“We got to New York nine days late, and there was a whole crowd of people on the pier. And then I saw that Statue of Liberty… that really, really meant something. I saluted her and she seemed to be saying to me, ‘Welcome home, soldier. You won the war. America is still free.'”
When one meets Virgil, the first thing s/he notices is his confidence. His eyes sparkle, and if you look closely, there’s a bit of a kick behind them. During the interview, Virgil and I decided to take a break to get a cup of coffee from his building’s concierge desk. When we exited the elevator to the main floor, we encountered three women sitting on a bench. We said hi, and the woman sitting in the middle responded to Virgil, “We like the way you walk. You look like a teenager.” She hit the mark. Virgil has a swagger.
Virgil William Westdale was born January 8, 1918 on a farm in Millersburg, Indiana. If that sounds familiar, I’ll tell you why – Virgil is Virginia Sears‘ younger brother. Virgil, like his sister, is half Japanese, and was born with the name Nishimura, meaning “West Village”. He grew up on the peppermint farm Virginia discussed during her interview, and learned to drive at age nine in order to be a help. He confirmed that soon before the Depression, peppermint oil went sky high, which gave his father enough money to buy their own farm at the border of Michigan. He said he used to stand on the border of Indiana and Michigan, which he thought was pretty good.
Virgil chose to got to College after working a couple years out of high school. He moved to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. There, he discovered a flying program – $40 for lessons and private license. He thought it’d be pretty great to be able to fly, but didn’t have $40 to spare. A few weeks later, a friend, who was working, loaned him the money. He took to flying like a duck to water.
At this time World War Two was well under way. Virgil was sure the draft was coming, and chose instead to enlist. He immediately shined. He was the best in his class at acrobatic flying, and, a year later, took the instrument test and commercial test within 24 hours of each other – something he could hardly believe later in life when his daughter asked about the story. He was moved up to instructor, and began training new recruits. Unfortunately, the prestige didn’t last. In his words.
Virgil faced more discrimination due to his heritage after that. He was moved to the 442nd Infantry in the Army, an all Japanese company. Most of his peers were second-generation, not part Japanese like him. Due to his European roots on his mom’s side, he was one of the tallest in the company. After a time, he was put in the 522nd Artillery of the same regimental combat team.
They were sent overseas, at first to Italy, and eventually France and Germany. When they were first deployed, no European Commander wanted them, but they became one of the most successful and decorated regiment in the history of the military. They were responsible for rescuing the Lost Battalion, of which Virgil describes mixed feelings due to the number of men lost versus those rescued. They were among the first to reach and help liberate Dachau Camp, a Jewish Concentration Camp in Germany. It was one of the men in his company that shot open the lock on the gate. Virgil recalled seeing several men in striped clothing eating a dead horse.
When it was time for his company to return home in September of 1945, Virgil wasn’t allowed. He believes it was due to some animosity from his Commander, but he’s not sure. He had enough points to return to the United States, but was told to stay behind. Instead, he was given papers for return in November. It was cold. Very cold. They rode in an open air truck, and were told to sleep on a cement floor in a warehouse during the trip to the Atlantic Coast. Virgil was strong headed, and wanted to sleep someplace warm, so he and a friend wandered into the night, and encountered a Nazi group. He wanted so badly to get home in time for Christmas, but the ship encountered a massive storm in the crossing. I’ll let Virgil tell the full story, because his account is amazing and the homecoming very emotional.
Virgil learned to tap dance at age 75, and still dances in recitals today. When he retired from work, he grew antsy, and so joined the TSA to keep busy, from which he retired at age 91. He holds 25 patents from his career. In 2009, Virgil wrote a book about his life called “Blue Skies & Thunder“, which you can buy on Amazon to read more about his life.