For 100-year-old Spider vet, Pearl Harbor Day is one of remembrance

December 5, 2022


Elmer S. West Jr. will never forget the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Japanese military aircraft struck the U.S. naval base in a surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The next day, a radio speaker positioned over the front door of the University’s men’s dining hall broadcast President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Imperial Japan. West, a junior at Richmond College, stood outside the Refectory listening with a few hundred students.

Eighty-one years later, Pearl Harbor “symbolizes the shock of the strike and the tragedy of the ships that were sunk and the hundreds of servicemen who were killed,” said West, a 1943 grad, in a recent interview from his home in Chesterfield County. “It was the focal point that made it inevitable to get into World War II.”

West, who turned 100 in October, was a transfer student from Cumberland Junior College in Williamsburg, Kentucky, about 150 miles from his hometown of May’s Lick in the Bluegrass State.

Just as he had at Cumberland, West worked his way through Richmond College. His first year, he worked three nights a week shelving books in the library and also waited tables. His senior year, he became the headwaiter, supervising 18 student workers.

He carried 20 hours for all but the last semester, making the Dean’s List. He sang in the University Men’s Glee Club and, during his senior year, served on the Honor Council. “I had no social life. There was no time for one,” he recalled.

He majored in chemistry and minored in biology, planning to become a medical missionary. By the time he graduated in May 1943, West had been accepted into the Navy’s V-12 program for medical training with plans to attend Duke University. Because of the war and the pressing need for doctors, medical schools offered first-year classes starting in September and January. West would enroll in January. 

In the meantime, he worked at the Naval hospital in New Orleans, entering the service as an apprentice seaman and managing the blood bank. He began to question whether medical missions were his true calling and realized he wanted to serve in the Chaplains Training Program. After a semester in medical school, he was able to change course.

Still in the Navy, West earned his master’s degree from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York and studied at the University of Chicago. During the summer of 1945, he worked as a chaplain’s intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and joined the crush of people in Times Square on V-J Day celebrating the end of the war that August. 

West left the Navy as an ensign in 1946 and embarked on a remarkable career in the ministry.

He was a highly regarded leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, holding key posts in its International Mission Board. He also served as pastor of three churches across Virginia and North Carolina, then after retirement he served as interim pastor in 11 churches. In 1958, the University of Richmond awarded him an honorary doctorate of divinity.

He and his late wife, Betsy, had four children and have 11 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Asked about this Spider’s secret to a life well lived, West responded: “Grace and gratitude.”