GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Dozens of Grand Rapids police officers gathered on Thursday to hear a 99-year-old veteran share his story of fighting in World War II while he was subjected to racist practices of the U.S. Military.
Growing up on a farm in Indiana, Virgil Westdale never thought he would one day be considered a war hero. His mother was white and grew up in the United States and his father was a Japanese immigrant. Westdale was one of five kids in a family with very little money. He just managed to get into Western Michigan University, where he struggled to keep his grades up.
Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and for Westdale, duty called.
"Everybody's got a story and some stories are worse than mine," Westdale tells FOX 17.
Westdale earned his pilot's license and realized he finally found his calling. In fact, he was so good that he was quickly promoted to flight instructor. Then one day, everything changed.
Under direction of then-President Roosevelt, the military took Westdale's pilot's license away and demoted him to a private in the army because he was Japanese.
“That’s something I wouldn’t want to happen to anybody because it was not the right thing to do at all and it was kind of crushing to our Constitution,” says Westdale.
He was never given an official reason for the demotion, but when he saw that all the other men in his battalion following that change in rank were Asian, he didn't need one.
Westdale tells FOX 17 it was "pretty devastating at the time to have someone take your license away and for no reason."
To protect himself from further racial discrimination, he changed his last name to Westdale, which is the English translation of his family name, Nishimura.
Though Westdale wasn't where he wanted to be, he never disobeyed orders. His battalion helped push the Germans out of Italy and free prisoners from the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. He and his men ended up being the most decorated battalion of its size in U.S. Military history.
Westdale's story of resilience and dedication is one that serves as an inspiration for servicemen and women still today.
“It’s a tough time in the community and people like this, people who have served in the military, they have something that binds them together- that’s their service in the military and that’s what we can use to draw people together," Sgt. Brendan Albert with the Grand Rapids Police Department tells FOX 17.
As the son of a Japanese-American farmer, from a military flight instructor to infantryman, Westdale can look back at his 99 years of life and be sure of one thing.
"I have no regrets about where I've been and what's happened to me. Everything's been okay," Westdale says.
Westdale's service didn't end after the war. After a career in the printing machinery industry, he worked for the Transportation Security Administration until he retired at the age of 91. In 2011, he was awarded with a Congressional Gold Medal.