West Point’s oldest living graduate honors alumni, distinguished graduates

West Point’s oldest living graduate honors alumni, distinguished graduates

The Corps of Cadets honors its alumni with a wreath ceremony and a review on May 23, 2017. The ceremony honors several alumni classes as well as six new members recognized as Distinguished Graduates. In addition to the two ceremonies, the Association of Graduates honors those new distinguished graduates with a luncheon at the Cadet Mess Hall. (U.S. Army Photo by John Pellino)


By Rindi White


The oldest living West Point graduate, Ret. Lt. Gen. William J. Ely, visited his alma mater to participate in laying a wreath at the foot of the “Father of the Academy,” Col. Sylvanus Thayer, during a ceremony on May 23.


While at West Point, Ely took time to record an oral history piece for the West Point Center for Oral History with interviewer David Siry, in which he discusses his 33-year career in the Army and life lessons learned along the way.


Born in 1911 near the town of Claysville, Pennsylvania, Ely celebrated his 105th birthday in December. He said he comes from a family of farmers with little money, and joined the military academy in part because it offered a $100 per month in payment.


He is the only living graduate of his class of 347 cadets. He told the West Point COH interviewer he was commissioned into the Engineers, an assignment that was based on being at the top of his class. His first assignment was with the Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River. That appointment provided a base for the rest of his career, he said.


“I went to the Mississippi River for two years. Under the toughest supervisor I ever had, I learned more about dredging and building levees and so forth that affected the rest of my career. So, those first two years in Mississippi are important parts of my career,” Ely said.


“He fired me a couple of times,” he said, laughing. “He had me do a job and he didn’t like the way I did it, so he fired me.”


Ely said he learned under that supervisor, to do something right the first time. Three years after graduating, he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University. Under the Corps he was assigned to Midway Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, from 1938 to 1940 to dredge an entrance to the island, to support the eventual construction of an air station. It was one of the most difficult dredging jobs in the history of the Corps at the time, he said. The island base was to be critical during the war, as it was about equidistant from North America and Asia.


“Without you, Midway Island was not an airbase?” Siry asked.


“No, no, if I hadn’t been assigned to that, if the Corps of Engineers – they had bidders for it, but the bids were out of sight, so we did it with Corps equipment,” he said.


In the lead-up to World War II, Ely was in the Chief of Engineers office in Washington, D.C. After the war started, he helped plan Army base expansions in several strategic spots around the world. He was assigned to the Engineers section of 6th Army in the Pacific, where he conducted reconnaissance to New Guinea and other islands to locate new sites to help the Army get closer to Japan.


His assignment included a reconnaissance tour with a Japanese pilot after the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A typhoon had come through, he said, doing a lot of damage to bridges and hospitals.


“On that reconnaissance, I flew down from Tokyo with a Japanese pilot. Here we are, a month after the war, I’m going on a reconnaissance trip with a Japanese pilot. We circled Hiroshima and landed, and the Japanese treated me unbelievably well. It’s just amazing how they turned face after the bombs and after the surrender,” he said.


Ely now lives in Delray, Florida. According to a story he was interviewed for in the Association for the U.S. Army, Ely helped found the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, and worked with the Pentagon on the Joint Staff and at U.S. European Command headquarters in Paris. He ended his military career at the Pentagon, in the Office of the Director of Defense, Research and Engineering.


Ely wrote a book, published in 2015, titled “The Oldest Living Graduate: A Story about Luck, Love and Longevity.”

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