The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t only apply to novels, but to people as well. That was exactly the case for William “Bill” Crawford, a humble janitor who kept to himself worked as a janitor at an American Air Force Academy. While many people at the academy might have assumed that he was just another regular janitor, little did they know he had a past that would not only shock, but earn the immense respect of everyone at the school.
A Typical Janitor
William “Bill” Crawford was a mild-tempered, soft-spoken janitor at the renowned U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was diligent about his work, making sure everything was clean and in order for the approximate 100 cadets at the school. Like most janitors, he went relatively unnoticed in the halls.
Aside from knowing that he kept things clean, those attending the academy didn’t think twice about the janitor, especially when it came to his past. It turned out to be something they would never have imagined.
Just Doing His Job
Day in and day out, he kept his head down and did the work that needed to be done with no complaints. He kept the grounds spotless while simultaneously blending in with the hustle and bustle of the students in the academy.
For years, he maintained a low profile, with students passing him by without ever knowing who he actually was. Referred to as “Mr. Crawford,” the janitor, he kept his personal life to himself until one day the truth was finally revealed.
He Remained A Mystery To The Students
William Crawford was born in 1918 in Pueblo, Colorado. After retiring from his career, Crawford found himself back in his home state where he looked for a low-stress job to keep himself occupied and help earn him some extra money.
He was happy to be hired on as a janitor at the academy. It was just the kind of job that he was looking for. According to former students, Crawford was seen as “an old man working in a young person’s world.”
He Went Unnoticed In A Sea Of Cadets
Retired Air Force Colonel James Moschgat was a cadet while Crawford worked as a janitor at the academy. He remembered thinking that Crawford was shy and almost avoided contact with any of the students. He also felt that the age gap between Crawford and the cadets created a real disparity.
According to Moschgat, “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.”
More Than Just A Janitor
Because Crawford looked like your average man and janitor from the outside, many people assumed that he was just an older man who needed the work and the Air Force was happy to help him out.
Although he may have looked ordinary, his past was far from it. Because he was working at the Air Force Academy, some assumed that he might have been some kind of retired military veteran, which he was, but he never talked about it.
He Was Surrounded By His Military Family
While the cadets went about their daily responsibilities, Crawford was always in the background, whether it was cleaning the property or preparing for sporting events. What the cadets didn’t know was that he was happy and felt at home around what he considered his military family.
He rarely spoke to the cadets with only a few ever addressing him. Yet, that would all change in 1976, when a secret about Crawford would emerge and change the way everyone thought of him.
Discovering The Truth
On a typical Saturday afternoon, then-cadet Moschgat was reading about World War II and the brutal Allied campaign in Italy. It was then that he read the heroic story of William Crawford, the man he knew as the janitor at the academy.
Recounting the situation, Moschgat later wrote, “The words on the page leaped out at me.” He never would have suspected that he would be reading a war story about the humble janitor he mindlessly walked by countless times.
It Couldn’t Be A Coincidence
At first, he had his doubts that it was actually the janitor until he saw “Private William Crawford,” and knew that it couldn’t be a coincidence. Everyone knew the janitor as “Mr. Crawford,” and a few suspected that he was a veteran, so it was possible it was the same soldier in the book.
Although Moschgat may have been the first to uncover Crawford’s past, it wouldn’t be long before the entire school knew who he was and what he had done.
He Was A World War II Veteran
It didn’t take Moschgat to discover that Crawford was indeed a veteran, but not just from any war — World War II. He read a story that took place 30 years prior when the US Army’s 36th Infantry Division was fighting the Axis forces near Altavilla, Italy.
The book explained that “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.” If it was him, he had done something truly incredible.
Going To The Source
Still not completely sure if the soldier in the book was the janitor at the Air Force Academy, Moschgat knew that he would have to ask the man himself. So, he prepared his questions, gathered the courage, and approached the man one day.
Moschgat and his roommate brought the book and looked around for Crawford until they finally found him, busy taking care of his regular duties. At first, Crawford was hesitant to open up to the boys, but after some probing, he started to talk about his past.
Learning The truth
Upon being handed the book, the janitor stared at it for a moment without giving anything away. Then, looking up from the pages, he responded to the boys, “Yep, that’s me,” in a tone that was impossibly nonchalant.
When they inquired why he had never told anyone about his heroic deeds, Crawford shrugged and said, “That was a long time ago and one day in my life.”
Crawford’s Early Days In The Military
William Crawford enlisted in the United States Army in July 1942. Within a year, Crawford was on the frontlines in southern Italy with the 142nd Infantry Regiment 36th Infantry Division. Little did he know, that he was about to face one of the most harrowing moments of his life.
On September 13, 1943, Crawford was positioned as a squad scout when his company was attacked by German forces at Hill 424 near Altavilla Silentina. Crawford and his fellow soldiers were trapped by enemy machine gun and mortar fire with no way out.
A True Demonstration Of Heroism
It was at that moment that Crawford stepped up and did what was necessary not just to save his own life, but those of his fellow soldiers. In all the chaos, Crawford managed to locate where the enemy fire was coming from. He was crawling mere feet from a machine-gun nest. He threw a grenade and disabled it, killing the enemy.
However, that was only one of the numerous locations the Germans were positioned. Crawford then proceeded to take out each of the other machine gun and mortar nests in a similar manner, eventually seizing control of one of the guns and firing on the retreating Germans.
He Paid For His Bravery
Crawford’s actions resulted in the enemy forces retreating, in fear of the man who had single-handedly destroyed three entrenched posts and killed numerous soldiers. Thanks to Crawford, the rest of the soldiers were now safe and could move forward. However, being on the frontlines would continue to prove to be dangerous.
Being at the head of the offensive line, ahead of the other soldiers, Crawford was soon captured by German troops. Assuming that he wouldn’t make it out alive, Crawford was reported MIA and later presumed dead.
His Father Received His Medal Of Honor
All signs indicated that Crawford had died as a German prisoner of war. To honor his courage and sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1944, the most prestigious military decoration in the United States.
Assuming that Crawford was dead, the distinguished award was then presented to his father instead. United States major General Terry Allen gave the medal to Crawford’s father, George, in what was described as “a brief ceremony.”
The Taste Of Freedom
In the following months, Crawford’s family and comrades were still very concerned as to what had actually happened. Was he really dead? Was he possibly alive? Not knowing was the worst part.
Amazingly, when a German POW camp was liberated by US soldiers, Crawford was among the living prisoners to be freed from the camp. Unaware that he was now a decorated war hero, he finally made his way home.
Crawford Returns Home
Upon returning to the United States, Crawford settled into civilian life. He went on to marry Eileen Bruce in January of 1946, but he felt the call of duty once again. He re-enlisted back in the Army not long after his wedding.
Crawford continued to serve in the military for twenty more years before retiring in 1967 with the rank of master sergeant. He moved with his family to Palmer Lake, Colorado where he spent his time as the director of the Lucretia Vaile Museum and working as a janitor at the Air Force Academy.
The Academy Finally Found Out
Unsurprisingly, considering how humble Crawford was, he rarely wore his Medal of Honor for the rest of his military career. He felt that he was undeserving of such recognition regardless of what he had gone through. On top of that, he opted to work as a janitor in the shadows even though he could have lived comfortably as a hero.
When the truth came out about the quiet janitor’s past, the cadets at the academy were stunned and humbled. From then on, they gave him the respect he deserved and made a point to make his job as easy as possible.
There Was Still Something He Wanted To Do
Crawford’s reputation at the Air Force Academy changed overnight as he transformed from a humble janitor to a decorated war hero in the eyes of the cadets. He began to attend more events and it appeared that he even began to warm up to the cadets. However, there was something that he still wanted to do.
Back in 1984, Crawford had mentioned that he was slightly disappointed that he never personally received the Medal of Honor from the president since he was presumed dead at the time.
A Surprise Worthy Of A Hero
In 1984, Crawford was invited as a guest to attend the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony, unaware that he had been specifically invited for a reason. There were thousands in attendance, many who were there to see their loved ones graduate, as well as those who came for Crawford.
The war hero was 66 years old when he attended the graduation, and by that time, the instructors and cadets were all aware of his accomplishments during World War II.
President Reagan Turned His Attention To Crawford
At the Air Force graduation, the stadium was packed full of cadets, alumni, instructors, generals, and Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States at the time. While expressing his appreciation for the veterans and the lessons they provide on leadership, he turned his attention to William Crawford.
He acknowledged that Crawford was a veteran who had gone “above and beyond the call of duty.” It was clear he was talking to him directly.
Reagan Told Crawford’s Story
Speaking to the crowd, President Reagan continued, saying, “Now, there’s something I want to do that means a lot to me and, I’m sure, will mean a lot to you.” He then proceeded to describe Crawford’s actions and the sacrifices Crawford made while fighting in Italy during World War II.
Considering that Crawford had been living under the guise of a simple janitor job for so many years, everyone, including President Reagan, felt that he deserved further recognition for his actions and imprisonment during the war.
A Long Time Coming
President Reagan continued on and said that Crawford wasn’t able to personally receive his Medal of Honor since he was presumed dead but was actually a German prisoner of war. Reagan then went on to do something that touched the hearts of everyone in the stadium.
He proclaimed, “Well, nearly 40 years have gone by, and it’s time to do it right.” He then called Crawford up to the podium and personally presented him with the Medal of Honor, fulfilling Crawford’s dream.
Crawford Was At A Loss For Words
It was a moving moment when President Reagan hung the Medal of Honor around the 66-year-old’s neck. William Crawford generously accepted the honor, keeping hold of his emotions. However, after the rites had been read, a smile broke across his face.
Of course, the crowd went wild as many cadets, who once thought this man was simply the janitor, watched him receive the Medal of Honor right in front of them. Crawford had never asked to be recognized by his deeds, yet everyone in the crowd knew it was only right.
Part Of An Elite Group
Although Crawford never bragged about or even spoke about his heroic actions in combat, it was about time that people knew. Up until that point, Crawford had never been formally recognized for his efforts which led him to receive the Medal of Honor.
Typically, the President of the United States gives out the honor in the name of Congress. Although he always technically had been, the honor bestowed upon Crawford meant that he was now officially part of an elite group who are customarily saluted by all uniformed services no matter what their rank.
An American Hero
Crawford had finally been publicly recognized as the American war hero that he was, something that nobody would have ever guessed. Crawford said, “I was just glad I was doing my part.”
This was no surprise considering that he had spent the majority of his life keeping his noble accomplishments under wraps. He continued, saying, “I figured it was just a normal call of duty […] I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
He Touched The Hearts Of Many
Although some years had passed, Col. James Moschgat, the former cadet who stumbled upon Crawford’s incredible story, reflected that Crawford had ingrained in him “some valuable leadership lessons.” According to Moschgat, “Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model, and one great American hero.”
Moschgat would go on to post an essay online about Crawford to express how he had not only impacted him, but past, present, and future members of the United States Air Force.
He Lived A Fulfilling Life
Master Sergeant William Crawford passed away on March 15, 2000, at the age of 81 at his home in Colorado. He had devoted a large portion of his life serving his country, continuing to do so even after he had retired from the military.
He was survived by wife, Eileen, who was buried next to him after passing away in 2009. He had made his mark on the United States military and became the only non-Air Force member to be buried at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Upon hearing of Crawford’s passing, Colorado Governor Bill Owens wanted to pay his respect to the Colorado resident and hero. So, in the wake of his death, Owens issued that all Colorado flags be lowered to half-mast in remembrance and honor of Crawford.
In addition, a bronze statue of Crawford was raised at Hero Plaza at the Pueblo Convention Center. Crawford’s memorial was erected next to the town’s three other Medal of Honor recipients: Raymond G. Murphy, Carl L. Sitter, and Drew Dennis Dix.
A Janitor’s Ten Lessons In Leadership
While members of the military from all branches have heard about the janitor who turned out to be a war hero, Moschgat best expressed Crawford’s impact in his essay, “A Janitor’s Ten Lesson’s in Leadership”.
In the essay, he wrote, “Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living […] If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.” It’s clear that Crawford’s actions and the code by which he lived have left an everlasting mark.