His Catholic faith means 'everything' to 100-year-old survivor of Battle of Midway
Nov 18, 2019
In his hands, now wrinkled with age, retired U.S. Navy Captain John W. “Jack” Crawford Jr. held a pair of binoculars.
Seventy-seven years earlier, on June 4, 1942, then-Ensign Crawford held those same binoculars as he was on watch as the junior officer on the deck of the USS Yorktown and scanned the horizon as the pivotal World War II Battle of Midway began. Later he and the other members of the crew would have to abandon ship on the crippled aircraft carrier, which was eventually sunk by a Japanese submarine.
But just as Ensign Crawford was a survivor, so too were his binoculars, later retrieved from his room by another Navy seaman salvaging items before the Yorktown went under. Crawford’s name was inscribed on the binoculars, which he won at the Naval Academy as a prize from the American Legion, and his classmate felt honor bound to return them to him.
“I was in the Yorktown which was sunk. Those are my binoculars that I was using on watch as junior officer on the deck before she went down,” he said in an interview.
On Sept. 1, 2019, Crawford marked his 100th birthday with a special blessing at St. Elizabeth Church in Rockville, Maryland, where he and his late wife Betty were among the founding parishioners when the parish was established in the mid-1960s, and the church where he continues to attend Mass faithfully each Sunday.
On Nov. 4 – one week before Veterans Day – Crawford was interviewed by the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, reflecting on his experiences in World War II and postwar work in helping to develop the nuclear Navy, and offering insights on the new “Midway” motion picture that opened in theaters that week, and on the holiday honoring military veterans, which began 100 years ago in 1919, the year he was born.
Roots of faith
Crawford, a native of Andover, Massachusetts, grew up in a large, devout Catholic family in Tilton, New Hampshire, where his father was superintendent of a large textile mill and later served as a municipal court judge. His parents’ Catholic faith, he said, “was an integral part of their life.” The family attended Assumption Parish in Tilton, and every night they prayed the rosary together in their dining room.
“My father was accorded the privilege of sitting in the chair with the latest kid on his lap,” Crawford said. He also remembered his mother’s devotion to the faith, and the time she re-washed his altar server’s surplice after noticing a small stain and told him, “Nothing is too good for the altar of God.”
To this day, Crawford has a deep devotion to the Mass and the Eucharist.
After graduating from Tilton School, a noted prep school in his hometown, for one year he attended Norwich University in Vermont, the oldest private military college in the United States.
“It was an all-cavalry school. Drilling was on horses. You couldn’t ride on a saddle until after Christmas. Riding bareback, I slipped off a horse about six times,” Crawford said.
On to the Naval Academy
The next year, 1938, he entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “I loved it,” he said, praising the “great academics” there, where his class regimen included math six days a week. “At graduation, I stood fourth in the class.”
“I was in the class of 1942. The Navy already knew there was war in the offing… So they got it down to three and one-half years. We graduated on Dec. 19, 1941, just after Pearl Harbor,” Crawford said.
Remembering his experiences at the academy when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he said, “I was in my room studying all afternoon. I didn’t know about Pearl Harbor until the evening, but there was an unlikely, eerie quiet all that afternoon. It was an unusual quiet. It was a somber evening, no discussion because nobody knew anything beyond the fact that we had been attacked. We had no idea of the extent.”
That October, the midshipmen had received their ship assignments for after graduation.
“I’ve got the order still, to the USS Oklahoma. Well, she was sunk at Pearl Harbor and so I was fortunate in not getting there,” Crawford said. “Apparently they didn’t want to announce the ship was sunk, so they sent those of us who were going there… to MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for a course in radar, which was secret at the time. When that was finished, I was sent to Pearl Harbor on a sea plane.”
Then-Ensign Crawford was on his way to Pearl Harbor in May 1942, with orders to serve on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, which was undergoing quick repairs there after being damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. He was worried that a lieutenant there wanted to keep him on shore for administrative work, and when he heard that the Yorktown might be embarking soon, on a late evening he found his commanding officer on base and presented his orders to him.
“I was determined to get aboard that ship. I knew if I missed that ship, I didn’t know when I’d get the next one,” he said, adding, “I wanted to be at sea. No naval officer is different. Not on shore, I wanted to be at sea.”
“I got aboard about 10 o’clock. It was the day before Memorial Day. We went to sea on Memorial Day. The ship was on dry dock and ready to get underway for what became Midway.”
The battle begins
Being on the ship, he said, felt “like coming home.”
Then the crew got word of the impending battle.
“They got us in the wardroom and said the whole combined Japanese fleet was heading for Midway and we were going out to meet them,” he said.
Remembering his experiences when the Battle of Midway began in the Pacific Ocean on June 4, 1942, Crawford said, “I was junior officer on the deck, and I had the watch from 0-4, from midnight to 4 in the morning.”
Using his binoculars from the Naval Academy, Crawford said, “I was searching, searching out to the horizon for incoming planes to see what they were doing. You go from one side of the bridge to the other.”
Then, said Crawford, “The message came in, ‘Many planes heading for Midway.’”
U.S. military intelligence had broken the Japanese code and knew the time and location of the planned ambush.
Crawford remembered that the Japanese planes arrived, as predicted, at the “right time, right distance, right everything.”
“First thing is, we launched our aircraft. Torpedo bombers first, dive bombers second, fighters third, in the order of needing fuel. Grouped up behind the ship and flew west in a line.”
When asked if he prayed during the battle, Crawford said, “When the attack was coming, that’s when I was (praying)… the Hail Mary, principally.”
During the Japanese attack, the Yorktown was hit by three bombs, sustaining heavy damage.
Crawford remembers vividly what happened next.
“After the first attack was over, we repaired the damage, took care of the dead and then we restored speed to the point we were back up to launch speed about the time that a flight of Japanese torpedo bombers came in on the port side,” he said, “I saw a flight of three coming toward our stern. They launched some torpedoes. They went off with a cloud of brown smoke. The ship began to take a list to port. I knew when the deck edge began to go under, she was going to capsize. About that time the captain sent out the message, ‘Abandon ship.’ I climbed up to the starboard side and went over the side and down a line into the water.”
Crawford, wearing a rubberized life belt around his waist, remembered how the surface of the water was covered with fuel oil. He said within an hour he was pulled aboard the USS Russell.
A victory to remember
Historians regard the Battle of Midway from June 4-7, 1942 as a turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II and as perhaps the most decisive victory in U.S. naval history. The Japanese fleet was crippled, losing four aircraft carriers, many of its best pilots and aircraft, and 3,057 men.
The new movie “Midway” starring Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid and Mandy Moore was released on Nov. 8, just before Veterans Day. Among those attending a special premiere of the movie for Navy personnel was Crawford, who said, “Its principal value in my view, it needs to wake up the American people to the significance of Midway… the Washington Post and every other paper I know of, celebrates as they should, the landings at Normandy. Not a peep about Midway.”
The Allies’ D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, commemorated on that day every year, has overshadowed remembrances of the Battle of Midway that happened on the same calendar week two years earlier.
Crawford added, “I want people to know three things (about the Battle of Midway): the bravery of the men in battle, particularly the aviators, most of whom got shot down… and the tactical brilliance and strategy… and of course, the intelligence. Without that, we would have been dead pigeons... (they were) able to predict the precise place, the precise time and the precise distance (of the attack)… right on the button.”
After surviving the sinking of the Yorktown, then-Ensign Crawford served on the escort carrier USS Santee, which was involved in the invasion of North Africa and also successfully hunted German submarines in the mid-Atlantic.
On the homefront
When the war was over, he continued to serve in the U.S. Navy, and earned two master’s degrees from MIT, in naval construction and engineering and in nuclear physics.
He met the love of his life, Elizabeth Edwards, by accident at a New York train station, when he helped her carry a large suitcase in a torrential rain storm, and asked for her phone number. He joked that when he called her later to invite her to a dance that his naval reunion class was holding, she at first didn’t remember him. “What an impression I made!” he said, laughing.
But she joined him at the dance, and after dating they were married in 1953 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Norwich, Connecticut.
“We left the church under the arched swords of four other members of the class of 1942,” he wrote in a memoir about his beloved wife, who died in 2014. They had been married 61 years.
In the interview, Crawford said his wife Betty “was the Catholic of Catholics.” They had four children – Betsy, Mary, Carol and Jack III – and sent them to Catholic schools in the Washington, D.C., area when the family moved to suburban Maryland.
At St. Elizabeth Parish, Crawford served as the first president of the Home and School Association. He taught religious education classes to teens for several years, sometimes at his home’s living room.
“My wife would cook brownies. I would pontificate from here,” he said.
Eventually he stopped teaching CCD. “I always felt at the time that the syllabus handed to us was too much on love, love, love and not enough about Jesus Christ,” he said.
On Sept. 1, 2019, the day he turned 100, Crawford went to Mass at St. Elizabeth Church in Rockville, as he faithfully does each Sunday. In offering him a special blessing, the pastor, Msgr. Bill Parent praised Crawford as “a man deeply devoted to his family as a husband and father – a man also deeply devoted to his parish family that he has served in many ways over the years.”
When asked what his Catholic faith means to him to this day, Crawford said, “Everything.”
The nuclear Navy
Before he retired from the Navy in 1963, Capt. Crawford served in the naval nuclear propulsion program, and was appointed as an assistant to Thomas E. Murray, a commissioner for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
“Mr. Murray won the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame, (he was) one of the best Catholics I knew. Every day he made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, no matter what we were doing… We’d go to St. Matthew’s downtown. He’d go over there and stay an hour, and come back and do his work,” said Crawford.
Then-Capt. Crawford later served as a representative of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who is known as the “father of the nuclear Navy.” Crawford was sent to Newport News, Virginia, to help oversee the construction of the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, and two other nuclear powered vessels, the ballistic missile submarine USS Robert E. Lee and the attack submarine USS Shark.
“This was a needed transformation in the way ships were built,” said Crawford, who called his work supervising the nuclear installation on the USS Enterprise “the most important job I ever had, by far.”
During his interview with the Catholic Standard, Crawford wore his hat labeled “USS Enterprise,” a keepsake of that signature accomplishment.
The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961 and served around the world for more than 55 years, including in the Vietnam War and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Enterprise went on to fly more air strikes than any other carrier in history,” Crawford noted proudly.
After retiring from the Navy, Crawford worked in technical management for civilian nuclear power programs for the Atomic Energy Commission, and in 1987, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to a commission to help ensure that public safety was protected as the government continued to develop and produce nuclear weapons. Eventually, he retired from the Department of Energy in 1981.
“I finally retired for the third time. I could still keep going today!” Crawford said.
Now in his 100th year, he continues to enjoy reading books about history, including a recent biography of Winston Churchill, one of his heroes. He is writing his personal account of the building of the USS Enterprise. Crawford, who can walk with a cane and sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around, said he regrets that he had to give up skiing in his senior years.
His sense of humor, like his memories, remains sharp. Posing for a photo while holding his binoculars from the Battle of Midway and looking out one of the windows toward the backyard of his suburban Maryland home, he joked, “I’m looking out to see if there are any ships out there.”
When asked about the secret to his longevity, Crawford said, “The religious training I had. You were expected not to do anything in excess. To work hard, pray to the Lord, and mind your own business,” he added, laughing.
Veterans Day memories
Crawford offers a special perspective on Veterans Day, since he was born in 1919, the year that President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the Armistice Day holiday 100 years ago to commemorate the end of World War I one year earlier. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the famous World War II general, renamed the holiday as Veterans Day to honor American veterans of all wars.
Crawford has vivid memories of Veterans Day celebrations that he witnessed growing up in New Hampshire.
“As a boy to see the American Legion (members)… they’d all get dressed up in their helmets, their rifles and cartridge belts and go in the parade. That was the social event of the week, the parade, with the American Legion,” he said. “Also, the Holy Name Society, we had a boys’ pipe and drum corps, we’d march (in the parade). I made like I could play the pipe, I couldn’t, but I held it in the right place.”
And Crawford noted that “Everyone was awestruck by seeing the Civil War veterans in the parade. We boys would run after the carriages.”
The World War II veteran has a print of the Battle of Midway in his dining room, signed by some of the heroes of the battle. He agrees with the title of former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” which told how young men and women steeled by the sacrifices of the Depression went on to win that war.
“There was something special about them, there really was. Most of them grew up like I did,” Crawford said. He summarized their attitude as “What can come next, just face up to it and do the best you can.”
He remembered how the night before the Battle of Midway, the torpedo bomber pilots had quiet conversations among themselves, probably knowing that none of them would return alive from their confrontation with the Japanese planes the next day. From the three U.S. aircraft carriers engaged in the battle, only six of those planes made it back.
To Crawford, such “utter dedication and bravery” made the victory possible.
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