Saturday, August 18, 2001

Diplomas salute WWII vets who left school for war

New Ohio law aims to honor those who fought

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — As Paul Immel's classmates prepared for high school graduation in the spring of 1946, he was aboard a Navy warship off the coast of Japan helping sink enemy submarines seized before the end of World War II.

        Under a new state law, he plans to apply to his high school for the diploma he missed out on when he shipped out in 1944 after finishing his sophomore year.

        “It's just the idea that when I go to my grave, I'll have my degree,” said Mr. Immel, 75, of Marietta. “It just fills a void.”

        In the past two years, thousands of World War II veterans have received diplomas and attended proms inspired by Operation Recognition, an Agawam, Mass.-based program to honor veterans who left school to go to war.

        Robert McKean, who started Operation Recognition in 1999, has written every state's veterans' office about his program. Lawmakers in two dozen states have passed legislation to offer diplomas to World War II and Korean War veterans.

        “They learned their geography by going to these foreign lands,” Mr. McKean said. “They learned their biology lessons working on soldiers who were wounded. They learned their psychology lessons when comrades died in their arms.

        “They didn't learn history; they made history,” said Mr. McKean, who is the director of Massachusetts' Veterans Memorial Cemeteries.

        In the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, high school officials were so inspired by Operation Recognition that they organized a prom in May for vets who missed their own.

        “It was beautiful. I never expected anything like that,” said Leonard Turnbull, a retired mason who was elected prom king.

        Mr. Turnbull, 77, shipped out with the Merchant Marines after his junior year and delivered ammunition, tanks, gasoline and planes to U.S. forces in Naples, Algiers, New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.

        “I learned a lot more in the Merchant Marines than I would have in high school that year,” Mr. Turnbull said. “You learned more about people and you saw a lot.”

        But state Rep. Tom Lendrum, a World War II veteran from Huron, said he considers such programs demeaning and unnecessary.

        “I still think it's a pat on the head 50 years later, saying, “You've been nice boys,'” said Mr. Lendrum, who enlisted with the Army in May 1945 at age 17, then served as a military policeman in Austria. He left for the Army just after he graduated.

        James “Butch” Badgett, who lobbied Rep. Nancy Hollister, a Marietta Republican, on sponsoring Ohio's graduation bill, said it's important to provide the diplomas for the aging veterans.

        Mr. Badgett's father, James, 79, left Marietta High school in December 1941, 10 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

        “You're dealing with people who are 70 and 80 years old,” Butch Badgett said. “They aren't going to take this and run down the street and get a job. This is just a thank you.”

        Up to 3,000 veterans are expected to apply in Ohio.


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