SAN BERNARDINO - Decades after going to war, a group of eight veterans received long-delayed recognitions Monday night: their high school diplomas.
The county's Operation Recognition provides high school diplomas to veterans whose high school careers were interrupted by World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War or because they were placed in internment camps during World War II. This is the fourth year the office of the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools has awarded the diplomas.
The program is based on a similar program in Riverside County. This year, the diplomas go to eight veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War, including one posthumously awarded diploma.
(Last year, 36 veterans received their diplomas, including Korean War veteran Anthony Thomas, who received a posthumous diploma. Thomas was the father of Superintendent Gary Thomas, who had avoided submitting his father's name, out of a fear of appearing to use the program for his own benefit, but his staff put his father's name in behind his back, he said.)
"I would have graduated 50 years ago this year, in 1962," Colton resident Richard Underwood said.
He enlisted in the Navy in November 1961, dropping out of Fontana High School to avoid the possibility of being drafted by the Army and having to serve in the infantry. He served "three years and four months. It was what they called a `kiddie cruise.' Back then, if you went in when you were 17, you got out the day before you turned 21."
While in the Navy, he got his GED certificate, but ran into jobs in the civilian world that weren't interested in him without an actual high school diploma.
"If I would have finished high school and then finished my degree and so on and so forth, I could have gotten a lot farther," Underwood said. Not that he hasn't been successful in the civilian world: A licensed contractor, he also owns a construction project management firm.
"For me, it hasn't held me back that much."
Frank Coyazo dropped out of Redlands High School even before enlisting to fight during World War II.
"I had a job... to get some money, help my dad - we had 10 kids in the family.... I only went about halfway through 11th grade."
When he turned 18, he registered for the draft and received a "1A" draft notice immediately, indicating he was a top-priority recruit. He served in the Philippines - "like going up the Cajon Pass, but it was all jungle" - under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
"After they dropped the second (atomic) bomb, why, they took us onto ships to go occupy Japan. We were the second ship of troops to occupy Japan. I stayed in Japan for, oh, about a year," Coyazo said.
While in Japan, he took classes offered by the military that he was told would translate into a high school diploma once he returned to the United States. But when he did, the Veterans Affairs office said they had no record of the school he had attended.
"I've got a picture of General Eisenhower coming out of the school, that shows the name," Coyazo said.
He went on to work for 35 years, making bathroom fixtures, before getting his high school diploma Monday afternoon.
"I don't think it would have changed things, not unless I went to college or something," he said. "It's something I wanted to get. It's nice to get it now."
Fontana resident Elias Escamiya wanted to join the Navy instead of being drafted into the Army during World War II, but couldn't get his mother to sign his enlistment papers. Ultimately, his sister had to, instead and he was sworn in two weeks before his 18th birthday.
"My mother told me two dozen times or more to go back to school." And he wanted to, but he was scared to roll the dice. "There was a possibility that I could have getting my diploma, but I didn't want to take that chance" of being drafted into the Army.
He served aboard the USS Saint Paul, a cruiser in the Pacific theater.
"Our ship fired the last salvo against Japan in World War II."
Escamiya mustered out in March 1946, and got a job working at a paper company in Los Angeles, where he worked for the next 43 years.
"That's one thing that was always missing: Several times I said, `I should go to night school and get my diploma.' All I needed was American government," he said. "Who knows what would have happened if I had it?"
It's a question that Robert Abarca of Loma Linda faced as well.
"Every application I had to fill out, I was asked if I had a diploma," Abarca said. He drove trucks for a mining company after serving two tours in the Army in Vietnam. He and his friends had decided to drop out of high school in the 11th grade and enlist in 1966. "With a diploma, I could have gotten (into) a higher income bracket. ... That's why I pushed my kids and grandkids; I have my grandkids going to college now. I wish I could have gone."
Reach Beau via email, call him at 909-386-3826, or find him on Twitter @InlandEd.