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‘A Salute to Honor'

Josh VanDyke • Mar 17, 2018 at 10:00 AM

"Why do we wait so long to honor those who have served?"

That was the question raised by Col. Gary Doublestein to a crowded room at the American Legion post in Grand Haven last month following the showing of the documentary, “A Salute to Honor,” which highlighted the lives of three World War II veterans.

Two of those veterans were in attendance.

When the question was first raised, I didn't have an immediate response. In the past, I had personally questioned our society's backward way of honoring people after they had died instead of celebrating them while they were still around to hear us sing their praises.

On this particular night, we all had the opportunity to extend our deepest gratitude to two extraordinary men, Tony Gianunzio and Virgil Westdale.

Throughout the 31-minute film, we see glimpses into the two men's lives during one of the most difficult times in our nation's history.

In the film, Gianunzio reflects on his promising baseball career that was cut short due to the draft. In fact, Gianunzio was officially drafted by the Chicago Cubs and was in the process of signing a contract with the organization when the military draft age was lowered, pushing the promising young prospect into the U.S. military and dashing his dreams of becoming a star in the big leagues.

"Every time I watch that, I relive everything that happened back then," Gianunzio said. "I've written a book about my experiences with my shipmates aboard the USS Machias, but seeing it on the screen really brings back heavy emotions. It's OK with me because it reminds me that I'm still very vital. I'm not a young kid anymore, but I'm fighting like hell to stick around for awhile. I've still got some more books to write."

In May 2015, Gianunzio was granted the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game. The moment was surreal and marked the divergence of two different lives for the now 95-year-old veteran.

"I didn't realize they had read off some of my accomplishments as a baseball player before they introduced me that day," he admitted. "That really made me feel like I deserved to be there. When I was a young pitcher, I struck out Gwen McQuillan during a game, and everyone was asking me if I knew what I had just done. As great as that was, it was nothing like that day at Wrigley Field.

"That's a moment that I will never forget,” he continued. “It was also difficult to be out there, walking through the infield, because I knew that I would have been doing that as my job had things not gone differently. It was really like living in two different dimensions at the same time. It was surreal in a lot of ways.

"I don't regret anything, though,” he added. “I've been blessed to live a wonderful life full of love and vivid memories."

Winged Westdale

The other star of the documentary, Virgil Westdale, discussed his humble beginnings as a farm boy turned pilot instructor. He quickly learned that he had the natural talent to become a fighter pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Unfortunately, Westdale's ethnicity as a Japanese-American became a problem to the military after the events at Pearl Harbor, and the government stripped him of his pilot's license and forced him to join the Army as a private.

Despite his demotion, Westdale fought hard for his country as a member of the 522nd Artillery Battalion, helped push the Germans out of Italy, rescued the "Lost Battalion" in France and freed prisoners from the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.

"I hope everyone enjoyed watching it," he said after the film. "It was a glimpse into an important time and I was just happy that I was able to tell part of my story. It's hard to tell all the details in just 30 minutes, but I thought the producers did a very nice job of taking all of that material and condensing it down like that."

Much like Gianunzio, Westdale had a chance to revive old memories a few years ago when a local pilot with a Navy trainer plane brought him back up into the sky for a ride.

"That was great," he reflected. "That was the first plane I had been in since I had been flying. I have no regrets about how things went down. I was devastated at the time, but I understand why they took my license away. You have to make peace with it and just move on with your life. That didn't define my career, and I didn't let that stop me from making a difference.

"When I got back from the war, I went to college and got a few degrees,” Westdale continued. “I worked for a few corporations in research and development, and have received 25 U.S. patents. I've come a long way since I was a kid and I feel good about what I've done. There's been some twists and turns along the way, but it's been a fun ride."

That was the general message from both heroes. Not a single element of regret, despite their livelihoods being taken away from them. Their resurgence from a future big league baseball player and a promising fighter pilot into war veterans turned productive members of society after the war is something to be honored in itself.

As many lives as they saved during the war, they have touched a multitude of others in their roles as teachers, researchers and kind-hearted human beings.

In today's society, we prop up actors and actresses as role models. We see them mimic a written script, follow the orders of a director, and get their appearance altered by endless amounts of CGI and editing. After that, we gather to see them at award shows and listen to them say things that were probably written for them anyway.

On this night at the American Legion, I saw two role models. I was humbled to even be in the same room as Tony Gianunzio and Virgil Westdale, two American heroes who have risked their very lives in order to grant me the freedoms and comforts that I enjoy in my everyday life.

As I shook both men's hands, I couldn't help but feel starstruck. Sometimes we forget to say thank you or tell someone how much they mean to us before it's too late.

This time, I made sure I told both Tony and Virgil, "Thank you for your service."

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