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Medal theft doesn't delay master chief's honor

Jun. 8, 2013 - 10:32AM   |  
Jean Dominique Le Garrec, honorary French consul to Pittsburgh, awards retired Master Chief Quartermaster Al Crawford with France's Legion of Honor on May 28.
Jean Dominique Le Garrec, honorary French consul to Pittsburgh, awards retired Master Chief Quartermaster Al Crawford with France's Legion of Honor on May 28. (Darrell Sapp/(Pittsburgh) Post-Gazette)
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A retired master chief who served off the coast of Normandy in 1944 recently received an honor he never expected — especially after crooks stole it four days before the award ceremony.

Al Crawford joined the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Aside from kicking off a 38-year Navy career that ended in 1980 with his retirement as a master chief quartermaster, his efforts during World War II qualified him for France’s Legion of Honor, an award he wasn’t aware of until years after his retirement, when a French official heard him tell his story of service at a veterans breakfast.

Too ill to attend a ceremony in Washington, D.C., alongside other awardees, a special arrangement was made to give Crawford his award May 28 near his suburban Pittsburgh home.

The award rested in the safe of Jean Dominique Le Garrec, who serves as honorary French consul for Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. Four nights before, Le Garrec and his family left for dinner and came back to a crime scene.

One of the burglars, Le Garrec figures, “used a pillowcase and started to collect things into it. ... Another one probably discovered the safe on the third floor and called his colleague. The colleague just dropped his pillowcase; we found it when we got home.”

The safe was gone, but Le Garrec managed to track down a replacement medal before the ceremony.

The medal and the extra media attention gave Crawford, 88, a platform for his simple message.

“I emphasized that I’m accepting [the award] for all my crew of my ship and the crews of all the other ships. I said, ‘Hey, this was no one-man operation.’”

Unique ship, unique story

Break-ins aside, the real drama that led to Crawford’s award began 69 years ago, as the aforementioned crew of the rescue and salvage ship Swivel played a critical role in the Normandy invasion. After spending months in England helping the Allied fleet prepare for the June 6, 1944, attack, Swivel crossed the channel in late June to help clear beaches for future landings and to rescue landing ship tanks that had been stranded on Omaha Beach after the invasion.

The ship also helped open the harbor in La Havre, France, in November 1944, removing explosive-laden fishing boats that had been stripped to the deck and sunk at its entrance by retreating Germans.

Crawford’s ship did have an ace in the hole — the only one in its class with a wooden hull.

“It was good for magnetic mines,” he said. “We appreciated that.”

Crawford tried to leave the Navy in December 1945. A counselor talked him into becoming a reservist — he would rejoin active service during the Korean War. He requested duty in Vietnam, but was told his work as a Pittsburgh-area recruiter served a greater need — and anyway, he was in his 50s.

He retired in 1980. In 2000, his son Jonathan graduated from the Naval Academy; Lt. Cmdr. Crawford is stationed at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Master Chief Crawford began attending the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh-based organization that brings vets together to share their stories. Crawford’s tale grabbed a visiting French official’s attention — “It’s not every meeting that somebody goes into something in detail that happened in Normandy,” Crawford said.

The official pushed him to apply. Crawford filled out paperwork and waited. Months went by, and with his health failing, he contacted the French consul and said they’d better hurry up.

The award committee met in Paris early this year and selected him. His health has improved a bit, he said, but the ceremony was still set for Pittsburgh.

And though endangered by a safe robbery, the occasion was saved courtesy of a last-second medal delivery from the French.

“It’s such an unusual object, I don’t know what the criminal would do with it,” Le Garrec said of the stolen medal.

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