Blogger’s note: there are three Medal of Honor recipients from World War II on September 13, 1943. I am recounting the heroism of William Crawford a day early, as he has an incredible story from his life after his wartime experiences that deserves everyone’s attention!
William John “Bill” Crawford was born on May 19, 1918 in Pueblo, Colorado where he was also raised and joined the United States Army from in July 1942. After training, he was assigned as a foot soldier to Company I, 3rd Battalion, 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit federalized for war service.
The 36th Infantry Division’s first combat action in World War II was the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno on September 9, 1943. Four days later on September 13, the 36th was heavily engaged around the town of Altavilla, both attacking in the hills and facing determined counter-attacks from the Nazi Panzer Division Hermann Göring.
On that day seventy years ago, Private William Crawford single-handedly took out three German machine guns that stood in the way of his platoon and company’s attack with just his rifle and hand grenades. His unit’s advance was assured after he captured one of the enemy guns and turned it upon the fleeing Germans.
CRAWFORD, WILLIAM J.
Rank and organization: Private, U.S. Army, 36th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Altavilla, Italy, 13 September 1943. Entered service at: Pueblo, Colo. G.O. No.: 57, 20 July 1944. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Altavilla, Italy, 13 September 1943. When Company I attacked an enemy-held position on Hill 424, the 3d Platoon, in which Pvt. Crawford was a squad scout, attacked as base platoon for the company. After reaching the crest of the hill, the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machinegun and small-arms fire. Locating 1 of these guns, which was dug in on a terrace on his immediate front, Pvt. Crawford, without orders and on his own initiative, moved over the hill under enemy fire to a point within a few yards of the gun emplacement and single-handedly destroyed the machine gun and killed 3 of the crew with a hand grenade, thus enabling his platoon to continue its advance. When the platoon, after reaching the crest, was once more delayed by enemy fire, Pvt. Crawford again, in the face of intense fire, advanced directly to the front midway between 2 hostile machinegun nests located on a higher terrace and emplaced in a small ravine. Moving first to the left, with a hand grenade he destroyed 1 gun emplacement and killed the crew; he then worked his way, under continuous fire, to the other and with 1 grenade and the use of his rifle, killed 1 enemy and forced the remainder to flee. Seizing the enemy machine gun, he fired on the withdrawing Germans and facilitated his company’s advance.
Shortly after the action for which Crawford received the Medal of Honor, he was listed as missing in action and presumed to be dead. His Medal was presented to his father in July 1944 as a posthumous award. However, Private Crawford had been captured, not killed, and he was discovered alive when liberated as a prisoner of war later in 1944.
Crawford was discharged from the Army in 1945, married the former Virginia Eileen Bruce in 1946, and found that civilian life just wasn’t for him and reenlisted in the Army in 1947. He served until retirement in 1967 as a Master Sergeant.
He returned to his native Colorado after his Army retirement and took a job working as a janitor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His status as a Medal of Honor recipient wasn’t known to most of the staff, nor to the cadets who would become future leaders in the United States Air Force.
One of the cadets in the squadron area that Crawford maintained was James E. Moschgat, who eventually retired from the Air Force as a Colonel. Colonel Moschgat recounted many years later:
[M]aybe it was Mr. Crawford’s personality that rendered him almost invisible to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom spoke to a cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn’t happen very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell. So, for whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another fixture around the squadron. The Academy, one of our nation’s premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr. Crawford…well, he was just a janitor.
Everything changed for Moschgat – and then the rest of the cadets at the Academy – in 1976 when he was reading a book about the Italian Campaign during World War II. Moschgat knew that their janitor had served in World War II and was a Colorado native, but was floored when he read the tale of heroism by a Private from Colorado on September 13, 1943 named William Crawford. Could their janitor be that man?
He and his roommate approached Crawford the following Monday morning and showed him the book. After a moment’s consideration, Crawford told them simply, “Yeah, that’s me.” The two asked him why he had never said anything to anyone. Their janitor replied with a statement and sentiment shared by many who have seen the horrors of war: “That was one day in my life, and it was a long time ago.”
Needless to say, news of the discovery made by Moschgat and his roommate spread rapidly throughout the academy student body that there was a hero in their everyday midst. Immediately, attitudes changed towards the janitor, and they also noticed a change in Crawford’s demeanor, much for the better. Moschgat identified, correctly, that he and his fellow students had been so wrong in their treatment of and attitudes towards Crawford, whether he had been a Medal of Honor recipient or not. He later assembled his principles into ten leadership and life lessons that we all would be well to read, heed, and remember:
1. Be Cautious of Labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bound their potential. Sadly, and for a long time, we labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more. Therefore, be cautious of a leader who callously says, “Hey, he’s just an Airman.” Likewise, don’t tolerate the O-1, who says, “I can’t do that, I’m just a lieutenant.”
2. Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others around us. He deserved much more, and not just because he was a Medal of Honor winner. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.
3. Courtesy Makes a Difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory “hellos” to heartfelt greetings, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed. It made a difference for all of us.
4. Take Time to Know Your People. Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. For years a hero walked among us at the Academy and we never knew it. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?
5. Anyone Can Be a Hero. Mr. Crawford certainly didn’t fit anyone’s standard definition of a hero. Moreover, he was just a private on the day he won his Medal. Don’t sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls. On the other hand, it’s easy to turn to your proven performers when the chips are down, but don’t ignore the rest of the team. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.
6. Leaders Should Be Humble. Most modern day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble, especially if you calibrate your “hero meter” on today’s athletic fields. End zone celebrations and self-aggrandizement are what we’ve come to expect from sports greats. Not Mr. Crawford-he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well-served to do the same.
7. Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve. We in the military work hard and, dang it, we deserve recognition, right? However, sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Perhaps you weren’t nominated for junior officer or airman of the quarter as you thought you should – don’t let that stop you.
8. Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence. Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living. No job is beneath a Leader. If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.
9. Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.” Mr. Crawford modeled that philosophy and helped make our dormitory area a home.
10. Life is a Leadership Laboratory. All too often we look to some school or PME class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet everyday will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look and listen. I spent four years at the Air Force Academy, took dozens of classes, read hundreds of books, and met thousands of great people. I gleaned leadership skills from all of them, but one of the people I remember most is Mr. Bill Crawford and the lessons he unknowingly taught. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn.
As the years went on, Bill Crawford opened up to students and staff and a whole generation of future leaders in our Air Force benefited from the hero in their midst. By 1984, he had mentioned that since the Medal had been presented to his father in 1944 when he had been declared missing and presumed dead, he never had actually been personally recognized or had the Medal presented to himself.
On May 30, 1984, President Ronald Reagan officiated at the academy’s commencment ceremony. After closing his address to the graduates, President Reagan made sure that one piece of forty-year old unfinished business was taken care of:
Now, there’s something I want to do that means a lot to me and, I’m sure, will mean a lot to you. We’re graced with the company of a man who believed so much in the values of our nation that he went above and beyond the call of duty in defending them.
In July 1944 a grateful nation bestowed the Medal of Honor on a soldier, a private, for extraordinary heroism on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy. The soldier could not accept the award that day. He was a prisoner of war, and his father accepted in his behalf.
Since early in this century, it has been customary for the President to present the Medal of Honor. Well, nearly 40 years have gone by, and it’s time to do it right. A native son of Colorado and certainly a good friend of the Air Force Academy will forever be in the select company where the heroes of our country stand.
It gives me great pleasure to ask Mr. William J. “Bill” Crawford, formerly of the 36th Infantry Division, to come forward.
The entire assembly rose to their feet, and Crawford’s Medal citation was read before the President placed the Medal around his neck as it hadn’t been done before.
|President Reagan presents the Medal to William Crawford|
|Crawford late in his life, with his Medal|
Master Sergeant William John “Bill” Crawford passed away at age 81 on March 15, 2000. He is the only veteran of the United States Army to be buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery whose students he served so very humbly and well.