Virgil Westdale will soon celebrate his 100th birthday, and all his friends and loved ones will be celebrating. Because not only has he reached a milestone age—he’s led an incredible life over the past century. Between his service in World War II and his civilian life, Westdale is a highly respected and admired man.
“He’s a good, Christian, hard-working, brilliant, gentle, kind, enormously powerful man,” U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Steve Kenyon told WOOD.
But despite Westdale’s service to his country, he’s was also the victim of a prejudicial injustice that has stood for 75 years—but now his friends are finally making things right.
At the start of World War II, Westdale was an Army Air Corps pilot (the Army Air Corps, later became the United States Air Force in 1947) and flight instructor. But during the war, he was suddenly and unfairly demoted.
“They just called him into the control center and told him, ‘Hand me your wings and your pilot’s license,” his son Fred Westdale explained.
The reason: officials discovered his father was Japanese.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was paranoia towards Japanese Americans, even those serving in the US military.
“Without question, he did what he was told to do and the rest is history,” he son added.
History, indeed. Because while Westdale was stripped of his wings, he was allowed to continue serving in the military, demoted to the rank of private in the Army.
And he was reassigned to the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the most decorated battalion in US history.
One of his unit’s most historic accomplishments: liberating prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.
One of the former prisoners freed that day, Leon Blum, is still alive and thanks Westdale for his actions that day.
“They liberated us, so that’s why I am still here alive,” Blum explained to WOOD.
“[It’s thanks] to Virgil that I am alive, not hungry anymore, not deprived of sleep, not heavy labor anymore, not standing roll calls in frigid weather, not being abused by brute forces, so I feel gratitude.”
Even after his unjust demotion, Westdale remained a patriot and saluted the Statue of Liberty upon returning from Europe.
“She seemed to be saying, ‘Welcome home, soldier,’” Westdale recalled
After the war, he worked as a chemical engineer in Detroit and later as the principal scientist for AM International in Chicago, according to MLive. When he retired, he began working as a security agent at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, before retiring at the age of 91.
And recently, two weeks before he turned 100, he was thrown an unforgettable party—and the surprise gift of a lifetime:
The military reinstated his wings.
“It was the restoration of his Army Air Corps Badge,” Lt. Col. Steve Kenyon told WXMI.
“That is 75 years after it was wrongfully taken away from him, so it’s a pretty big deal.”
“It was great,” Westdale added. “They’re still working on it to hopefully make it absolutely official from the military.”
Hundreds of people showed up to attend the birthday party and ceremony, held at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I never expected that many people to be here,” Westdale said.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed.”
And Westdale celebrated the good news the best way he knew how: dancing on stage with his granddaughter.
“For him to have this big celebration and all of the lives he’s touched is just incredible,” Lyndsay Westdale said. “Not only friends and family, but people from the military have come to celebrate him, so that’s very cool.”