Catholic faith remains unceasing comrade for WWII veteran

St. Cloud resident Ed Crawford prays the rosary twice on his daily walks. He turns 99 Dec. 6, the day before Americans observe the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

His prayers and strong faith certainly helped during his military service in World War II. A veteran of the Army Air Corps trained in radio, gunnery and radar, he participated in decisive support and recalls those times interwoven by moments of faith.

Ed Crawford, now a parishioner at St. Paul in St. Cloud, turns 99 on Dec. 6, 2021. (Photos submitted)

“I carried a rosary that my mother gave me but didn’t have any set routine for daily prayer because of the demands of military life,” Ed said. “I’d just pray as the opportunity or need presented itself. I never missed Mass during military service. I have to give [the military] credit — they did their best to provide different services no matter where or what we were doing.”

After high school graduation in 1940, he was recruited to learn metal sheet working in Los Angeles for California’s airplane industry, which was building planes for England. At the North American Aviation Company, he worked on ducts and fuel tanks needed for B-25 bombers, P-51 fighters and AT-6 training planes.

“One beautiful sunny Sunday, when I’d just turned 19, I walked a few blocks to Mass. On my way home, the sky was full of planes being flown to Canada for shipment to England. Later, I learned about the raid on Honolulu — Dec. 7, 1941. After we entered the war, factories still shipped planes overseas but kept every other one for the American military,” Ed said.

“One night, my shift was called to put in an all-nighter, to fit 16 B-25s with extra fuel storage tanks. We heard about the Doolittle raid of April 1942 to Japan. I realized those B-25s had my fingerprints on all of them. Unfortunately all but one crashed or ditched in the ocean near China immediately following the raid.”

Ed became department manager, and he trained the increasing numbers of women being hired. Then he went home to Iowa and was sworn into the Army Air Corps on April 2, 1943.

Trained in radio, gunnery, GCA radar

“I liked working on planes and thought they’d train me as a mechanic. Instead, the Army determined I should operate and repair radios, and I needed to read and write the Morse code at 20 words a minute. It wasn’t what I was hoping to do, but I graduated and was promoted to Private First Class.”

Ed Crawford was inducted into the Army Air Corps April 2, 1943.

Then he was sent for aerial gunnery training. For several months, all he heard was the intense bang of gunnery, impairing his hearing.

“I became an expert in .50-caliber machine guns. I could take one apart while blindfolded, find the defective part and replace it. I passed!”

He was also prepared for combat in a B-25 bomber, operating two machine guns simultaneously in the top turret. But while in the air, his stomach acted up.

“I never knew if I would keep my cookies or not. Mostly not. They decided I shouldn’t be on a combat flying crew,” he said. “Instead I was assigned to repair the radios on the high-altitude planes used for reconnaissance photography.

“It was fascinating but mind-boggling to figure out which wires went where and what each one did. And I attended a special school for chemical warfare, to detect and identify poison gas, like the mustard gas used in World War I. Part of my training was to know what each poison gas smelled like. We had to take a whiff — just enough to identify them and know how to respond.”

Meanwhile, a new type of radar, called GCA for ground-controlled approach, was developed to assist lost airplanes in bad weather. Ed was trained to operate this radar, and his team was sent to the South Pacific island of Tinian, which had a large fleet of B-29 bombers. The island’s proximity to Japan made it valuable.

“We arrived on Tinian July 4, 1945. That night we heard what we thought was gunfire, and looked all around for planes. Was this a raid? Instead, it was a July 4 trick — for us greenhorns.”

That first Sunday, Ed learned a chaplain would celebrate Mass very soon — but he didn’t know the layout of the island. It was a hike but he arrived just as the chaplain started.

Aircrews were given a special radio code to contact the radar base for help, especially in storms. Each man in Ed’s GCA team sat at a station in a big trailer, staring at monitors, watching for small blips gradually moving.

“I was assigned to the long-range scope, the No. 1 seat, reading the scope, but not hearing anything,” Ed said. “If I got a signal from a plane, I’d instruct the pilot to fly in a certain direction so I could watch their blip to see if they obeyed. If they did, I’d turn them over to the next man to start directing them back to our airfield. Another pair operating different scopes would scan back and forth, or up and down, to determine what the plane was doing, and get them lined up to land.”

Tinian mostly had mild sunshiny weather. He recalled that a hurricane hit once and planes lost all visibility.

“Two different planes contacted us. ‘We’re lost. Where are we?’ I got the first signal and determined this was real, not an enemy. The next station got them lined up. The last guys ordered them to ‘Cut power, let down.’ We put those two planes on the ground, even though they didn’t even see it until they were on it. It was my proudest moment. Our supervising officer said saving those planes alone — and the men — paid for our training.”

After the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped  its atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the plane returned to its base — on Tinian.

“The roundtrip flight to Japan took 12 hours, and needed a tremendous amount of fuel to stay in the air that long. When they got back to the island, those planes were thirsty. We all wanted to see them, which were only a few miles away.  I also saw a replica of the Fat Man atomic bomb, used to train crews to handle the bomb, and the special underground elevator built into the ground so aircraft could be drawn over the top to lift the bomb into its bay.”

Surrender on Mary’s day

“We learned of the surrender Aug. 15 [the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary]. The first thing I thought was that ‘It’s Mary’s day.’ What a time for surrender.”

Inside the GCA radar “shack,” Ed (in full profile) is pictured to the right of the man wearing headphones.

That year, he attended Christmas Eve Mass at the island Navy base with USO singers and dancers providing the music. “That very large field was filled solid with men. The war was over and we all wanted to be home. It was a very special Mass.”

Ed shipped back to the States in early February 1946. He wasn’t in a hurry to marry, but on St. Patrick’s Day in 1947, he saw three women at a dance in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The brunette asked, “Are you Ed Crawford?”

He asked her to dance, and they clicked. Ed married Marian Cahill and they began a new life together.

He tried various ways to provide for their growing family — four children in six years — when Marian saw an ad for a farm store that was hiring. He got the job. The store became Big Bear and eventually Ed transferred to St. Cloud.

As parishioners at St. John Cantius in St. Cloud and St. Joseph in Waite Park, he served as a eucharistic minister, lector, on parish committees and on the pastoral council. The couple enjoyed traveling and walked in all 50 states, finishing with a whirlwind trip to Hawaii and Alaska.

After Marian died Jan. 1, 2013, Ed moved in with his daughter Mary Ellen Keymer and her husband Gerry, and attends St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud.

Ed still likes walking. His route around the neighborhood, now with a walker, is “two rosaries long.”

“Just being in the presence of Jesus means a lot to me, being there in the pews. I spend a lot of time in prayer. So, with my deteriorating eyesight, I made a three-ring binder of prayers in 18- or 20-point type. For the past few years, I’d pray the Anima Christi. Now my favorite prayer is ‘Jesus, walk with me.’ And I feel his presence.”

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

Leave a Reply