Virgil Westdale was born on a farm in Indiana in 1918. Ninety-one years later he retired from his job as the oldest airport security officer working for the Transportation Security Administration. The intervening years were filled with experiences that sometimes tested his spirit and endurance but never defeated him.
The fourth of five children of a Japanese immigrant father and a Caucasian American mother, Virgil learned to be independent at a young age. His mother died when he was 13, and his father was emotionally distant, so Virgil fended for himself. When he graduated from high school in 1936, the farmhouse still didn’t have electricity or running water.
Westdale started to college in the fall of 1940. He took flying lessons through a college program and earned his private pilot’s license in Feb. 1942. He continued flight training in acrobatics and joined the Air Corps (ERC). He continued pilot training in instrument and commercial flying, ultimately becoming a commercial instrument flight instructor. However, his pilot career was terminated when the War Department discovered his Japanese heritage and transferred him from the Air Corps to the Army infantry as a private. The demotion was devastating and could only be contributed to the fact that his father had come from Japan thirty years earlier.
As a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American unit, Westdale helped push the Germans out of Italy and rescue the “Lost Battalion” in France. This four day/night fight has been listed as one of the ten most ferocious battles in WW II history. His unit also helped liberate prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. “Two of our 442nd soldiers shot the lock off the compound,” Westdale recalls. “The irony is that many of my comrades who were of Japanese descent had families imprisoned in American internment camps as a result of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.”
After the war, Westdale was offered a position as a commercial pilot, but his grandmother told him, “Virgil, you got home from the war, and you are okay. Don’t fly!” Instead, he returned to college and earned two degrees. He worked for Burroughs Corporation for sixteen years as a senior project chemical engineer and for AM International for twenty-two years starting as a Research Associate and, through promotions, becoming principal scientist. Along the way he innovated and developed products in the field of graphic communications that resulted in twenty-five U.S. patents and earned him the Distinguished Alumni award from his alma mater, Western Michigan University. He also won the International Research and Development Award presented to him in Calgary, Canada. He retired at age 68, but not for long.
At age seventy seven, Virgil embarked upon another career...this time as an airport security officer what would eventually become the TSA. After 14 years he retired again at age 91. On November 02, 2011 Westdale was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal along with the members the 442nd RCT and MIS. Commending Westdale for his work as a TSA airport security officer, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow said, “Virgil has demonstrated throughout his life a strong work ethic, a love of his country, and a dedication to public service that would stand out in any field of endeavor.”
At an age when most people have been retired for decades, Westdale wrote his autobiography “Blue Skies and Thunder” co-authored with Stephanie Gerdes. It recounts the extraordinary life of a man who says, “As I look back, I’m satisfied with the accomplishments I have made with the opportunities that were presented to me. It has been an interesting, adventurous journey, and I have no regrets how things turned out.”
Content used with permission from Virgil Westdale