This year's Fourth of July, freedom might have had new resonance for Denver high schoolers, thanks to veterans from Clermont Park Life Plan Community. This past spring, students at South High School had the unique opportunity to hear firsthand from several of the few remaining men and women who fought for US freedom in WWII. For many, the experience opened a new window into the freedoms they enjoy and the sacrifices that made them possible. Students’ gratitude came pouring—quite literally—in the form of 60 thank you notes recently delivered to the community.
“What you did for the country and the world as a whole cannot be overlooked,” one student wrote. “Without the lessons learned and the things that were accomplished through World War II, the world would be a very different place. Where we are today is thanks to you.”
“Although I am familiar with the history behind the war, I was unaware of the tragic experiences many people witnessed during that time,” another shared. “Hearing your story was a good reminder of all that you and other veterans have sacrificed and gone through to defend our country.”
These “living history lessons” are a unique program offered through a partnership between Clermont Park and Denver South High School. Over the past seven years, they have offered numerous students the opportunity to hear from those who have served, including Nick Westendorf, Colorado’s oldest living WWII veteran, who just turned 105 this past month.
Nick Westendorf helped train hundreds of new recruits at Naval Air Station Glenview in Chicago and later served as an airplane mechanic in the Pacific Theater. His stories offer an eye-opening glimpse into life for the many soldiers who served in roles supporting the invasion forces. While Westendorf was able to spend his first years in recruitment closer to home, he was so busy that he actually forgot about his wife’s first pregnancy. He came home one night to find her packing a suitcase, and when he asked why she informed him that she was in labor and headed to the hospital.
When the Navy no longer needed new pilots (and recruitment trainers) for the war effort, Westendorf was shipped overseas to the Philippines. “I signed up for the war,” he explained upon being asked why he continued to serve after his time in recruitment. “I didn’t know how long it would last.” During this second half of WWII service, he recalls the unique experiences of living in a Quonset Hut, docking in a harbor of half-sunken Japanese and American ships and going through the hazing-like “initiation” administered to soldiers crossing the equator for the first time.
His time in the Philippines included more “behind-the-scenes work,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t essential. Together with three other airplane mechanics, Westendorf repaired hundreds of P24 aircraft that scouted for Japanese ships. The team of four worked at all hours to make sure that every plane was ready for its next day’s mission.
“We got to be real buddies,” Westendorf recalls, “We had to fix and get every plane back out in perfect condition. One of our planes got shot up badly, but we had it ready to go again by the next day. We never lost a single one.”
It wasn’t until six or eight months in his role as a mechanic that Westendorf recalls “a guy came around on a jeep while I was on night duty and told me that the war’s over, they dropped the bomb. We didn’t even really understand what “the bomb” meant at that time. It was only later that I found out what it was.”
Westendorf was glad to be able to return to his wife and two children. “I didn’t mind doing my part—my duty,” he assured, “But I was glad to go home.”
Westendorf’s home is now Clermont Park Life Plan Community where he can be near his grown daughter Sandra Righter. Moving into a retirement community hasn’t secluded the now 105-year-old veteran. Rather, it has given him the opportunity to continue to explore, connect and share his years of life and service experience. “As soon as he came here, he said it felt like home,” Sandra shared. It also gave him the ability to continue learning Scripture through readings by different volunteers six days a week and participate in programs like the South High living history lessons, where his important life stories can continue to take new root in the memories of our nation’s next generation.
“I am honored that you came and told us your stories because what you endured should not be forgotten and should be a time that all people know about,” said the note of one student who attended this year’s living history program. And if it’s up to Nick Westendorf, the veterans and the staff at Clermont Park, it’s a time whose life and lessons never will be.
This story originally appeared in the Denver Post's YourHub and is copyright and used by permission.
Story and photo by Bryn Phinney