Profiles of Valor: MSgt William Crawford - Life Lessons In leadership From A Humble Janitor.

  • Saturday, January 13, 2024
  • Mark Caldwell
President Reagan honors MSgt William Crawford
President Reagan honors MSgt William Crawford
William Crawford survived his combat trials, and his humble life of service exemplified the character of so many in his Greatest Generation, especially those who never made it home. His story is their story.

With generations of family and friends who have served our nation with honor and integrity, and continue to do so, and as the proud father of a United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) graduate, I was drawn to MSgt Crawford’s compelling story. I invite you to read this profile of an extraordinary man who went from sweeping combat fields in search of the enemy to sweeping USAFA dormitory hallways and bathrooms.
He was a quiet and unassuming janitor until his heroic acts were rediscovered by an Academy cadet — and then properly acknowledged by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

William Crawford was a native of Pueblo, Colorado, a town about 40 miles south of Colorado Springs, which, in 1954, would become the home of the Air Force Academy. He joined the Army in 1942 and a year later was a private with the 142nd Infantry Regiment 36th Infantry Division, serving in Italy. On September 13, 1943, he was his squad’s scout when they were attacked. (You can read more about his actions that day in his Medal of Honor citation below.)

The USAFA cadet who discovered who his squadron floor janitor really was 33 years after his heroic actions in Italy later recounted that story in an article titled “Lessons in Leadership from a Janitor,” published by the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Col. James Moschgat (Ret.) (USAFA ‘77): “William 'Bill’ Crawford certainly was an unimpressive figure, one you could easily overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford, as most of us referred to him back in the late 1970s, was our squadron janitor.”

Moschgat continued:

"While we cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic events, Saturday morning parades and room inspections, or never-ending leadership classes, Bill quietly moved about the squadron mopping and buffing floors, emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets, or just tidying up the mess 100 college-age kids can leave in a dormitory. Sadly, and for many years, 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 to our daily duties.

"Why? Perhaps it was because of the way he did his job — he always kept the squadron area spotlessly clean, even the toilets and showers gleamed. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not ours. Maybe it was his physical appearance that made him disappear into the background. Bill didn’t move very quickly and, in fact, you could say he even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. His gray hair and wrinkled face made him appear ancient to a group of young cadets. Face it; Bill was an old man working in a young person’s world. What did he have to offer us on a personal level?

"Mr. Crawford’s personality also rendered him almost invisible to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom spoke to a cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn’t happen very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell. So, for whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another fixture around the squadron. 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."

And then one fall Saturday afternoon in 1976, Moschgat notes, “All that changed”:

"I was reading a book about World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled across an incredible story. On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford from Colorado, assigned to the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy. The words on the page leapt out at me: '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.' It continued, 'for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States...'

“'Holy cow,' I said to my roommate, 'you’re not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor recipient.' We all knew Mr. Crawford was a WWII Army vet, but that didn’t keep my friend from looking at me as if I was some sort of alien being. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait to ask Bill about the story on Monday.

"We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page in question from the book, anticipation and doubt in our faces. He stared at it for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ Mouths agape, my roommate and I looked at one another, then at the book, and quickly back at our janitor. Almost at once we both stuttered, ‘Why didn’t you ever tell us about it?’ He slowly replied after some thought, ‘That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago.’

"I guess we were all at a loss for words after that. We had to hurry off to class and Bill, well; he had chores to attend to. However, after that brief exchange, things were never again the same around our squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in our midst — Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had been bestowed the Medal! Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, 'Good morning, Mr. Crawford.'

"Those who had before left a mess for the 'janitor' to clean up started taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Most cadets routinely stopped to talk to Bill throughout the day and we began inviting him to our formal squadron functions. He’d show up dressed in a conservative dark suit and quietly talked to those who approached him, the only sign of his heroics being a simple blue, star-spangled lapel pin.

"Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates. Mr. Crawford changed too, but you had to look closely to notice the difference. After that fall day in 1976, he seemed to move with more purpose, his shoulders didn’t seem to be as stooped, he met our greetings with a direct gaze and a stronger 'good morning' in return, and he flashed his crooked smile more often. The squadron gleamed as always, but everyone now seemed to notice it more. Bill even got to know most of us by our first names, something that didn’t happen often at the Academy. While no one ever formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill’s cadets and his squadron.

"As often happens in life, events sweep us away from those in our past. The last time I saw Bill was on graduation day in June 1977. As I walked out of the squadron for the last time, he shook my hand and simply said, 'Good luck, young man.' With that, I embarked on a career that has been truly lucky and blessed. Mr. Crawford continued to work at the Academy and eventually retired in his native Colorado."

Col. Moschgat concluded: “A wise person once said, ‘It’s not life that’s important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference.’ Bill was one who made a difference for me. While I haven’t seen Mr. Crawford in over twenty years, he’d probably be surprised to know I think of him often. Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons.”

William Crawford’s Medal of Honor citation notes:

“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 3d 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 machinegun 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 machinegun 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 machinegun 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 machinegun, he fired on the withdrawing Germans and facilitated his company’s advance.”

And the rest of the story…

Mr. Crawford never had an official recognition event for his Medal of Honor award because, at the time the award was delivered to his family, he was listed as killed in action – it was unknown that he was actually a POW. But that was rectified in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. In an address to the USAFA graduating class that year, Reagan and USAFA officials arranged a special ceremony for Mr. Crawford. With the cadets, their families, and dignitaries in attendance, Reagan formally presented the Medal of Honor to Master Sergeant Crawford.

In his remarks, President Reagan cited some of the leadership lessons that all of us should take away from this humble janitor. Col. Moschgat later adapted those lessons in his Wharton Business School article:

"Be Cautious of Labels: Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bound their potential. Sadly, and for a long time, we labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more.

"Everyone Deserves Respect: Because we hung the 'janitor' label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others around us. He deserved much more, and not just because he was a Medal of Honor recipient. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.

"Courtesy Makes a Difference: Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory 'hellos' to heartfelt greetings, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed. It made a difference for all of us.

"Take Time to Know Your People: Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. For years a hero walked among us at the Academy and we never knew it. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?

"Anyone Can Be a Hero: Mr. Crawford certainly didn’t fit anyone’s standard definition of a hero. Moreover, he was just a private on the day he earned his Medal. Don’t sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls. On the other hand, it’s easy to turn to your proven performers when the chips are down, but don’t ignore the rest of the team. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.

"Leaders Should Be Humble: Most modern-day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble, especially if you calibrate your 'hero meter' on today’s athletic fields. End zone celebrations and self-aggrandizement are what we’ve come to expect from sports greats. Not Mr. Crawford — he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well-served to do the same.

"Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve: We in the military work hard and, dang it, we deserve recognition, right? However, sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Perhaps you weren’t nominated for junior officer or airman of the quarter as you thought you should — don’t let that stop you.

"Don’t Pursue Glory; Pursue Excellence: Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living. No job is beneath a Leader. If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor recipient, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it. No matter what task life hands you, do it well.

"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 every day will teach you enduring lessons if you just take 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 the person I remember most is Mr. Bill Crawford and the lessons he unknowingly taught. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn."

Jim Moschgat, who himself would become a distinguished fighter pilot following his graduation from USAFA, concluded his article by noting: “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.”

Mr. Crawford retired from the Army in 1967 as a Master Sergeant. After his years at USAFA as a janitor, he retired and returned to his small hometown of Pueblo. Against all odds, there are four other Medal of Honor recipients from Pueblo. He died in March 2000 at age 81 and is interred at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery — the only U.S. Army-enlisted man buried there. He rests in good company near my friend and a fellow POW, Col. Bill Gauntt.

There were 16.1 million American Patriots who served in World War II, but just 473 of them were awarded the Medal of Honor. Most of those awards were made posthumously. The last of the surviving European theater recipients, Army T/Sgt Charles Coolidge, died in April 2021. The last of the Pacific Theater recipients, Marine CW-4 Hershel “Woody” Williams, died in June 2022.

I have met most of the living Medal of Honor recipients, and, like Bill Crawford, they are a strikingly humble lot and quick to credit all those with whom they served, and for whom they wear that Medal today.

MSgt Crawford, your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(Join us in prayer for our nation’s Military Patriots, Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please consider a designated gift to support the National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund through Patriot Foundation Trust (https://patriotfoundationtrust.org), or make a check payable to: NMoH Sustaining Fund (noting MoH Sustaining Fund on the memo line) and mail to: Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 407, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0407. Visit the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center at Aquarium Plaza. (https://www.MOHHC.org))

Opinion
Not The Davis Lundy We Know
  • 4/15/2024

I have known Davis Lundy for a couple of decades, through working with him in the political world. I got to see him on a personal, as well as a professional level, for those many years. Davis ... more

Please Don't
  • 4/15/2024

“Beyond his manifestly unsuitable temperament, Donald Trump will endanger the world as we know it” (Corey Booker). “For all his bluster, Trump has already shown himself to be an appeaser. Will ... more

Democratic View On Top Senate Issues: April 15
  • 4/15/2024

Voucher scam sponsor: ‘We’re trying to throw the whole freaking (public education) system in the trash’ Noon CT Finance Sub/Finance — News Channel 5’s Phil Williams has unearthed an audio ... more