HERITAGE SERIES: Historic Re-Enlistment: Oldest Man in Uniform Served at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series about historic figures who served at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

The start of one World War caused a National Guardsman to be mustered into active duty service. The gathering war clouds of a second one caused him to be perhaps the oldest man ever to enlist at what is now Selfridge Air National Guard Base. At one point, Air Corps Master Sgt. John W. Westervelt was believed to be the oldest man in uniform.

Westervelt re-enlisted for the ninth and final time while stationed as a supply sergeant at Selfridge Field on Aug. 9, 1941. Four months later, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the U.S. entered World War II. Westervelt served for the duration of the war, eventually forced to retire at age 77 in November 1945, several months after the surrender of Japan to end the war, due to a knee injury suffered in an automobile accident.

Though Westervelt served on active duty through two world wars, he never served overseas, other than a stint spent in Alaska during World War II. All together, Westervelt spent 18 years in the New York National Guard and 28 years on active duty with the Army, for a combined total of 46 years of service. He apparently did not initially enlist in the military until he was past his 30th birthday.

His four decades-plus in uniform prompted him to become something of a philosopher about the military and about life in general. Some of his wisdom was captured in news stories that were distributed by The Associated Press and/or United Press at the time of his last enlistment at Selfridge, his retirement and his death in October 1946.

Among the old sergeant's pearls of wisdom, as reported by the news media:

· "A man's not a good soldier unless he takes a few snorts now and then and does a hell of a lot of griping.

· When asked if he would enlist again after his enlistment at Selfridge, at age 73: "No, b'gosh. When my time is up I'm going to get out, and rest a bit - enjoy myself. By then, I figure, I'll have put in enough service for Uncle Sam."

Westervelt originally enlisted in the New York National Guard in his hometown of Newburgh, New York. Along with his unit, he was mustered in to federal service in the Army in 1917. While Westervelt did not serve overseas in World War I, his son, Ray, did. After the war, the senior Westervelt remained in the Army and spent 15 years stationed at Fort Custer in Battle Creek. His second wife, the former Leota Harrison, was originally from Kalamazoo. They married in 1942.

Westervelt favored compulsory military service and once boasted that his family had been in military service since the time of King Philip's Indian Wars, a series of battles between Mayflower pilgrims and Native Americas in the New England region during the 1670s. Westervelt's grandfather served alongside Gen. ("Mad") Anthony Wayne during the Revoutionary War, his father served in the Civil War and his brother was at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

Westervelt spent most of his career in the Army's Qaurtermaster Corps, but served four years during World War II in the Army Air Corps/Army Air Forces, the predecessor to today's U.S. Air Force.

The military keeps no official records on who the oldest person to serve in uniform was. Across all branches of service, the oldest person to have been on active duty may have been the four-star admiral known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1918 and remained on active duty until he retired in 1982. Rickover was 82 years old when he retired and had served almost 65 consecutive years in uniform, counting his time at the academy.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first flight took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.