James Moschgat recounts the story as if it were yesterday. He was nearing graduation from the Air Force Academy and ready to start his life as a military aviator.
His life's path was dictated by whichever way he directed his joy stick. He had it all — and the swagger, too.
He told Independent Journal Review:
“I drove a Corvette, had a hot girlfriend and was going off to be an F-16 pilot.”
There wasn't a lot of room for much else in his life. The people who prepared his meals and the old man who cleaned the toilets and swept the floors were bit players, not stars in the cadets' lives.
As Moschgat put it, these folks didn't get much notice from the cadets because they had to double-time it everywhere:
“...We cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic events, Saturday morning parades and room inspections, or never-ending leadership classes...”
And then one day while doing research, he had a revelation about the old man who scrubbed the floors and toilets of his cadet dormitory.
“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 Sept. 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.”
He wondered if the “Private William Crawford” from Colorado possibly could be the “Bill Crawford” the cadets dismissed as an “old grandpa,” as he put it to Independent Journal Review.
As Moschgat wrote:
"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. And his crooked smile, well, it looked a little funny.
Finally, maybe it was Mr. Crawford’s personality that 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."
But, if Moschgat's hunch was right, the old man who cleaned up after them and who was “almost invisible” to the cadets, had a storied past:
“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.'”
Bill Crawford was a hero. Moreover, Moschgat discovered, Crawford enjoyed a vaunted distinction.
He rushed to tell his roommate:
“'Holy cow,' I said to my roommate, 'you’re not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor winner.' 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.'”
Moschgat says he and his roommate chased down Bill to ask him.
They showed him the page from the book describing his heroism:
“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.'”
Here's how Bill Crawford spent that “one day,” according to his Medal of Honor citation:
"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."
Moschgat told Independent Journal Review that he and his classmates were rightly put in their places by Crawford's quiet humility:
“I found out that he was more than we would ever be. We were embarrassed by our behavior, in the aftermath.”
He told us that after that, the cadets paid the Medal of Honor recipient much more respect:
“There was a renaissance. We started inviting Bill to our squadron parties. We opened our eyes to the world a bit more, as much as a bunch of 18 to 21 year olds can.”
Here's a photo of the two men at one of their Academy parties:
The Academy found out something else. Bill Crawford had never received his Medal of Honor the way living recipients usually do.
Crawford's parents received his medal in a very informal way because their son was listed as “missing.” They didn't know if he'd make it back from the war. In reality, Crawford had been taken prisoner by the Germans.
Image Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
Forty years went by and Crawford had never been formally presented with his blue ribboned medal around his neck.
In 1984, it was the Air Force Academy's turn to get the president of the United States to address students at graduation. The Academy arranged for President Ronald Reagan to present Bill's award.
But it almost didn't happen.
Moschgat told Independent Journal Review that he later learned that when another Medal of Honor honoree, Peter C. Lemon, a Vietnam War hero, arrived to drive Bill to the ceremony, the old man was sitting in his underwear, drinking a beer and watching TV:
"Bill said, 'I'm not going to receive a medal from some damn Republican!' He was a dyed in the wool Democrat.
But Pete said 'listen Sergeant, on your feet.'"
So, Crawford sucked it up and went and shook the president's hand:
Image Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
President Reagan said he wanted to do right by the American hero. As he said at the time:
"We're graced with the company of a man who believed so much in the values of our nation that he went above and beyond the call of duty in defending them.
In July 1944 a grateful nation bestowed the Medal of Honor on a soldier, a private, for extraordinary heroism on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy. The soldier could not accept the award that day. He was a prisoner of war, and his father accepted in his behalf.
Since early in this century, it has been customary for the President to present the Medal of Honor. Well, nearly 40 years have gone by, and it's time to do it right. A native son of Colorado and certainly a good friend of the Air Force Academy will forever be in the select company where the heroes of our country stand."
And then came the moment:
Image Credit: Screengrab/YouTube
Crawford was deeply honored:
Moschgat says he was stationed in Spain and didn't know until after it happened that Crawford received the medal from President Reagan.
Though he never spoke to Crawford again after receiving his medal, the now-Colonel Moschgat eventually got back in touch with Bill's family.
The two are, well, connected.
He told Independent Journal Review that one time he asked Bill's wife why, after his storied military career, did he want to be a janitor at the Air Force Academy?
“His wife told me he loved the military, loved the lifestyle and thought being around the cadets would be an influence.”
Moschgat says he and Bill “weren't buddies or anything” but Bill showed him what real leadership looked like.
Moschgat told Independent Journal Review, this is what Bill taught him:
“All too often we get too full ourselves. Our attitudes, our prejudices get in the way. Leadership is about people motivating people. If you're going to be a good leader you have to see people for who they truly are.”
He's proud of his role in calling attention to the hero at the Academy.
Bill's fame became so widespread that Colorado state officials considered naming a state highway after him.
During the recitation of Crawford's accomplishments, it was revealed that Bill had a few more honors besides his Congressional Medal of Honor, including a Bronze Star, British Military Medal, and Italian Cross of Valor.
And he also obtained one more honor as well.
The retired Army Staff Sergeant and his wife were allowed to become the only non-Air Force personnel allowed to be buried at the Academy.
To Moschgat and his fellow cadets in 1976 and to graduating classes thereafter, Bill Crawford succeeded in becoming the “influence” he wanted to be by standing tall while doing even the smallest of tasks.