Chester Westgate has survived at least four brushes with death.
Yet the World War II veteran, who once stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, doesn’t talk about near-death moments in combat. He recalls flying at night in Brazil, and after hitting a storm cloud, dropping 500 feet. The wing tips tore, but those on board survived, he said.
Then there was the time he was flying into a Washington, D.C., runway, and a plane — coming in from the opposite direction — was approaching the same runway.
“The other plane went under us,” said the 98-year-old Richland man, recalling adventures from his time in the U.S. Army.
Life in and out of war has taught him surviving isn’t just a matter of luck or courage.
“People step in and help,” he said. “I’ve been in hospitals so many times, and had 18 operations, a stroke, two heart attacks, rods in my back …” he said. “I want to be around to help in any way I can.”
Though he’s nearly 99, Westgate continues to help others survive through emergencies, mostly through his volunteer work with Red Cross blood drives in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey region. For more than two decades he has volunteered his time at blood drives by greeting people and comforting those who can donate. For his service with the Red Cross and overseas, Westgate was among 26 people honored at the organization’s annual recognition dinner in March in Washington, D.C. His daughter, Joyce Weiss, was with him.
On June 21, he will be presented with the Gift of Life Award by the American Red Cross Lehigh Valley-Bucks Chapter during its annual Celebration of Heroes, in recognition of his work supporting blood donations.
“Even today, he instills in us the idea of helping other people and neighbors at home,” said Weiss, sharing that her father’s work has influenced the lives of his three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. “Even at 99, he is still looking out for other people.”
From his own experiences, he’s witnessed the dire need for blood to save lives and the power a blood donation can make.
“I’ve seen people in situations who needed a lot of blood, overseas and here,” he said.
Westgate’s great grandson, Nick DiCara, needed plasma from more than 60 donors, when at age 13 he developed an immune disorder that attacked his brain and spinal cord, Weiss said.
“This donation led to his recovery,” she said. “Because of people giving blood, he’s here today.”
Westgate has never been able to give blood and explains that his time in the war left him severely underweight and with damage to his stomach. “I never weighed enough to give blood,” he said.
But he has other ways of giving.
“Chester greets regular donors by name and if he doesn’t know their name when they arrive, he learns it before they depart,” according to the Red Cross award nomination letter. “When donor lines are long, Chester springs into action, providing water, status updates and sharing his World War II scrapbooks.”
Westgate often wears his Army hats and sometimes his medals. He was awarded six battle stars, including the Victory Medal, the Liberty Medal, given by France for being in the invasion of Normandy, the European African Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Bronze Star and Battle of the Bulge Commemorative Medal.
At the blood drives, Westgate said people often want to know the stories behind his medals.
“I get to meet people who are interested in life,” said Westgate, adding that he enjoys the random hugs that come with the encounters.
He said he shares a few memorable moments in war still fresh in his mind. He also keeps a book of his memoirs.
From the living room of his home one recent day, he recalled a volatile wartime situation that could have ended badly.
It was nearing the end of World War II and he was behind enemy lines when the transmission of the truck he was riding in broke.
“There were only a half dozen of us, out in the open, and we waited for a tow,” he said. “Then two German guys came out of the woods; they could have attacked us, but they didn’t.”
Instead, he said, they surrendered. He elaborated what happened next in his memoirs: “They had had enough of fighting. In the course of several hours, we had taken 25 prisoner stragglers who didn’t offer resistance … they could have gotten us easily.”
Another time, his outfit, the 129th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, was called to join General Patton’s third army to go south to Luxembourg.
He wrote: “We were firing at bombers and it was getting toward winter and the weather was not always good for flying. That is when some Germans would get our uniforms and Jeeps and pretend to be Americans. Some got through and blew up some spots. We linked up with Patton and got in the Battle of the Bulge with snow coming down. It was tough.”
When Westgate shares his memories of war, people at the blood drives will often thank him for his service. Sometimes other service members will reach out with words of appreciation. He said he feels for those in the military today who are fighting people who are much less visible.
“In my war, at least I knew who the enemies were,” he said. He thanks them for their part in protecting the nation. And from his perspective at the blood drives, he also reminds everyday people that a blood donation is a service that also saves lives.
“I am also grateful for the people who give,” he said.
© 2019 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.
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