|Delaware, Virginia, Georgia||Career soldier|
|U.S. Army||Enlisted 6034127 / Warrant Officer W-2122575|
|Pacific||Headquarters Battery, 742nd Antiaircraft Artillery Gun Battalion|
|Military Occupational Specialty||Entered the Service From|
|9312 (reconnaissance officer)||Wilmington, Delaware|
Early Life & Family
Information about Russell T. Crawford’s early life and family is fragmentary and contradictory. According to a statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission (apparently based on information supplied by his brother, Frank), Crawford was born in Wilmington, Delaware, around 1904, the eldest child of Frank and Maud Crawford (née Robinson, later Brown). His father was a plumber born in North Carolina, while his mother was from Lexington, Virginia. The Evening Journal reported their marriage on September 24, 1904:
Coming to this city about six weeks ago without knowing a person here, pretty Maud Brown has outdistanced many Wilmington girls in lovemaking and was married yesterday in Media[, Pennsylvania] to Frank Crawford, an employe[e] of Ryan and Kelley, railroad contractors.
It was a case of love at first sight with the couple. The first evening that Crawford saw the girl at the boarding house No. 225 East Front street, where they both lived he felt sure she was his affinity. His love was reciprocated. In a few days they were together constantly. As the time passed the love grew until they saw they could not live without one another and accordingly the ceremony was performed that made them one.
The Wilmington birth register recorded the birth of a black male child at the Homeopathic Hospital on December 31, 1904. The birth was reported by the superintendent the following year. He was unable to provide the child’s full name, but stated that he was the first born to George Crawford, a laborer from Virginia, and Maude (unknown last name), a 20-year-old woman from Delaware. If both the newspaper article and birth register refer to the correct family, Crawford’s mother was already pregnant when she arrived in Wilmington.
It appears that Crawford was living at 1130 East 15th Street when a younger sister, Alice, was born on October 24, 1905. Tragically, she died five days later. The following year, his younger brother, Frank Columbus Crawford (1906–1977), was born at 225 East Front Street. Records suggest that Frank and Maud Crawford divorced prior to 1909. Crawford’s mother remarried to Robert Singleton on an unknown date and eventually moved to New Jersey. It appears that Russell Crawford had at least 12 half-siblings, three of whom served in the U.S. Army during World War II: Alvin, Jack, and Willard Singleton.
I have been able to learn very little about Russell Crawford’s life before he joined the military. There is strong circumstantial evidence that at the time of the 1910 census, Russell and his brother, Frank, were living with their maternal grandmother and step-grandfather in Lexington, Virginia. A Russell Crawford appears on the 1st and 2nd grade honor rolls at the Lexington Colored Graded School in 1912. The 1940 census stated that Crawford had completed two years of high school. The family statement to the Delaware Public Archives Commission stated that he was living at 330 Tatnall Street in Wilmington when he entered the service.
Military Career & Marriage
Crawford volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1920. Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he was only 15 years old when he enlisted, but claimed to be 20.
In the years following World War I, isolationist sentiment and budget cuts, later exacerbated by the Great Depression, drastically shrank the size of the Army. Opportunities for advancement were extremely limited and transfers often came with a demotion to private. To make matters worse, the U.S. Army was segregated. African American soldiers like Crawford could only be members of all-black units, often commanded by white officers. According to his family’s statement, Crawford was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, for 22 years.
Many U.S. Army rosters from World War I and the interwar period have been digitized and indexed on FamilySearch, making it possible to follow Crawford’s military career in great detail from 1920–1939.
Private Crawford joined the Infantry School Service Detachment (Colored) at Benning on May 23, 1920. Records from July 1920 onward refer to his unit as the Infantry School Detachment (Colored), from January 1921 as Company “A” (Provisional), Infantry School Detachment (Colored), and from July 1921 as Company “A,” Infantry School Detachment (Colored).
On December 1, 1921, Private Crawford was transferred to Company “I,” 24th Infantry Regiment, also stationed at Camp Benning. The 24th Infantry Regiment’s history dated back to 1869, with service in the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and World War I.
On February 13, 1922, Private Crawford transferred to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. After the transfer, he was promoted to private 1st class, specialist 6th class. He was reduced to the grade of private in June 1922. Private Crawford transferred to Company “L,” 24th Infantry Regiment on September 25, 1922. On November 6, 1923, Private Crawford reenlisted and rejoined Company “L.” He was promoted to private 1st class in January 1924, and to corporal in March 1924.
Corporal Crawford transferred in grade to Company “F,” 24th Infantry Regiment on February 11, 1925, but was reduced back to private in June 1926. He was discharged at the end of his term of service on November 5, 1926.
Private Crawford reenlisted in the U.S. Army on July 30, 1927, and joined Company “E,” 24th Infantry Regiment. Private Crawford transferred to Service Company, 24th Infantry Regiment on January 11, 1930. Private Crawford was discharged at the end of his term of service on July 29, 1930. Private Crawford reenlisted the following day and joined Company “E,” 24th Infantry Regiment. He remained with that company for the entire three-year enlistment. After reenlisting, Private Crawford rejoined Company “E,” 24th Infantry on July 30, 1933. Private Crawford transferred to Headquarters Company, 24th Infantry Regiment on September 1, 1935.
Crawford was promoted two grades to corporal in July 1936. Corporal Crawford went on detached service at Camp F-16 in Wiggins, Mississippi, on July 1, 1938, but rejoined his old unit on August 17, 1938. Corporal Crawford reenlisted on July 30, 1939. Corporal Crawford was still in Headquarters Company, 24th Infantry Regiment as of December 31, 1939.
According to the family statement for the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Crawford married his wife, Jesse, in Columbus, Georgia, in 1930. She had been born in Alabama. The Crawfords were recorded on the census on April 20, 1940, living at 304 Dragg Street. The location was a community known as Bozemans near Columbus, Georgia. Crawford’s wife, listed as Jessie Mae Crawford, was described as a 24-year-old maid. Both were listed as having lived in the same house as of April 1, 1935. A newspaper article reported that the couple had one daughter.
Journal-Every Evening reported on January 24, 1940, that “Frank C. Crawford has returned from a visit with his brother, Russell T. Crawford, at Fort Bennington [sic] near Columbia [sic], Ga. It was the first time the brothers had met in 25 years.”
Service During World War II
According to Crawford’s family’s statement, he joined the “76th Artillery c. 1940, at Fedville [sic], N. C. (stayed 3 years)[.]” The only artillery unit beginning with 76 that was open to black soldiers in World War II was the 76th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft). 1st Battalion of the regiment was activated at Fort Bragg (located near Fayetteville, North Carolina) on August 1, 1940. The initial cadre included 109 men transferred from other units (including 13 from the 24th Infantry Regiment). All enlisted personnel were black and all officers were white.
The rest of the 76th Coast Artillery Regiment was activated on February 10, 1941. According to the regimental history, on December 8, 1941, the unit was dispatched to Philadelphia in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The unit arrived in Philadelphia on December 11, 1941. The regiment was ordered west to Burbank, California, on May 20, 1942, arriving five days later.
Journal-Every Evening reported on June 20, 1945, that after the beginning of World War II, Crawford “was stationed at Fort Bragg, N. C., and in California before going to the Pacific[.]” That’s consistent with the movements of the 76th Coast Artillery Regiment. If the family statement was correct that Crawford was with the 76th for three years, then he was still with the 76th Coast Artillery Regiment when it went overseas. The 76th arrived at Camp Stoneman, California, on July 30, 1942, and shipped out from the San Francisco Port of Embarkation on August 10, 1942, aboard the transport U.S.A.T. Mormacsea. The unit participated in traditional ceremonies upon crossing the equator for the first time on August 19, 1942. The ship arrived at the major Allied base at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), on September 1, 1942. It was three weeks into the Guadalcanal campaign in the nearby Solomon Islands.
Journal-Every Evening reported on March 20, 1943, that
Tech. Sergt. Russell T. Crawford is recovering in Burbank, Calif., from wounds received in action in the South Pacific, according to word received here by his brother, Frank C. Crawford, 811 Lombard Street. His wife, Mrs. Jessie Jackson Crawford, is visiting him.
It is unclear if Crawford was in fact wounded by enemy action. Espiritu Santo did not see much direct combat during the war, although there were occasional raids by Japanese aircraft and submarines. According to the 76th Coast Artillery Regiment history, two men (Technician 5th Grade Lonzo Wilkins and Private Edmon Collins) were wounded by bomb fragments during an enemy air raid on January 23, 1943. It is unclear if Sergeant Crawford was wounded while serving with another unit or whether he suffered a non-combat injury or illness not documented in the regimental history.
Although described as a technical sergeant as of March 20, 1943, Crawford’s report of interment stated that he joined the Army on February 19, 1943. That would suggest he was appointed as a warrant officer as of that date, since as a formality, enlisted men had to be discharged before becoming an officer. Crawford was also listed on a Los Angeles County, California, casualty list, suggesting became a warrant officer there (making California the location he entered the service as far as casualty lists were concerned).
At some point after recovering from his injuries, Crawford returned to the Pacific Theater, possibly around October 1943. (Journal-Every Evening reported on June 20, 1945, that he had shipped out for the Pacific 18 months earlier). Crawford was promoted to chief warrant officer on an unknown date. It is unknown which unit he was assigned to during 1943–1945, though by May 1945, Crawford was a member of the 742nd Antiaircraft Artillery Gun Battalion.
The 742nd was activated at Camp Stewart, Georgia, on January 20, 1943, and shipped out from the San Francisco Port of Embarkation aboard the U.S.A.T. Maui on September 29, 1943. The unit was equipped with 90 mm antiaircraft guns. The battalion arrived in Espiritu Santo on October 16 or 17, 1943. The unit departed Espiritu Santo on May 5, 1944, arriving on New Britain on May 20, 1944. The battalion shipped out from Cape Gloucester on November 19, 1944, arriving two days later at Finschhafen in eastern New Guinea. On March 6 or 7, 1945, the unit’s white officers transferred out and a new group of black officers transferred in. These 29 officers (including seven warrant officers) had been attached unassigned to 14th Antiaircraft Command:
Major Eaton and staff were relieved on 7 March by Lt Col De Maurice Moses, formerly of the 207th AAA AW Battalion, and a new staff of officers. This marked the first and only 90 MM Gun Battalion in the Southwest Pacific completely staffed with colored officer personnel.
According to a unit morning report, on March 6, 1945, Chief Warrant Officer Crawford joined Headquarters Battery, 742nd Antiaircraft Gun Battalion, with the duty of reconnaissance officer. Another morning report stated that on April 15, 1945, Crawford was released from the unit and attached unassigned “to Rotation Detachment Base F” for temporary duty in the continental United States.
Tragedy on Biak
On the night of May 5, 1945, Chief Warrant Officer Crawford was at Sorido Airfield on Biak, an island northwest of New Guinea. The temperature was a pleasant 79°F, with a gentle breeze and unlimited visibility, though the moon was not up yet. Around 2100 hours, he boarded an Air Transport Command Pacific Division C-54E (serial number 44-9043) with 20 other men, mostly U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Navy personnel. Their destination was Mokerang Airfield, on Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands. Their eventual destination was Hamilton Field, California, where the aircraft and crew were based, suggesting that Crawford was being rotated back to the United States. The manifest recorded that Crawford and his cabin luggage weighed 143 lbs. and that he a stowed bag weighing 35 lbs.
The lead pilot, Captain William V. Mudra (1900–1945), had 3,452 hours of flying time under his belt including 271 hours in that type.
The Sorido tower cleared the aircraft for departure around 2115 hours local time. The airfield operations log recorded that the C-54 took off at 2122 hours. Approximately two minutes after takeoff, about five miles from the end of the runway, the plane struck trees on an approximately 500-foot-high ridge and crashed. At 2126, the Sorido operations log recorded a fire on the other side of the bay. Rescuers reached the scene about five hours later but found no survivors. The investigation indicated that all 21 men aboard were killed instantly.
An investigation did not reveal the cause of the accident with certainty. The C-54 had recently been serviced and no mechanical problems found that would explain the crash. The weight was well under limits. Weather and fuel problems were also ruled out. The aircraft appeared to be in controlled, level flight with its flaps up. The ridge that that C-54 struck was straight ahead of the runway.
1st Lieutenant Robert A. Wegner, who flew a test flight in the ill-fated accident after servicing on the same day as the crash, stated that the plane “flew perfectly.” He also testified that when flying from Sorido, he never attempted to climb over the ridge, explaining that instead he turned his aircraft out to sea once he had enough altitude. He explained that “had a check ride with a stateside man” who told him that “about two miles from the runway make a turn to avoid the ridge.” Lieutenant Wegner testified that the practice was not one he was formally briefed on and it is unclear if Captain Mundra was aware of the danger that the ridge presented.
Witnesses disagreed about some of the facts. Technical Sergeant Francis Mitchneck, operating the control tower at Sorido, testified that the C-54 “took off in the normal way and with normal climb.”
On the other hand, another witness, Technical Sergeant Victor C. Westbrook, a flight chief, testified that “On his takeoff he made an exceptionally long run—way down the runway before he lifted it off. He didn’t climb very high.” Another witness, Technical Sergeant Russell A. Leigh agreed that “He didn’t seem to be in any hurry about getting it up. He used most of the runway.”
Another pilot, 1st Lieutenant Paul D. Reed, testified that the plane “appeared to make a normal takeoff” but that “The only thing I noticed was that he didn’t gain any altitude.” Lieutenant Reed added that “The color of the exhaust flame seemed abnormal. I could only see the two right engines and I noticed that the exhaust flame was white, just a little more than the normal exhaust flame.” Reed suggested that this indicated “An abnormally lean mixture” and added that “it sounded like he wasn’t getting as much power as usual. It sounded as though he might be taking off on automatic lean.” However, Reed added that he was a C-46 pilot and had never flown a C-54. The board of investigators discounted his statement that the engines were “torching,” concluding that “However as this is a common occurrence with this type engine at take-off power and would not necessarily indicate loss of power, little credence is given this statement.”
Captain Herbert C. Kuhn, a C-54 pilot, testified that his “conclusion was that the landing gear was down” when the plane crashed. Although the gear had been severely damaged by the crash, he noted that the left main landing “gear was in a down position” when found. Captain Kuhn was unable to provide any explanation for why the pilots wouldn’t have retracted their landing gear, explaining that “the gear is customarily pulled up as soon as contact with the ground is broken and it is determined that the plane will remain airborne.”
Major James M. Smith, the station aircraft maintenance officer, testified that “In my opinion, final upping of the flaps caused the plain to settle slightly, which is characteristic of the C-54. This caused the left wing to strike a tree, which tore the wing from the plane.” Major Smith disputed the notion that the plane’s landing gear was down, “because if it had been, parts of the gear, such as tires and wheels, would have been thrown from the aircraft on the first point of contact.”
The board conceded that
No definite decision as to the position of the gear could be reached, due to the condition of the wreckage. Although photo #2 showed gear in down locked position, impact could have snapped gear down. It is believed that had the gear been extended it could have been sheared off by impact with trees prior to contact with ground.
After the crash, investigators had a similarly loaded C-54 take off on the same course and raised the flaps at 500 feet. 1st Lieutenant Harry C. Ross, Jr. testified that two minutes into the flight, the plane had attained an altitude of 780 feet, enough to clear the ridge. On another flight, with the gear left down until shortly before the crash site, their altitude was only 500 feet. They concluded that if the aircraft had its landing gear down, the increased drag would have likely prevented the plane from clearing the ridge. Lieutenant Ross testified similarly to Lieutenant Wegner that
I was given a route check on my second trip from this field and the check pilot said it wasn’t standard procedure to make a turn to the left at night. However, he considered it a good practice and passed it on to me.
Lieutenant Ross also testified that he had known Captain Mudra for 14 years and flown with him before. He described Mundra’s performance as average and noted that Mudra “was inclined not to take advice from other people.” However, he added that “On no occasion did I see anything wrong with his flying ability. In my experience of knowing the man, I have never known him to be guilty of any violation of flying safety rules” either as a military or civilian pilot.
The board admitted that “it was impossible to determine the exact cause of this accident.” Its recommendations were:
1. Stress to all pilots the importance of attaining 1000′ minimum altitude before retracting flaps during night operation in this type aircraft.
2. That pilots thoroughly acquaint themselves with terrain in vicinity of airports at which they land and take-off so that they can plan their flight paths with a thought of clearing all obstructions.
In addition, procedures were changed at Sorido to brief pilots of the obstructions and to have all aircraft taking off to the west make a turn out to sea within 45 seconds of takeoff.
Individual identification of eight men proved impossible. On March 23, 1952, Chief Warrant Officer Crawford and the others’ remains were buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri (Section 85, Grave 70).
Curiously, although Crawford seems to have been born around 1904 (likely December 31, 1904), the report of interment at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery gave his date of birth as December 31, 1899, suggesting that was the date of birth listed in his military records. Indeed, the hospital admission card filled out under his service number (as a formality even though he was killed instantly in the crash) listed his age as 46 at the time of his death. Crawford’s mother appears to have been still in Lexington, Virginia—and without children—in 1900. It is likely that Crawford added five years to his real date of birth in order to enlist underage.
I believe the birth register entry for Frank Columbus Crawford, dated October 31, 1906, is accurate. Later records, such as his draft card, gave his date of birth as October 31, 1905. Discrepancies like these have proven common in my research.
The best match on the 1910 census was for a 4-year-old Russell Crawford, who was living with his 3-year-old brother, Frank, with his grandparents Robert and Alice Alexander, in Lexington, Virginia. Both Crawford boys were listed as mixed race and born in Delaware.
However, though the Alexanders were presumably their maternal grandparents, their last name does not match either of the maiden names (Robinson and Brown). It appears that the couple only married in 1903, suggesting that the Crawfords boys may have been Alice’s grandchildren. Indeed, there is a marriage record for Alice Mcnutt and Charles A. Robinson in Rockbridge, Virginia, on October 6, 1881. Tying things together is the fact that the 1900 census recorded Alice McNutt, a divorced woman living in Lexington, Virginia, with her three children, including 16-year-old Maud Robinson.
The U.S. Army introduced the specialist rating in 1920 and discontinued it in 1942. Specialist 6th class was the lowest and should not be confused with the specialist 6 or specialist ranks used after World War II.
All that can be stated with absolute certainty is that Crawford was a corporal as of December 31, 1939, and a chief warrant officer as of May 5, 1945.
According to the family statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Crawford was promoted to master sergeant in 1941 and commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1944. Available records do not directly confirm nor refute that, although Journal-Every Evening described him as a technical sergeant as of early 1943 (one grade below master sergeant). That he was a chief warrant officer when he died would tend to suggest that the family statement was in error about Crawford being a lieutenant. Most likely, he was appointed as a warrant officer (junior grade) in 1943.
His family may have been confused because warrant officers were far less common than commissioned officers. For instance, as of 1944, an infantry regiment’s authorized strength was 153 commissioned officers and 3,207 enlisted men, but only five warrant officers.
Date Crawford Joined 742nd Antiaircraft Gun Battalion
The company history stated that the exchange of officers occurred on March 7, 1945. Unit morning reports show the exchange as occurring one day earlier, on March 6. On the other hand, the morning report includes an extract of Special Orders No. 63, Headquarters 14th Antiaircraft Command, which stated that the assignment was to be effective date concerning morning report March 7, 1945.
Several websites erroneously describe the crash as taking place after takeoff from Lorengau Airfield on Manus while en route to Biak. In fact, the plane crashed after takeoff from Sorido Airfield on Biak en route to Mokerang Airfield. The source of the error is unclear since the Missing Air Crew Report (M.A.C.R.) established that the plane crashed on Biak, not Manus. In addition, the crash investigation report establishes beyond any doubt that the plane crashed on takeoff from Sorido.
A minor mystery remains about how Chief Warrant Officer Crawford ended up on the ill-fated flight. The crash report establishes that the aircraft was returning to Hamilton Field, California. The crash occurred nearly three weeks after he left the 742nd Antiaircraft Gun Battalion at Finschhafen, hundreds of miles southeast of Biak. Unit morning reports noted that he was transferred to the “Rotation Detachment Base F” (apparently also located at Finschhafen) for temporary duty in the United States.
Personnel Killed in Crash
The M.A.C.R. listed eight crew and 14 passengers, for a total of 22 men aboard. The accident report, on the other hand, listed 21 men aboard: seven crew members and 14 passengers. It appears that the M.A.C.R. may have counted Flight Officer Arthur A. Houghton twice, as both passenger and crew.
Special thanks to Grace Yuhasz for digging deeper into the Russell family genealogy, discovering his probable date of birth, an article about his parents’ marriage, newspaper articles about his time in Lexington, and that Alvin, Jack, and Willard Singleton were his half-brothers.
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Our Men and Women In Service. Journal-Every Evening, March 20, 1943. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/94872703/crawford-wounded/
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Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/4454832_00177
“’Twas a Short Courtship.” The Evening Journal, September 24, 1904. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111590109/frank-and-maud-robinson-marriage/
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U.S. WWII Hospital Admission Card Files, 1942–1954. Record Group 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), 1775–1994. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/record/702882281/blank-us-wwii-hospital-admission-card-files-1942-1954
White, L. A. “History of 76th AAA Group, Ending 31 Dec 1943.” January 1, 1944. World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
Wilmington Birth Register, 1904–1909. Record Group 1500.205. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GBCK-JNG
Last updated on January 15, 2023
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