up until they were again pinned by another nest. Not one to leave his buddies hanging, Crawford ran right down the middle of the two remaining gun emplacement, taking out the nests with a combination of grenades and close-range rifle fire.
With the remaining survivors of the machine gun nests in retreat, the future gentle janitor decided that he wasn’t going to let Jerry off the hook so easily. Taking over one of the gun nests, he fired on the fleeing Germans as his company advanced.
Somehow in the fog of war, Crawford was presumed dead by his unit and ended up a German Prisoner of War. During his time as a prisoner, his Medal of Honor was posthumously presented to his father in 1944. It wasn’t until later in that year after his escapade that he was rescued from German captivity.
Crawford served a long career in the US Army until he retired in 1967 at the rank of Master Sergeant. During his entire military career, he reluctantly wore his Medal of Honor.
Afterwards, he took upon the humble task of janitorial services at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. During his time there, he kept to himself and never mentioned his battlefield achievements to anyone.
While working at the academy, Crawford was approached by then-Cadet (now retired Colonel) James Moschgat, who had read a book depicting a Medal of Honor winner who looked similar to his quiet squadron custodian.
As Crawford confirmed that he was in fact the man who took out a handful of machine gun nests in Italy, the cadets were awestruck. When asked why he didn’t mention it before, he simply replied “That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago”, and that he had never received a formal ceremony presenting him the medal. The cadets thereafter had a great deal more respect for Mr. Crawford, and sought out to give him the recognition he deserved, even if he himself had remained humble since his arduous tribulations in World War II.
In 1984, Crawford was invited to the academy for a graduation ceremony, where President Reagan was in attendance. Amongst cadets, general officers and the President himself, Master Sergeant Crawford was finally and formally awarded his Medal of Honor. In Reagan’s remarks, he cited leadership lessons that one could learn from Mr. Crawford. Moschgat would later formalize those lessons.
Bill Crawford died in March of 2000, at the age of 81. Upon report of his passing, the Governor of Colorado ordered that all Colorado flags be lowered to half-staff in his honor. To this day, he is the only non-USAF enlisted man of the US Army to be buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs.
An example of heroism with humility, Crawford was the consummate hero who wanted little more than to be part of something bigger than himself. From storming machine gun nests half a world away from home to becoming a janitor to be closer to the military, he always placed the whole above himself.
When interviewed before his death about the fateful day in 1943, Crawford had only a few modest words to remark on the event.
“I was just glad that I was doing my part,” he said. “I figured it was just a normal call of duty. I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
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