50 states, 50 heroes: A humble hero

Born May 19, 1918, in Pueblo, Colorado, William John Crawford was on his way to a potential career as a professional boxer when World War II broke out. He enlisted in the Army in July 1942 and was later assigned to Third Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.

On Sept. 13, 1943, Private Crawford was acting as a scout for his platoon during an attack on a German defensive position near Altavilla, Italy. The platoon soon found itself pinned down by intense enemy machine gun fire. Seeing that one of the enemy emplacements was dug into a terrace on the next hill over, Crawford moved through enemy fire toward the gun emplacement. Once he was close enough, he used grenades to destroy the emplacement, killing the three Germans manning the gun.

Crawford’s actions allowed his platoon to advance, but it again came under intense enemy fire, this time from two German machine gun emplacements dug into hillside terraces. Again disregarding his own safety, Crawford charged the hillside, destroying the emplacement on his left with a grenade. He then turned his attention to the other machine gun, which was concentrating its fire on him. He killed one gunner at point-blank range with his rifle, then turned the machine gun on the fleeing gun crew, allowing his platoon to again advance.

Crawford was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but he was captured shortly after the fight near Altavilla. Fearing that Crawford was dead, Gen. Thomas Allen presented a “posthumous” Medal of Honor to Crawford’s father on Feb. 26, 1944. Two months later, Crawford’s family was informed that he was alive in a German prisoner of war camp. Word then reached the camp that Crawford had been awarded the medal; out of respect, treatment at the hands of his German captors improved.

Crawford was liberated in 1945 and returned home. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1947 and reluctantly wore his medal; he was humble and shy by nature. Crawford served for another 20 years, retiring in 1967 with the rank of Master Sergeant. Other awards he received included a Bronze Star and a Prisoner of War Medal.

In 1970, Crawford took a job as a janitor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Still a humble man, Crawford was largely ignored by the cadets, who were unaware of his heroic past.

That changed when a cadet by the name of James Moschgat read about Crawford’s story while reading the Italian Campaign chapter of a book about World War II. Moschgat saw Crawford’s picture and recognized him as the janitor. When Crawford confirmed to Moschgat and several cadets that he was the same William Crawford, he immediately became a celebrity around the Academy. He drew both the admiration and respect of the cadets, who frequently invited him to special dinners, during which his introductions were met with standing ovations.

Crawford told some acquaintances that his only regret was not receiving the medal from a president. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was speaking at the Air Force Academy graduation when he called Crawford onto the stage. There, in front of cheering cadets and numerous high ranking officials, Reagan re-presented Crawford with his Medal of Honor and praised him for his courage.

Crawford passed away on March 15, 2000, at the age of 81 in Palmer Lake, Colorado, where he was serving as the director of the Lucretia Vaile Museum. He is buried at the United States Air Force Academy, the only enlisted Army personnel to be buried there.

A statue of Crawford, along with Medal of Honor recipients Drew Dix, Raymond Murphy and Carl Sitter, stands outside the Hero Plaza at the Pueblo Convention Center.

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