Almost 85 years after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, retired Lt. Gen. William Ely returned to West Point Tuesday as the academy's oldest living grad and took part in the school's alumni review.

Ely laid a wreath during the ceremony, one of several on-campus events leading up to Saturday's graduation. Although Ely's 85th reunion is next year, he's the only remaining graduate from the Class of 1933 and was invited to this year's festivities.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," the 105-year-old veteran told Army Times on Friday.

The alumni review includes a parade and review, as well as the wreath laying at the Thayer Statue near the parade field.

Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, joins retired Lt. Gen. William Ely, Ely's son Bill, and Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Guden during a wreath-laying ceremony Tuesday in West Point, N.Y.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant/Army


'Most important job'

Ely, of Pennsylvania, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers after graduating from West Point in 1933. His assignments included civil works construction, military construction and troop duty with an engineer unit.

He said he started out on the Mississippi River learning how to build bridges and levees, but then his Army career took him out to the Pacific.

"The most important job that I had was at Midway Island from 1938 to 1940, building an entrance channel into the harbor," Ely said. "It was one of the most difficult bridging jobs the Corps of Engineers ever had. ... Here I was, a lieutenant in charge of about 300 or 400 civilians. It set the stage for my later assignments."

The construction of the entrance channel paved the way for the Navy to build Naval Air Station Midway, roughly halfway between North America and Asia. Less than a year after the air station's commissioning, the U.S. Navy would defeat Japanese forces at Midway in what many consider the pivotal naval battle of World War II.

Ely's decorations include the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star, according to the Defense Department.

'A different world'

Ely said last week that he would be flying from his home in Florida to New York with two of his sons, courtesy of a good friend who owns a private jet.

While he was looking forward to the entire experience, the event took on another meaning because Ely said it's the first time he'll be meeting his great-grandson.

"His parents are bringing him from Seattle to be with me for the first time," Ely said. "I have six grandchildren, and he's the only great-grandchild I expect to see."

Ely advises graduating cadets to remember what they learned during their time at the academy.

"It's a different world than the world I graduated into," he said. "It's hard to imagine what challenges they're going to face militarily in the next few years. It's an uncertain world, and getting more so."

Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com.