The old adage that “things aren’t always what they seem,” certainly proved true in the case of this reserved janitor who worked at an American Air Force Academy. While many people possess secrets from their past, not everyone is readily enthusiastic to share the details of their personal histories. So was the case with this custodial worker, until someone uncovered the unexpected reality and catalyzed a series of life-altering events. You definitely don’t want to miss this incredible account that highlights the golden rule of taking time to get to know those around you.
William “Bill” Crawford was a soft-spoken, low-key janitor at the prestigious US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He moved about the squadron quietly cleaning and tidying up after some 100 young cadets, usually rendering little more than a passing greeting.
The graying janitor dutifully mopped, sprayed and buffed, but was considered by those around him as a relatively unimpressive character. Seamlessly blending into the woodwork, Crawford may have appeared unassuming, but in truth, he harbored an astonishing secret about his past.
The dedicated janitor humbly went about his job, slowly but diligently keeping the grounds in spotless condition. His competence at keeping the premises in shipshape meant it was easy for him to blend into the background of the bustling academy without turning too many heads.
For years, the ununiformed janitor gained little notice from the cadets who hustled by him every day, unaware of whose remarkable presence they were in. The kindly “Mr. Crawford,” as he was known, kept quiet about his personal life, but the details of his past didn’t stay hidden for long.
William Crawford was born in 1918 in Pueblo, Colorado. After years traveling during his career years, Crawford wound up back in his home state following retirement looking for a low-stress job that allowed him to busily pass under the radar.
He gladly assumed his role at the academy, happy to keep knowledge of his formative years under wraps. According to later-published accounts of those who encountered him, Crawford was largely overlooked as “an old man working in a young person’s world.” Little did they know, however, things would soon change.
Retired Air Force Col. James Moschgat, who was a cadet at the time, recounted Crawford’s seemingly shy and subdued demeanor and how that along with his age disparity with the cadets left little in the way of pursuing relationships on a more personal level.
“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,” recalled Moschgat, although his perception was about to significantly transform in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
On the surface, Crawford appeared to be an ordinary man, doing an ordinary, everyday kind of job that could supplement his pension benefits and allow him to contribute to his country. Little did anyone know though, he had anything but an “ordinary” background.
Amid the daily routine at the academy, nobody gave the janitor much of a second thought or even really knew his full name. Although one could assume that he was “retired military,” he curiously never regaled tales from those days to the cadets.
Content to be surrounded by what he considered his military family, Crawford graciously performed the most menial of tasks as the cadets studied for exams and prepared for athletic events. The inconspicuous figure rarely spoke to the cadets, unless, on the rare occasion they addressed him first. Soon, however, they would all be familiar with his tale.
No one could have guessed, but in 1976 everything would change. Crawford continued to quietly sweep and empty trash cans and clean toilets. Yet, a discovery about him would soon be revealed that would transform both the lives of the janitor and the students.
One unassuming Saturday afternoon, then-cadet Moschgat was reading a book about World War II and the Allied ground campaign in Italy when he happened to come across an incredible account that would change everything. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed to his roommate.
“The words on the page leapt out at me,” Moschgat later wrote. The future F-16 pilot who had been so focused on his nearing graduation had unintentionally uncovered clues about the aging janitor who unobtrusively “shuffled” around the Air Force Academy with a smile.
As he read the book, Moschgat suddenly turned his attention to the name “Private William Crawford” written in big bold letters. The cadet wondered if the fascinating description of the trooper from Colorado had any correlation to his current squadron’s reserved janitor.
Soon, not only Moschgat but his entire class would find out the astounding connection between the courageous trooper described the in war history book and the ordinary looking “Mr Crawford” the students dismissed as “old grandpa.” Moschgat could barely contain himself.
What Moschgat discovered truly blew his mind. He had come across a story that had taken place some 30 years prior about the US Army’s 36 Infantry Division’s encounter with a perilous affront by enemy forces near Altavilla, Italy during World War II.
The words of the riveting anecdote captured the cadet’s attention, stating: “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire…with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.’ Could it possibly be the same person?
Wondering if the particularly brave soldier mentioned in the book could be the same man as the Air Force Academy’s custodial worker, Moschgat prepared to approach the janitor and inquire if he was indeed the same hero. He could never have guessed what would happen next.
As soon as they could, Moschgat and his roommate bewilderedly chased down Crawford with the book in hand. Crawford was reluctant at first to answer the queries. But the cadets probed him for more details about the truth. What they discovered was amazing.
After staring at the page for a few silent moments, Crawford relented in his signature humble manner. The cadets stood with mouths agape in silent disbelief looking back-and-forth at each other, the book and the janitor when he finally answered.
“Yep, that’s me,” Crawford unaffectedly admitted. When asked why he never spoke about his heroic past, he had a chaste answer. “That was a long time ago and one day in my life,” he quietly uttered. But, the amazing story doesn’t end there.
Crawford joined the US Army in July 1942. Just shy of a year after his enlistment, he was serving as a private on the frontlines in southern Italy with the 142nd Infantry Regiment 36 Infantry Division. Unbeknownst to him, the former boxing aficionado would soon tap into skills from the ring.
On September 13, 1943, he was acting as a squad scout when his company attacked an enemy position at Hill 424 near Altavilla Silentina. The American troops came under intense enemy fire, trapped by the bombardment of machine-gun and mortar fire. It seemed Crawford’s unit was hopelessly trapped.
That’s when Crawford stepped up in an act of uninhibited valor, taking a pivotal role against the German residence. Utilizing his clear line of vision and without instruction, he fearlessly located the enemy threat pummelling his platoon and incredibly lobbed a grenade and eliminated one enemy firing post.
The gallant action no doubt saved lives, but Crawford courageously advanced through the continuing assault again taking a lionhearted initiative. Demonstrating skill and precision, he crawled, avoiding the barrage of bullets, and managed to destroy two more deeply-entrenched German machine gun nests.
Due to Crawford’s intrepid actions, the rest of the opposing forces fled to avoid facing the man who single-handedly demolished three entrenched posts. The Allied advance could proceed thanks to Crawford. Unfortunately, his frontline position that had helped defeat the onslaught soon translated to danger.
Located in close proximity to the enemy, the bold soldier at the head of the offensive was then captured by German troops. With slim chances of survival, the Crawford was reported MIA and presumed dead. The tragic assumptions made the coming developments all the more remarkable.
As all indications signaled that Crawford had met his fate as German Prisoner of War, the US government took provisions to recognize the private at the highest level. In 1944, the venerated Crawford was “posthumously” awarded America’s most prestigious military decoration – the Medal of Honor.
Seeing that Crawford was presumed fallen and per US Army regulations, the distinguished honor was presented in his stead to his father. US Maj.-Gen Terry Allen provided the coveted medal to Crawford’s father, George, in “a brief, impressive ceremony.” Still, the future held an unexpected twist of fate.
Months passed and Crawford’s family and comrades wondered about the circumstance of his fate. Without warning, the unbelievable happened when a group of soldiers were liberated from German captivity. Crawford, the world incredibly learned, was actually alive and among the freed troops.
Billed as a national hero and triumphant survivor of a German PoW internment camp, Crawford finally headed home unaware of the top award he had been honored or of the surprising events that the future had in store for him.
Crawford settled back into civilian life after the war. He married Eileen Bruce in January 1946, but the prospect of military service again beckoned the decorated war hero. Despite all that he’d already given for his country, Crawford re-enlisted in the Army a year after his nuptials.
Crawford served for 20 more years before retiring in 1967 with the rank of master sergeant. The Crawfords moved to Palmer Lake, Colorado, where he stayed busy serving as director of the Lucretia Vaile Museum and working as a janitor at the nearby Air Force Academy.
Crawford seldom wore his Medal of Honor during his military career as he humbly felt unworthy. The patriot, who tirelessly and selflessly gave to his county honorably, didn’t hesitate to work without complaint as a janitor, as others of such distinguishment might.
When the truth about Crawford’s past came to light during his time as a custodian, he was approached in astonished reverence. The Air Force trainees increasingly engaged with him and consciously tried to prevent making messes they knew he’d clean. Little did he know, these interactions would soon lead to another life-changing event.
Crawford quickly turned from being a simple fixture to a beloved colleague at the academy and attended more squadron functions, although dressed conservatively as ever in unflashy dark suits. He then seemed to act with more purpose and warmed up to the cadets. Still, he had one unfilled wish.
Without expectations, Crawford mentioned to friends that he had never personally received the Medal of Honor from the president seeing that he was presumed dead during the war. Taking that fact into account, something special was planned for the inspiring war hero.
In 1984, Crawford was invited as a guest to the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony not knowing that something incredible was in store for him. Thousands of people packed into Colorado Springs Falcon Stadium for the commencement festivities that would include a particularly touching gesture for the dedicated veteran.
At that point, the war hero-turned-armed forces janitor was 66-years-old. Although the staff and cadets at the academy were by now familiar with his life achievements, he still had not received the full extent of appreciation that he deserved. Luckily, that was about to change.
Among the cadets, generals, alumni, staff and family members at the May 1984 graduation ceremony was none other than then-President Ronald Reagan. The commander-in-chief turned all attention to Crawford with appreciative remarks about the veteran’s lessons in leadership, respect and humility.
The masses turned to the introverted veteran in adoration as he was hailed as an example for the future generation of leaders. With national attention on the man whom the president acknowledged had gone “above and beyond the call of duty,” Crawford was about to experience the ultimate surprise.
“Now, there’s something I want to do that means a lot to me and, I’m sure, will mean a lot to you,” the president asserted to the packed stadium. Reagan proceeded to emotionally recount the efforts exerted by Crawford during World War II.
The president mentioned Crawford’s courageous service in Europe and his ensuing imprisonment. The true nature of the man who, for years, had mistakenly been recognized as a simple janitor was about to become evident to the entire world.
The president then noted that the former soldier couldn’t accept his Medal of Honor at the time that it was initially awarded to him, seeing that he was being held in captivity. Reagan then did something that would rightfully change Crawford’s life forever.
“Well, nearly 40 years have gone by, and it’s time to do it right,” the president reverentially said. The president then called Crawford forward to the podium and, at long last, formally presented him with the esteemed Medal of Honor he was rightfully due.
The hearts of all observers must have been bursting when Reagan gently hung the medal around Crawford’s neck. As true to character as ever, Bill Crawford graciously accepted the honor, shaking the president’s hand and withholding a contagious smile until the very end of the rites.
The crowd exploded in applause as both Crawford and Reagan appeared visibly moved. From his time in the war well into retirement, Crawford never sought to be commended for his deed although had always acted, as Reagan stated, with “conspicuous gallantry.”
Crawford may have preferred to downplay the significance of his achievements, but history has agreed otherwise. Remarkably, Crawford had, until then, never had an official ceremony or recognition pertaining to his Medal of Honor. The US president usually awards the honor in the name of Congress.
The belated public acknowledgment of Crawford’s merits meant he was part of an exclusive group that is customarily saluted by all members of the uniformed services, regardless of rank. Keeping that in mind, Crawford’s reaction to the whole ordeal was all the more remarkable.
Crawford was finally recognized as the All-American Hero that he truly was. “I was just glad that I was doing my part,” he modestly said in response to the events of his life. Remarkably, the real-life hero only ever saw himself serving part of a larger good.
“I figured it was just a normal call of duty,” he said humbly of his award. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time.” It was that kind of attitude that made Crawford’s extraordinary legacy resonate with so many. But, his recognition wouldn’t stop there.
Looking back on the incredible circumstances that lead to the realization of Crawford’s impact, Col. James Moschgat – who discovered that his academy’s janitor was a Medal of Honor winner – said ingrained in him “some valuable leadership lessons.”
“Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model and one great American hero,” the colonel eulogized in a touching essay post about Crawford that brought the Internet to its knees. Moschgat isn’t the only one who has memorialized him, though.
On March 15, 2000, William Crawford passed away at the age of 81 at his home in Colorado after spending the majority of his life serving his country. The master sergeant was survived by his wife, Eileen, who would lovingly be laid to rest beside him in 2009.
The man who had earned a special place in war history and in the hearts of those who knew him even made history after his death. The US Army vet became the only non-Air Force enlistee to be buried at the US Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs.
In light of Crawford’s passing, Colorado Governor Bill Owens issued a special directive in honor of the state’s legendary resident. In a symbolic salute of respect and mourning, he authorized all Colorado flags to be lowered to half-mast in Crawford’s honor.
Crawford’s memory was also immortalized with a bronze statue of his likeness at Hero Plaza at the Pueblo Convention Center. The memorial was erected beside the statues of the town’s three other Medal of Honor recipients: Drew Dennis Dix, Raymond G. Murphy and Carl L. Sitter.
While the cadets who passed Crawford in the halls of the Air Force Academy stood in testimony to his legacy, Moschgat perhaps summed it up best with his reflection on labels, respect and kindness in his commemorative essay “A Janitor’s Ten Lessons in Leadership.”
“Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living,” he wrote of the hero who never sang his own praise. “If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.” Moschgat summarized.
Sources: Ninja Journalist, Home of Heros, Medal of Honor News