An interview with ‘The Oldest Living Graduate’ and the last member of USMA 1933
The West Point Center for Oral History recently caught up with a living relic of the pre-WWII military academy and interviewed him for their collection. It is a great 45-minute talk with a man who has seen a lot.
LTG(R) William Ely was born in 1911, and graduated from West Point in 1933. He was notified of his appointment two days before he was expected to report, and that set into motion what would become a 33-year career in the Army. He graduated 18th in his class of 347, and commissioned into the Engineers. He is the sole surviving member of his class, and the oldest living graduate of West Point. His first assignment in the Army was with the Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River, an experience he considers transformative because it provided a solid base for the rest of his career. He then went to Cornell to earn a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering. From 1938 to 1940, he was assigned to Midway Island on a harbor dredging project to support the eventual construction of an airstrip. After returning from Midway, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C., and when America became involved in World War II, he spent the first two years planning base expansions for the growing Army. In 1943, he was reassigned to the 6th Army headquarters in the Pacific, where one of his primary responsibilities was conducting reconnaissance for future bases as the Army “island hopped” closer to Japan. In his book, “The Oldest Living Graduate,” written in 2015, LTG(R) Ely describes his dynamic and successful career, and reflects upon the highlight of his life, his 74-year marriage to Helen Mountford Ely.
In this interview, LTG(R) Ely talks about his childhood on a farm in Pennsylvania, and his decision to apply to West Point. He describes life at West Point in the early 1930s, and becoming an Engineer Officer. He discusses his experience in the Corps of Engineers and his service before and during World War II, mentioning Generals MacArthur and Krueger among others. Finally, he talks about the love of his life, his wife Helen.