By all appearances, Bill Crawford wasn’t a hero. He was just a janitor at the Air Force Academy. He grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, about 65 miles from the Academy in Colorado Springs.
In Pueblo, Mr. Crawford learned to box to defend himself. He was nondescript and a bit shy. Mr. Crawford did his job sweeping and mopping floors, emptying trashcans, and cleaning bathrooms. The cadets were polite of course. They would say “hello” and perhaps make small talk with the janitor, but they were studying aeronautics, trigonometry, physics, and learning to fly supersonic war machines – there was little to be learned from Mr. Crawford. He was a janitor after all.
In 1976, Crawford was an older man, but at 58 he wasn’t at “retirement” age either. He was still in pretty good shape. Trim and fit looking he might sweep floors for another decade or more. To the cadets, Mr. Crawford was just another face in the crowd of a lot of faces on campus. You saw him. You passed him in the hallways and you might say “good afternoon.” There were more important people to pay attention to.
Also in 1976, James Moschgat was a cadet in his third year at the academy. That year, he was studying the Allied campaigns in Italy during WWII. The battle to secure mainland Italy was a long and bloody slog. Moschgat was reading an account about an attack on Hill 424 and specifically about a man awarded the Medal of Honor on 13, September 1943. The fighting was intense in the hilly county near Altavilla, about 30 miles north of Salerno. The Medal of Honor winner Moschgat was reading about was a private named William Crawford. The account said Crawford was presumed KIA and the Medal of Honor was given to his father, posthumously. In Moschgat’s history book, he saw a photo of Crawford. Moschgat did a double-take. He thought that the photo looked a lot like the man he knew as Mr. Crawford, the janitor. Moschgat shared his discovery with other cadets and they, as a group, approached Mr. Crawford. When the janitor was asked if that was him in Italy and if he won the Medal of Honor, Mr. Crawford admitted that it was him. “Yup that’s me,” Crawford said. After his heroics fighting Germans soldiers, his final act of heroism was to stay with a wounded comrade, rather than leave him alone. Crawford was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. While a prisoner, Crawford’s boxing skills came into play. A Nazi guard picked a fight with Crawford, and Crawford knocked the guard into unconsciousness.
He was asked why he never mentioned that he was a war hero. He shrugged it off.
“It was one day in my life,” he said, “and it happened a long time ago.”
Because Crawford was presumed dead and the Medal of Honor was awarded “posthumously,” Crawford had never been honored with a ceremony. In 1984, that changed.
President Reagan gave the commencement speech to the 1984 graduating class at the Air Force Academy, and Crawford was finally honored. President Reagan put Crawford’s Medal of Honor around his neck. Crawford was in uniform too. It turns out that Crawford served 25 years in the Army and retired in 1967 as a Master Sergeant.
Moschgat, the cadet who discovered the janitor’s “secret,” went on to serve over two decades flying several fighter types including the F-4 and F-16 with 60 combat missions. He retired as a full colonel.
Moschgat turned President Reagan’s leadership comments into leadership points. Here is the 10th and final point
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 the 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.
Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model and one great American hero. Thanks, Mr. Crawford, for some valuable leadership lessons.
Here is President Reagan’s speech to the graduating class of 1984. Mr. Crawford’s Medal of Honor ceremony begins at minute 19.
Crawford’s MoH citation reads:
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 3rd 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 machine-gun 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 machine-gun 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.
We should never “judge” people by what they do for a living. Take the time to know them. You might find a hidden hero.