A Veteran of War and Peace: Chester Westgate

A Veteran of War and Peace: Chester Westgate

As Americans observe Veterans Day on November 11—a national holiday since 1938—an ever diminishing number of U.S. service members being honored count among those forces that stormed five beachheads in northern France on D-Day. More than 150,000 Allied troops participated in the largest air, sea, and land invasion in history, helping to turn the tide against the Axis powers on June 6, 1944.

Chester Westgate, who took part in the epic battle, recalls being “a scared kid” as his heavy artillery unit discharged soldiers into the churning waters along the Normandy coastline. Their destination was code named Omaha Beach. Due to high bluffs that were unexpectedly well defended by the Germans, it proved to be D-Day’s deadliest incursion. Some 2,400 Americans were killed, wounded, or reported missing at this locale alone—and the assault to liberate Nazi-occupied France and other Western European countries would continue for weeks. Westgate survived, and his actions during that fateful first day of the Normandy Invasion earned him a French Jubilee of Liberty Medal—just one of multiple honors, including 6 battle stars, received during his lifetime—presented at a ceremony in Philadephia in 2008. Fourteen members of his family were present.

Now 99 years of age, this WWII veteran and his 100-year-old wife Mildred reside at Phoebe Richland’s Meadow Glen, an assisted living community. When discussing wartime experiences, he focuses more on human interactions than combat. “I felt pride doing something for the good of the country,” Westgate says. Being stationed in heavily bombed southern England enabled him to see “what those people were going through. It was really terrible.” He reflects that most Americans back home didn’t grasp how dire and dangerous life was for England’s civilian population.

During his 3 years in the U.S. Army, 2 of which were spent overseas, Westgate fought in the Battle of the Bulge and traveled widely from Yugoslavia and Casablanca to Brazil—where he had one of several non-combat near-death experiences during a nighttime flight. The plane hit a storm cloud and dropped 500 feet, tearing the wingtips. Fortunately, all those aboard survived.

When Westgate was discharged from the military, he weighed only 104 pounds. “I was in bad shape and needed a lot of different things,” he says. Throughout his life he’s undergone 18 operations, suffered a stroke and 2 heart attacks, and had steel rods placed in his back. Yet he remains upbeat and grateful for help received. And he has always found ways to pay it forward, from being a friend and neighbor ready to lend a hand to serving the community.

After a long and successful career with Moore Business Forms, working as both a supervisor and president of the union, plus raising a family of 3 children with Mildred (the couple now boasts 8 grandchildren—including Meris, Inc.’s creative director Scott Westgate—and 11 great-grandchildren), Westgate was not content to sit back and rest in retirement.

Throughout his life he’s undergone 18 operations, suffered a stroke and 2 heart attacks, and had steel rods placed in his back.

For the last 15 years Westgate has been volunteering at American Red Cross Blood Drives. Several times a month he still rides with his children to various blood donor locations to greet and help register donors, then offer them cookies and juice—and conversation—while they rest after the procedure. “I get to meet a lot of people,” says Westgate, whose dedication was recognized earlier this year with regional and national American Red Cross awards, including the Presidential Award of Excellence. He even attended the organization’s annual dinner in Washington, D.C. which honored 26 outstanding volunteers.

Attending a Tour of Honor for WWII, Korean, and Vietnam war veterans in Washington, D.C., is another cherished memory. The daylong bus excursion, starting at 4 a.m., included a military procession and changing of the guards, and visits to several military memorial sites. Approaching home, they were escorted by police cars and a helicopter overhead, plus fire trucks gave a ladder-arch salute. A festive dinner that followed featured 4 bands—including Mummers—an Andrews Sisters-style vocal group, and an appearance by Rosie the Riveter. “I couldn’t believe all the things they did for us,” Westgate says. “It was fabulous.” And the honors were well deserved.

Being fully acquainted with Chester’s penchant for helping others, his daughter proposed an offbeat new project to him several years ago. He quickly acquired skills that enable him to handcraft yarn caps donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where the pom-pom topped hats, swirled with vibrant colors, warm the heads of young cancer patients. Some of the 150 caps he’s created so far have also been contributed to the Wilkes-Barre VFW. With typical modesty about his efforts to assist others, Westgate comments, “It gives me something to do. And it keeps me out of trouble!”

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