US Air Force Academy Cadets Finally Realized Their Janitor Was a Medal Of Honor War Hero
Day after day hundreds cadets of Air Force Academy would pass janitor William Crawford in the hall oblivious to the greatness that was among them.
In the mid-1970s, William Crawford can be seen sweeping the halls and cleaning the bathrooms, but it was a day 30 years prior that etched his name in the halls of greatness.
In 1943 in Italy, the only thing Private William Crawford was cleaning out was German machine gun nest and bunkers.
Under heavy fire and at great risk to himself, his gallantry was so audacious that it earned him the Medal of Honor and the respect of any man who witnessed his actions. And yet, for the cadets at the Air Force Academy, it would take a student’s study of the Allied campaign in Italy to realize who it was that walked among them.
Once the cadets realized the humble janitor was a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor, their respect for the man has been raised a notch higher.
A Humble Spirit
William Crawford was born in 1918 in Pueblo, Colorado. After retiring from the Army, he returned to his place of birth and took up his job as a janitor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Perhaps it was the way he carried himself in an unassuming and humble manner, they barely noticed the shy janitor they only knew as Mr. Crawford. The cadets would report that they simply blended into the background as he go about his job. However, when one of the cadets began reading a book detailing the Allied advance through Italy he came upon the story of a medal of honor recipient named William Crawford.
Talking to his roommate, Cadet James Moschgat, Class of ’77 made the connection and said: said, “Holy cow, you’re not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor .” The next day, the cadet took the book to Crawford and simply asked if it was him.
Perhaps weighing whether it was worth it to expose his gallantry, Crawford stared at the book for a bit then simply said, “That was a long time ago and one day in my life.”
He would then recount the story as only the man who lived it could do.
By September 1943, the Allies were pushing through southern Italy slugging it out with a resilient German army. For Crawford and the 36th infantry division, that would place them near Altavilla Silentina with orders to take Hill 424.
On September 13th, Company I was attacking enemy positions on the hill when the entire company was pinned down by intense machine-guns fire and mortars.
Serving as the squad scout for third platoon, Private Crawford was near the front of this assault and located the first of the gun positions shooting on the company.
Without waiting for orders, and under heavy fire, he crawled forward within a few yards of the gun and placement and lobbed a grenade directly on top of the three defenders.
Meanwhile, the rest of the company finally made it to the crest of the hill when they came again under fire from two more machine gun nests entrenched in a higher ridge. Again on his own initiative, Crawford set out to destroy the threats.
Crawling under raining bullets, Crawford came upon the first machine gun nest and with perfect accuracy once again landed a grenade right in their lap.
Moving on to the second gun, he was able to take it out of action causing the rest of the enemies to flee but not before man they witnessed how one man single-handedly blow up their comrades and destroy three entrenched positions.
Thanks to William Crawford’s gallant actions, Hill 424 was successfully overtaken and the Allied continued to advance. Unfortunately for Crawford, his position at the front of the assault would eventually lead to his capture by the Germans during the chaos of the battle.
The rest of the company had believed Crawford died in combat as reports of his gallantry advanced up the chain of command. And for his bravery that day in Italy, William Crawford was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
But his story does not end here...
Back to Life
In 1944, the medal was presented to his father who accepted it on behalf of his son who everybody presumed to have been killed in action. But later in 1944 when a group of POWs was rescued from German captivity, it turned out William Crawford was among them, oblivious to the fact that he was now the recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.
Crawford would continue to serve in the military after WW2, retiring in 1967 at the rank of Master Sergeant. After his distinguished and yet humble career in the military, this unassuming man would take a job as a janitor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
It was in the US Air Force Academy, in 1976, that the truth would come out, and future Air Force officers would get a lesson in both gallantry and incredible humility. As the cadets looked to their janitor with a newfound respect, they would eventually coax the shy Mr. Crawford into speaking about his experience to the next generation of leaders.
In one exchange, Crawford mentioned that he never personally received his Medal of Honor with any ceremony due to his captivity and presumed death. The students and staff of the Air Force Academy would remember this fact and see to it that he had his day.
So, in 1984 when Pres. Ronald Reagan came to speak at that year’s graduation ceremony; they had arranged for their gallant janitor to finally stand face-to-face with the President and receive his due commendation.
In the year 2000, William Crawford died at the age of 81 at his home in Colorado. And although Crawford was an Army veteran, he would become the only non-U.S. Air Force enlisted person buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs.
The cadets regarded him as one of their own and gave him all the respect such a man deserved.
Credit: “A Janitor’s 10 Lessons on Leadership” – COL James E. Moschgat (USAF Ret.) | H/T WarHistoryOnline