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A Veterans Day Hero: Saugus gets to hear the inspirational story of a humble janitor who received a Medal of Honor nearly 40 years ago

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By Mark E. Vogler


Most of the people in the crowd who attended the Veterans Day ceremonies last Saturday at Veterans Park never knew about William J. Crawford, a World War II Army veteran who died 23 years ago. Crawford was a Colorado man who served as a private with the 142nd Infantry Regiment in the 36th Infantry Division in Southern Italy. His heroic actions as a squad scout during battle – he single-handedly destroyed three machine gun nests while putting his own life at great risk – allowed his fellow soldiers to advance after being pinned down by enemy fire.

CCM Robert O’Toole, US Air Force (Retired) and the executive officer of the Saugus Veterans Council, shared Crawford’s inspirational story in his keynote address. “He was captured and held for 19 months,” O’Toole said, telling the crowd of how Crawford became a prisoner of the Germans soon after the battle. “During that time period, everyone else thought he was dead – killed in action,” he said.

In fact, an Army major general presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Crawford’s father, not knowing that he was still alive. But 19 months after his capture, Crawford was among a group of soldiers who were freed and returned home.

He got married, reenlisted in the Army and retired after 20 years with the rank of master sergeant. He then went on to work as a janitor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

In his address, O’Toole noted that Crawford had mentioned to friends that he had never received the medal from the President, but he never actively pursued the honor. So, his heroic actions never received the public recognition he deserved. That would change after cadets in the U.S. Air Force Academy graduating Class of 1984 discovered that the humble janitor in their midst was a true hero. One of the cadets was reading a book about World War II and learned about Crawford’s heroics and noticed a photo of a man that resembled the squadron janitor.

“Forty-years later, he finally got the Medal of Honor from the President of the United States,” O’Toole said.

In 1984, the Air Force Academy’s graduating class invited Crawford to be their guest. President Ronald Reagan recognized Crawford’s heroic action and presented him with the Medal of Honor.

“He was a gentleman who was a Medal of Honor recipient who worked as a janitor,” O’Toole said. “So, you don’t know who a veteran would be,” he said.

O’Toole cited the story of William J. Crawford as a classic example of “How a humble man goes into the military, becomes a hero and goes back to being a humble man.”

At the end of his speech, O’Toole read from an account by retired Col. James E. Moschgat, the cadet from the Air Force Academy graduating class of 1984 who learned about the unassuming Medal of Honor recipient. Moschgat had cited 10 leadership lessons he learned from Crawford, the janitor.

  • Be cautious of labels.
  • Everyone deserves respect.
  • Courtesy makes a difference.
  • Take time to know your people.
  • Anyone can be a hero.
  • Leaders should be humble.
  • Life won’t always hand you what you deserve.
  • Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence.
  • No job is beneath a leader.
  • Life is a leadership laboratory.

“Anyone can be a hero,” O’Toole said, reading from the list of leadership lessons.

“Not the guy dancing around in the end zone,” he said, referring to the star football players who score touchdowns.

“Heroes wear uniforms. Heroes go into battle,” he said.

“Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence.” In his list of leadership lessons, Moschgat noted that “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 winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it. Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well.”

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