On June 5, 1940, a 20-year-old redheaded midshipman marched briskly across the U.S. Naval Academy parade ground in Annapolis, Md., when his name was called to accept an award from The American Legion for top honors in government studies. He took the leather-cased night vision binoculars, saluted smartly, about-faced and marched back to join the ranks of the class of 1942.
The binoculars, manufactured by the Bausch & Lomb Optical Company in Rochester, N.Y., remain a prized possession of Capt. John W. "Jack" Crawford Jr. (USN-Ret.), a key player in the development of the nation's nuclear-powered Navy and a passionate advocate of making the Battle of Midway as celebrated as the invasion of Normandy.
For a few harrowing days in 1942, Crawford figured his heavy black binoculars were at 3,000 fathoms just off Midway aboard the ill-fated aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). Ensign Crawford, junior officer of the watch as Japanese dive bombers attacked Yorktown in the battle that turned the war in the Pacific in America's favor, had left them in the ward room when orders to abandon ship sounded in the early afternoon of June 4, 1942. Yorktown, hastily patched up at Pearl Harbor after being damaged in the the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier, was close to capsizing when Crawford and other survivors were hauled aboard the destroyer USS Russell (DD-414). To Crawford's amazement, Russell was commanded by his Academy battalion football coach, Capt. Roy Hartwig, who greeted him with "Hey Red." "He was glad to see me," Crawford recalled, "but I was more glad to see him."
Yorktown sank on June 7 after torpedoes from a Japanese submarine thwarted a boarding party's efforts to save the ship. One member of the party, Ens. Mervin "Mo" Slater, scooped up a handsome pair of binoculars as he abandoned Yorktown for the second time. He had no idea they belonged to his Annapolis classmate until he read the finely etched inscription on the prism cover plate: PRESENTED BY THE AMERICAN LEGION NATIONAL ORGANIZATION TO MIDSHIPMAN JACK WILLIAM CRAWFORD JR. CLASS OF 1942, USNA, FOR HIGHEST MERIT IN GOVERNMENT, 5 JUNE 1940.
While awaiting orders at Camp Catlin on Oahu a few days after Yorktown's sinking, Crawford was surprised to see Slater walk into his tent and toss the binoculars onto his bunk. Crawford could tell Slater wasn't happy about giving up such a quality instrument, but honor left him no choice as there was no doubt about who was their rightful owner.
"I've had them with me ever since," Crawford said during an interview at his home in Rockville, Md. "They've been everywhere with me." That includes being assistant gunnery officer aboard the escort carrier USS Santee (ACV-29) during the Allied invasion of North Africa, wartime study in naval construction engineering at MIT, assistant project engineer on the nuclear-powered sub USS Nautilus (SSN-571), and deputy manager for naval reactors under Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy.
He retired from the Navy in 1963 and in 1965 joined the Atomic Energy Commission. Senior positions held at the Department of Energy included principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy. From 1989 to 1996 he served as a member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons programs.
Crawford, still sharp and spry at 98, joined National Press Club American Legion Post 20 after recounting his wartime experience at a recent post in Washington. He was born in Andover, Mass., and raised in Tildon, N.H., where his father ran a textile mill. He joined the local American Legion-sponsored Boy Scout troop and watched World War I, Spanish-American War and a few Civil War veterans marching in the town's Legion-organized veterans parades. "Parades were a big deal in those days," he said. "And The American Legion was a big part of our community life."
The retired captain has been a strong advocate of boosting the visibilty of the Battle of Midway in military history, equating it with the Battle of Stalingrad as a turning point in World War II. While Stalingrad turned the tide against Germany, Midway did the same in the war against Japan. Since 2000 the Navy has observed June 4, the anniversary of the battle, as a date as significant as Oct. 13, the Navy's birthday. Commemorations include an annual formal dinner in Washington, D.C., sponsored by a consortium of Navy and Marine associations and attended by top Navy and Marine brass. Still, Crawford believes more should be done and that June 4, 1942, should be celebrated as prominently as the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion at Normandy.
Links to videos of Crawford recollections on Midway:
Naval Historical Foundation interview
October 27, 2012 on C-Span, The Battle of Midway
(Dalecki was a Navy journalist stationed at Cubi Point, Subic Bay, in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. He is a longtime Washington journalist and former commander of National Press Club Post 20 and former senior vice commander of the Department of D.C.)