This Day in History: The Janitor who was a Medal of Honor recipient
On this day in 1918, a hero is born. William “Bill” Crawford is perhaps best known for shocking cadets at the Air Force Academy in the 1980s: Their shy janitor, it turned out, was also a Medal of Honor recipient.
“That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago,” he humbly responded when the cadets asked him about it.
Private Crawford was serving with the 36th Infantry on the night of September 12-13, 1943. Our soldiers had marched for hours, stopping within 200 yards of German defense positions near Altavilla, Italy.
They planned to attack at dawn.
“Some of our artillery shelled the German line of defense, and then they sounded the attack,” Crawford later explained. “Shooting was going on and whistles were blowing and yelling and everything. They normally tried to scare the Germans as much as we could, make as much noise as we could,” he concluded with a chuckle.
Crawford had gone ahead with his platoon sergeant. “He beat me to the wall,” Crawford said, “and I laid down and I fired at what I thought was a German defense there.” He looked over to see what his sergeant was doing, but the sergeant was completely still. He’d taken several rounds to his chest.
Crawford took off after the enemy snipers, all on his own.
“I just followed the little, narrow ditch. . . . I stayed pretty close to it,” he described. “And, sure enough, there was a brushy terrain, a well-camouflaged area, right ahead. And out of that came a burst of machine gun fire. As I was running for this little ditch, he was shooting right under my feet. Some of the rounds probably went between my legs and never touched me.”
In the end, Crawford would singlehandedly take out three German machine gun nests with only his rifle and a handful of grenades. His company was able to advance—but the story doesn’t end there.
Just a few days later, Crawford was captured in battle, but the Army mistakenly thought that he’d been killed in action. The following year, Crawford’s father was presented with what was believed to be a posthumous Medal of Honor.
What a surprise when Crawford was later discovered alive? He was released with other POWs after the war and continued to serve in the Army until 1967.
He retired with the rank of Master Sergeant. A few years later, he began a job as a janitor at the Air Force Academy.
For many years,” Colonel James Moschgat wrote in 2012, “few of us gave him much notice, rendering little more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, ‘G’morning’ in his direction as we hurried off.”
That all changed one day when then-cadet Moschgat stumbled across Crawford’s name in a history book. “Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in our midst,” Moschgat wrote. “Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, ‘Good morning, Mr. Crawford.’”
The cadets soon discovered that Crawford had not attended his own Medal ceremony because he’d been in a POW camp. The Air Force Academy decided to make things right.
Crawford finally received his Medal, in person, from President Ronald Reagan at the Academy’s 1984 graduation. But the Air Force wasn’t yet done honoring their adopted soldier. When Crawford passed away in 2000 at the age of 81, he was buried, with full honors, at the U.S. Air Force Academy Cemetery. He is the only non-USAF enlisted individual to be granted that honor.
Rest in peace, Sir.
Colonel James E. Moschgat, Lessons in Leadership . . . from a Squadron Janitor (Officers’ Christian Fellowship website)
George Winston, Quiet Man: When Cadets at The US Air Force Academy Realized Their Janitor Was Medal Of Honor Hero (War History Online; Nov 6, 2018)
Medal of Honor citation (William J. Crawford; WWII)
Medal of Honor oral histories (William Crawford; WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
President Ronald Reagan and the Medal of Honor: Private William Crawford (Reagan's Country: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Member Newsletter; March 2014)
Ron Owens, Medal of Honor: Historical Facts & Figures (2004)