A centenarian gets his wings


A LIFE FULL OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS ­— Virgil Westdale became acquainted with military leaders such as Gen. David Petraeus in Washington, D.C. (right) courtesy of Virgil Westdale

Virgil Westdale. courtesy photo

A Nisei pilot could have been a World War II ace, but racism kept him grounded. Virgil Nishimura Westdale graduated top of his class in the War Training Service — he said he had a knack for acrobatic flying — and was well on his way to be a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps, but the government took away his license and he never flew in combat.

Westdale, who turned 100 this year, was finally given back his wings at a birthday party held Jan. 6 in his honor at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. The at-capacity crowd of 250 attendees honored the centenarian and watched him dance with his granddaughter.

“There was not a dry eye in the room,” retired Lt. Col. Steve Kenyon, Westdale’s friend and lead planner for the event, said of the dance.

Kenyon said he and other friends of Westdale started planning the celebration, motivated by the frustration they felt for what happened to the Nisei veteran 75 years ago. Deprived of his opportunity to fly in combat, Kenyon was especially pleased that Cpt. John James, an honorably discharged Iraq War veteran, donated his wings to Westdale.

“I was just going to buy Army aviator wings for him, but … (James) heard about this and he contacted me and asked if he could donate his wings,” Kenyon said. “That’s what’s on Virgil’s chest right now. Those wings flew in combat, and so that meant a lot to Virgil too.”

Westdale was born Jan. 8, 1918 in Indiana to Sunao Nishimura of Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan and Edith Loy of Toledo, Ohio.

His parents met in Denver, Colo. where Westdale’s father was studying English at a Christian church his mother attended. They later moved to Michigan.

Westdale said he first got his private pilot’s license in February 1942 while attending college, just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. Far from the West Coast, Westdale and his family were not directly affected by the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, but the young pilot was instead grounded for his Nikkei heritage.

An aviation inspector visited Westdale at the airfield and asked for his license. “I waited for him to explain why, but he didn’t say a word, not one word,” Westdale told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “So my dad always said, obey authority always, so I reached into my pocket and gave him the license and then he said to me, ‘I’m sorry.’ And that’s all that was exchanged between the two of us.”

Westdale would eventually get his license back five months later, but the experience convinced him to change his name. “The family had talked about translating the name into English, not changing it, but translating it,” he said. “So during that five months, they kept my pilot license, I did translate my name through the courts into English.”

After 76 years, Westdale said he now prefers Westdale as his name, but does insert “Nishimura” as a middle name sometimes.

Once he got his license back, Westdale resumed flight school to get his commercial pilot license and then became a flight instructor because of his flying skills. He was, however, once again grounded in August 1943 when he received a letter from the War Department.

“It said, ‘by direction of the president, you are transferred from the Air Corps to the Army as a private,’’’ he said. Westdale was demoted from an instrument flight instructor to private in one fell swoop. According to Kenyon, Westdale’s rank was equivalent to a staff sergeant and earned about $125 a month. Getting knocked down to private, he would have earned about $18 a month.

The letter went on to instruct him to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and despite the demotion, Westdale followed orders and reported to Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Eventually, he was assigned to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion where the Army had two observation planes, but the Army still refused to let him fly. Instead, Westdale fought with the group through Europe, helping to rescue “The Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains and to liberate the Dachau death camp.

After the war, Westdale returned home to Michigan. There, he was recruited to fly commercially by a shipping company, but his grandmother convinced him to stay grounded. “She said, ‘Virgil, you just got home from the war and you’re not hurt, don’t fly,’” he said.

A LIFE FULL OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS ­— Virgil Westdale became acquainted with military leaders such as Gen. David Petraeus in Washington, D.C. (right) courtesy of Virgil Westdale

Instead of flying, Westdale went on to become a chemical engineer, but the discrimination remained a scar on him. The Nisei said he kept quiet about his Japanese heritage and his role in the war.

“I didn’t tell anyone about anything. I didn’t even tell them I was in the war. So, 1965, … my boss says, ‘Virgil, we got a project coming in from NASA, we have to get you a top secret crypto clearance because I want you to work on this,’ and I thought ‘oh I’ll never get that.’”

Westdale told his boss he couldn’t get clearance because of his Japanese heritage, but his boss told him not to worry. “He held up his hand and said, ‘I don’t know anything about it, but just wait,’” Westdale said. “So I waited and in just two weeks, I got top secret crypto clearance in 1965. Then I knew, America had begun to change the idea about people of Japanese decent. That was quite a revelation for me.”

Westdale would retire from chemical engineering at the age of 68, but he would go on to work in airport security. He first worked with a private company and then joined the Transportation Security Administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He retired at the age of 91.

“I have no regrets on how my life turned out. God’s been with me all the way, saved me a couple of times in the war. I appreciate that,” Westdale said.

One response to “A centenarian gets his wings”

  1. tom graves Avatar

    Congratulations Mr. Westdale, and happy 100th Birthday!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *