Correcting the record: Son secures medals that wounded father earned in World War II
A photograph Frank Westgate has of his father from the late 1940s doesn’t show the devastation of his war injury.
In the photograph, a broad-shouldered Ellsworth “Toby” Westgate in his mid-20s stands between his father and a cousin with his sleeves rolled, revealing muscled arms. The lasting effects of a head injury suffered in World War II couldn’t be captured in a still photo, Frank said. The photo can’t reveal his father’s limp or the permanent numbness to touch on the right side of his body.
“He told his mother he was half the man he was before the war,” Frank said. “They say he was real athletic before the war. He could run like the wind and loved to play baseball. He was depressed about what the injury did to him.”
Seaman First Class Toby Westgate was discharged from the U.S. Navy in April 1945 after suffering a blow to left side of his head while serving his country in the Pacific.
After his discharge, Toby returned to his parents’ Baldwin City home in a wheelchair but without a Purple Heart, despite an injury so grievous that he had spent the previous seven months in various hospitals, his son said. The medal was awarded only after his son tracked down his father’s military records and filed the necessary paperwork with the Navy.
Frank assumes that the Navy, busy with fighting a war, overlooked awarding his father the Purple Heart.
“I think it was an oversight,” he said. “I think they were in the middle of a lot of things, and they patched him up, sent him on his way and never even thought a lot about it.”
His father was a humble man and not the kind of person to make a fuss about the Purple Heart, Frank said. Moreover, a lot of gaps in his father’s memory of his WWII service persisted because of his head injury.
“He didn’t remember the ship he served on, what unit he was in or where he was,” he said. “He did know he was in New Guinea because he said the people there dressed funny.”
Fateful 20th birthday
Frank has pieced together some of the details of what happened to his father on his 20th birthday, Sept. 3, 1944, aboard U.S.S. LST 470 off eastern New Guinea. But the records he received from the Navy are incomplete and vague. The records do state a winch crank attached to LST 470 struck Toby in the head. How that happened, either through an unfortunate accident or from enemy action, isn’t revealed in the records. The letter his parents received from the Navy informing them of their son’s injury states he was “wounded in action,” with the word “critically” added between lines of type.
“I can’t make sense of it when I read the records,” his son said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened.”
Navy records state that Toby was knocked out when the crank struck the “vertex of his skull” and remained unconscious when he was evacuated to a U.S. Army Hospital in New Guinea. Frank Westgate said his father told him he was blind when he first regained consciousness, but his doctors told him he would regain his sight. They were right about that — he didn’t need glasses until late in life — but wrong in their opinion that he’d never walk again.
Toby and U.S.S. LST 470 were in the thick of action in 1943 and 1944 as Allied forces ousted the Japanese from bases in New Guinea and nearby islands. LSTs were utilitarian craft with double doors on the bows that allowed them to offload materials on freshly established beachheads. According to the website navsource.org, LST 470 carried tanks, other tracked vehicles, trucks, artillery and construction equipment.
The one memory his father shared about the war suggests the ships were targets, Frank said.
“The only thing I can remember him saying about the war was the Japanese pilots would come in close enough you could see their faces, and when they looped around and came back at you, then you better be ready,” he said.
Toby moved back to his parents’ home in Baldwin City after his discharge and remained there when the rest of his family moved to Manhattan. He and his wife, Joan, had two children, Frank and Penny Westgate. He drove a milk truck out of Ottawa before going to work driving trucks for Douglas County Public Works. He retired with the recognition of the Douglas County Commission in 1986. He died four years later of a degenerative neurological disease brought on by his wartime injury, his son said.
Toby may never have given his absent Purple Heart any thought, but it weighed on his son, who served in the Navy and the Arizona Army National Guard. During his time in the service, Frank became more upset about the oversight when he learned of fellow servicemen getting Purple Hearts for minor injuries like twisted ankles. Unable to let the oversight stand, he started searching for his father’s military records. After gathering that documentation, he got the paperwork needed to apply in 2012 for his father’s medal from the American Legion.
?”I wrote the Navy Board of Corrections in Washington, D.C., and they immediately awarded him a medal,” he said, of a quest that began in 2012 and expanded in later years.
The board awarded the Purple Heart and noted that Toby was due the World War II victory medal, the American campaign medal, the Asiatic-Pacific campaign medal, his discharge button and honorable service lapel ribbon. Frank later secured those and the Navy Unit Commendation given LST 470 crew members for the ship’s role in the war.
Frank also got a new tombstone for his father, which identifies him as a Purple Heart veteran. His dad, in his own way, would have appreciated the recognition, he said.
“He was kind of old-fashioned,” he said. “He was a quiet, blue-collar guy. He wouldn’t make a big deal of it, but he would be tickled.”