GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A World War II veteran celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday by getting his wings back.
Virgil Westdale, a former Army Air Corps pilot and flight instructor, was stripped of his wings after U.S. officials learned his father was Japanese, then the focus of extreme paranoia after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“They just called him into the control center and told him, ‘Hand me your wings and your pilot’s license.” Without question, he did what he was told to do and the rest is history,” Virgil Westdale’s son, Fred Westdale, said.
Virgil Westdale was reassigned to the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly-decorated unit that went on to liberate prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in April 1945.
“They liberated us, so that’s why I am still here alive,” Leon Blum, who was a prisoner at Dachau, said Saturday. “(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.”
The loss of his wings stung, but Westdale was still proud when he returned home from Europe.
“The Statue of Liberty, it really meant something, and I saluted her and I held my salute. And she seemed to be saying, ‘Welcome home, soldier,'” Westdale remembered.
He went on to work as a scientist with 25 patents, and after retiring was an airport security guard and Transportation Security Administration agency for 14 years.
At a 100th birthday celebration at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Westdale stood proudly as his wings were pinned back on.
“He’s a good, Christian, hard-working, brilliant, gentle, kind, enormously powerful man,” U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Steve Kenyon, who organized the event, said of Westdale.
Westdale celebrated with one of his favorite things to do, sharing a slow ballroom-style dance with his granddaughter.