School Board Offers 2nd Chance at HS Diploma

War Vets Rewarded for Military Service

By Daniel Dullum
Daniel Dullum

From DANIEL’S ARCHIVES:

In 2002, when I was working the senior (50-plus) beat in Sacramento, Calif., one of my more unique and uplifting assignments involved war vets who enjoyed the high school graduation ceremony experience they never thought they’d have.

The Sacramento County Board of Education inaugurated a novel program called Operation Recognition, which awarded belated – and legit – high school diplomas to veterans of World War II and the Korean War who dropped out to serve in the military.

The program also included Japanese Americans who were interned in relocation camps and did not finish high school.

Participants took the belated pomp and circumstance seriously. The school board took a break toward the end of its regular meeting to award the diplomas, with a color guard. A reception was held afterward with cake and punch, amidst graduation-themed decorations.

Operation Recognition is still offered by the Sacramento County Office of Education, and since added Viet Nam War veterans to the eligibility list in 2005.

Covering this event in January 2002, no two stories were the same. Here’s a sampling for the Fourth of July week:

If waiting for high school graduation day can seem like an eternity for a 17-year-old, imagine waiting 50 years. Or longer.

In the war years of 1941-45 and 1950-53, it was common for boys to leave high school to enter military service. Since, in most cases, they entered the service as adolescents and left as adults, it wasn’t unusual to skip the remaining years of high school as well.

Whether it was World War II or the Korean War, a desire to serve the country often took precedence over education.

“I just didn’t have time to finish high school and went in the service instead. I went in at 18 and got out at 21,” said Mike Wokich, 74, of Sacramento, who was a high school junior in Steckett, Mont., in 1943. “I quit school after two years because I knew I was going to get drafted. If I was a senior, I would have stayed in, but I messed around when I was a kid and didn’t pay attention to my studies.”

With the Korean War in full swing, William Young was a high school student in Birmingham, Ala., who wanted to join his friends who already were drafted. He didn’t like the proposed option of being put on a three-month waiting list.

“It was Jan. 3, 1952. I called (the recruiting officer) every foul name and  when I ran out of breath, he finally asked me, ‘Are you finished, son? I said. ‘I can’t think of anything else to call you!’” Young, 69, of Sacramento remembered. “He said, ‘Get in that blue car with that captain.’ I asked if I was going in the Army. He said, ‘No, you’re going in the Air Force.’

“I left at 5:00 that afternoon for Lackland Air Force Base (in San Antonio, Texas).”

At a ceremony following the Sacramento County Board of Education’s regular business meeting on Jan. 15 (2002), Wokich, Young and four of their peers with similar experiences made up for lost time. Through a new program called Operation Recognition, each was presented a belated high school diploma.

“I want to emphasize, these are real high school diplomas,” Brian Cooley, Board of Education vice president, told those in attendance. “It’s exciting for somebody of my generation to be able to recognize members who really are from the greatest generation for their efforts.”

“It feels pretty good to be a high school graduate, 55 years later,” Wokich said, laughing.

“A year into my service duty, I got my GED, but this is entirely different,” Young said. “It’s an honor. I don’t need it, but it makes me feel awfully good.”

Sacramento County residents who served in the military during the designated war years were eligible for nomination. Twelve diplomas were awarded, with the recipients including Masahiro Nakajo, 74, Sacramento; and Akira Iwatsuru of Sacramento County – Japanese Americans who were interned in relocation camps during World War II and also served in the U.S. Army. Jim and Terry Fujikawa, also interned in relocation camps, were nominated for recognition by their daughter, Lori Fujikawa.  Terry Fujikawa received her diploma posthumously.

Wokich, who was stationed in England as a B-24 gunner for the Army Air Corps from December 1943 to May 1945, became a barber after leaving the service.  Getting his diploma was his wife’s idea.

“When my son went to Chico State, he was supposed to fill out a blank that said how far his father went through high school,” Wokich said. “He didn’t know. We didn’t tell him because we didn’t want him to use the excuse, ‘Well Dad, you didn’t go, so why should I?’ I was going to mail my diploma to him if he didn’t come down so I could show it to him.”

Mick Wokich, Mike’s son, went out of his way to save him the postage. Mick thought so much of the event that he and his wife flew in from suburban Seattle to attend the ceremony.

“I was not going to miss out on this,” Mick Wokich said.

One of the most amazing aspects of Young receiving his diploma was that he’s still around to do so. Diagnosed with a form of lymph cancer in 1987, Young was given a 20 percent chance of survival.

Young survived the 18 ½-hour surgery that required the removal of three lymph nodes. Damage from the cancer necessitated skin grafts to reconstruct the right side of his face and ear.

“The cancer went all the way down into my chest,” Young said. The doctors said they ran 92 pints of blood through me because they had to sever the jugular vein to get all the cancer.

“I’ve been cancer-free ever since. I consider myself very blessed.”

After a four-year hitch in the Air Force, Young went to aircraft mechanics school and served a four-year apprenticeship for radio and radar repair at McClellan Air Force Base. Later, he operated a service station and worked in direct sales.

In the last eight years, Young, who was nominated for his diploma by his wife, has volunteered 20 hours a week with the Foster Grandparents program as a mathematics tutor. He’s also involved in public relations with Senior Citizen Services.

After years of helping students work toward their high school diplomas as a Foster Grandparent, Young clearly enjoys having one of his own.

“Imagine that!” he said, laughing. “I was also offered a bachelor’s degree on the internet if I’d take an eight-hour test and write a 20,000-word thesis. I said, ‘I probably don’t need a bachelor’s degree at my age. I’ll soon be 70 years old and I’m doing what I like to do anyway.’

“I’m ready to go until I’m at least 100!”

Photo above: During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced to live in war relocation camps, like this one photographed at the Mazanar camp in California. Sacramento County citizens who were interned and unable to finish high school are eligible for a diploma from the county board of education.  (Photo from Ansel Adams collection, Library of Congress)

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