A member of the most decorated Army unit in history recently visited the school to share more about his life experience as a Japanese American who volunteered to serve his country during WWII.
Eighth grade history teacher Stephanie Lorenzo opened the assembly by providing some historical context on WWII for the benefit of the blended 3rd–12th grade student audience. Then students Teo ’25 and Timo ’23 Keip provided some impressive background on the speaker—their great uncle, Virgil Westdale, recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the French Legion of Honor Medal, holder of 25 patents, self-published author and once-holder of top-secret clearance for work with NASA, who subsequently took the stage to share his story.
Westdale (born Nishimura) is half Japanese, was born in 1918 and was the fourth of five children in his family. Raised as a Midwestern farm boy, he enrolled at Western Michigan University in 1940. One year later, an advertisement for a pilot training program caught his eye. He borrowed $40 for the course and soon after became a licensed private pilot. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war.
On February 12, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing Japanese relocation in the States. Being so far from the West Coast, Westdale didn’t think his ethnicity would affect his aviation career. He did know that the War Training Service (WTS) was looking for more pilots, so he decided to quit school and enter the civilian training program for the WTS, becoming a top student in acrobatic flying. Not long after graduation, Westdale received an unexpected visit from a flight inspector who summarily asked him for his license. He was out of the program.
It took five months before an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the War Relocation Authority reinstated Westdale’s pilot’s license. Learning from this experience, he decided to translate his last name from Nishimura (Nishi—west, Mura—village) to its closest English counterpart, Westdale.
He then joined the Army Air Corp and, by October 1942, had once again demonstrated excellence as a commercial instrument flight instructor. He had been teaching cadets for three or four months when he received a notice from the War Department transferring him from the Air Corp to the Army as a private in the 442nd Army Regimental Combat Team—a serious demotion in rank. Westdale accepted his assignment to the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
When Westdale stepped off the bus at Mississippi’s Camp Shelby, it was his first introduction to Japanese Americans, a culture almost completely foreign to his rural Midwestern upbringing. Asian culture wasn’t part of his family’s daily life nor had his mother mentioned any concerns or conflicts resulting from marrying a Japanese man.
With his transfer from the infantry to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, Westdale was hopeful that he would have a chance to fly observation planes, but the Army refused to let him fly. Westdale never told anyone in his unit that he was a pilot, but he realized that most in the unit had high-level yet underutilized skills.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, including Westdale’s unit, went on to become the most highly decorated regiment in military Armed Forces history despite early skepticism from Army commanders. After the victory in Salerno, Italy of the 100th Infantry Unit, composed of Japanese Americans, they became known by other army units as the Purple Heart Battalion. The 100th eventually joined with the 442nd Regimental Team’s three infantry battalions, and Westdale’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion provided support to the infantry, establishing a reputation for expertise in the time firing and accuracy of 105 (105mm Howitzer) artillery weapons.
In Westdale’s opinion, the 522nd never received the recognition it deserved, despite many heroic acts throughout the conflict, the most memorable of which involved Westdale’s role in the liberation of Jewish prisoners at Dachau. On April 14, he was one of 120 soldiers honored as a camp liberator at the 2010 National Tribute Dinner at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Two soldiers from Westdale’s unit shot the locks off the compound gates at Dachau to release the prisoners.
All who had the opportunity to attend this presentation, facilitated by Westdale’s granddaughter and Parker parent Maggie Westdale, had much to think about afterward. This soldier’s memorable story is detailed in his memoir Blue Skies and Thunder
, and his life after the war is included in Daniel Joel Deal’s award-winning documentary A Salute to Honor
for photos from this special Morning Ex.