JAPANESE AMERICAN VETERANS ASSOCIATION
1666 K Street,NW, Suite 500, Washington,D.C. 20006, c/o Gerald Yamada, Esq.
IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Vol. II
December 7, 2006 No. 25
CONTACT: Terry Shima (301-987-6746; firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR PHOTO: Go to JAVA website, www.javadc.org, see press release. Picture embedded in appropriate release.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
AFTER 63 YEARS, 522ND VETERAN RECEIVES COMMERCIAL PILOT’S LICENSE. COMMERCIAL FLYING CAREER HAS ELUDED VIRGIL WESTDALE
By Japanese American Veterans Association
Grand Rapids, Michigan. On May 8, 1943, Virgil William Westdale (born Nishimura) took the commercial pilot’s license test at Kent County Airport, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recalled that it was a particularly rigorous test given by a tough examiner from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration. When it was over he assessed himself as having done quite well, feeling comfortable that he had successfully executed all the difficult requirements. He was surprised, however, that the examiner made no comment after it was over. Westdale waited anxiously in the lobby and, after waiting and waiting for hours, he left for home angry about the apparent discrimination.
Now, at age 88, and realizing he would never fly a plane again, Westdale was curious as to how he performed in those commercial pilot’s license tests 63 years ago. Earlier this year he consulted his supervisor, Mr. John Mumma, Federal Security Director at the Grand Rapids International Airport, which resulted in Westdale receiving a large stack of papers, including a letter from the CAA on barely legible microfilm which said: “Mr. Westdale has applied for an airman identification card and, except for his Japanese ancestry, appears to be technically qualified to hold the card.” The letter from CAA said “no comment is made by this department as to Mr. Westdale’s loyalty or character. Our recommendation that he be issued an Airman Identification Card is limited solely to his technical qualifications.” On September 9, 2006 Westdale received in the mail his commercial pilots license, 63 years after he passed all tests.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Westdale read about the harsh treatment against Japanese Americans on the west coast of the US, and he could feel the world caving in on him. When Westdale began flight training on October 14, 1941, under the Western Michigan College (Kalamazoo) program at the Kent County Airport, he felt his passion for flying was being fulfilled and that he was launched on a commercial pilot’s career. He performed slow rolls, snap rolls, loops, spin turns and other maneuvers. In March 1942, he applied for and was pleased to be accepted in the Army Air Corps, then headquartered at Bendix Field in South Bend, Indiana. Soon, however, the attitude of the officers, his surroundings and his perception of being watched made him uneasy that his flying days were numbered. He made himself as inconspicuous as possible, displaying the best that a student can be, and even anglicizing his Japanese name, Nishimura (Nishi = west; mura = dale) in an attempt to downplay the his true ethnic heritage.
One day when Westdale reported for Air Corps training, a CAA official was waiting for him, demanding his private pilot’s license without any explanation. Westdale was grounded, but during this time he taught instrument flying. When the license was returned to him about three months later, again without explanation, Westdale resumed his flight training that included preparation for two tests, instrument flying and commercial license tests.
About two years after starting flight training, Westdale received orders transferring him to work in the camp kitchen. “An instrument flight instructor one day and ten days later I would be scrubbing hoods up above a stove -- I can’t think of a lower point in my life,” Westdale lamented. He was subsequently transferred again, this time to the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team as an infantryman and subsequently to its 522nd Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer which trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and served in Italy, France and Germany. At the Dachau Concentration Camp, northwest of Munich, Germany, Westdale saw his fellow soldiers blow off the locks to liberate the inmates.
Upon receiving his honorable discharge in 1945, Westdale had planned to resume his flying career. However, that was not to be. When he expressed his plans to his grandmother, she rejected it flatly, saying “you were lucky to survive flying and the war, now you complete your college education, and get a regular job.” Instead, Westdale would graduate from Western Michigan University, become a chemical engineer, and revolutionize the print industry with his creations, particularly with toners.
Even though he never was able to become a commercial airline pilot, Westdale is satisfied to be doing what he considers the next best thing in aviation. At 88, he is cited as the oldest full-time Transportation Security Agency airline passenger screener. He serves at the Grand Rapids National Airport where he dispenses with what he says is “a friendly smile and a wary eye.” 30