Red, white and blue balloons flapped in a gentle May win outside the Secaucus high school gym. A small sign greeted the graduating class of 2001. But the seniors, who made their way towards that sign, did not go to high school here, nor were they the kind of seniors typical of high school graduating classes this time of year. Their hair -- when they had any -- was gray, and their movements (unlike the precious youth that leaped about tossing hats in their air in celebration of such an event) seemed slow and deliberate, as if each step required significant calculation and remarkable effort.
Nor did these "older" students come from this school district, though many could recall a time when they grew up in Secaucus or in communities a mere stone's throw away. They instead had come from all over New Jersey, some even from as far away as retirement villages in Florida, men (for the most part) who had returned for the unique pleasure of receiving something they had missed when they were the proper age for high school: their diplomas.
This was one of those rare moments in time, one of those challenges to author Thomas Wolfe, who claimed a person couldn't go back and make up for the past. Each of these people was War Veteran, each had quit high school to go off to fight, and each -- thanks to the generousity of a change in state law and a heroic effort by local school officials -- had come back here to pickup where they had left off over fifty years earlier, dancing the night away at their prom, taking the long march at their graduation.
Most of the men who came were now in their mid to late 70s, marking the average age for veterans who has served during that war. All had quit high school either to go to war themselves or to take care of families depleted by siblings who had gone overseasr.
For some of these veterans, this was a coming home. Many had been born and raised in Hudson County before life took them to other parts of the state. For others, this was a trip to a new world, leaving them to feel their way through narrow Secaucus streets to receive their high school diplomas.
In November, 2000 B to thank World War II veterans who had quit school to fight B Governor Christine Whitman authorized school districts throughout the state to award honorary diplomas. In a ceremony held at the war memorial in Trenton, she oversaw the first fruits of an agreement between the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Department of Education called "Operation Recognition," issuing the first 200 diplomas to World War Two veterans. She said the state needed to thank these men for responding to their nation's need in time of crisis.
Whitman said many veterans had missed high school=s milestones, and that looking back, they regretted not having experienced things like the high school graduation ceremonies or the senior prom.
Under this program, school districts were authorized to award diplomas to veterans of World War II who left high school to serve between Sept. 16, 1940 and Dec. 31, 1946. This includes veterans of all branches of service including the Merchant Marines and Coast Guard.
And according to Don Marshall, director of veterans' programs for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the 88 veterans who came to Secaucus marked the largest single group honored by any municipality in the state to date.
"It's fitting Secaucus here in Hudson County should honor these veterans," Marshall said, "since many of the soldiers who went to war in Europe had to pass through the docks of Hoboken to get there."
Over the previous few months, Secaucus High School's gym had served numerous purposes, transformed by crafty teachers and students into a platform for mock fights for the school play, a soda shop for a 1950s style hop, and on this occasion, into a 1930s ballroom with arches built out of balloons, tables covered with linen, and a bandstand complete with musicians performing 1930s big band music.
Along the gymnasium walls, school staff put up posters from that era, full of warnings about spies or pitches to purchase war bonds. Included in this collection were quotes from famous people talking about World War II: General Dwight Eisenhower, General G.C. Marshall, Vice President Henry Wallace, President Franklin Roosevelt and perhaps most telling, Winston Churchill, who summed up this occasion 60 years later when he said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Two teachers at Secaucus High School read about the program and decided they would like to help: Michael Germann, Director of Secaucus Community Education, and history teacher Michael Gehm. Both are veterans themselves. Germann's father was among the thousands of World War Two veterans who never got a diploma.
And the ranks of World War Two veterans were thinning fast, with as many as one thousand veterans dying daily, Germann said, a fact made painfully clear by the absense of twelve additional veterans who had intended to get their diplomas, but had died before they could.
Germann and Gehm said they set up the program after reading about it. Yet neither man expected the kind of turnout they got.
"We thought we would get between ten and fifteen people," Gehm told me when I arrived. "All totalled, we had 126 people, though only about 90 were expected to come."
Most of the Veterans came from four counties nearby counties, although some of those traveling from places like Florida were originally from Northern Jersey.
"Some we put up in local hotels," Gehm said.
Andrew Cassella didn't have to travel far to get his diploma. Born in Jersey City, He has lived most his whole life in Union City. He was living in Union City when he quit school to join the air force. He knew he was going to be drafted, and volunteered for overseas duty where he served as a medic in the Pacific theater
After the war, he eventually got a job with the U.S. Post office. Coming to get a diploma was a high point in his life.
"This is a big thrill," he said.
Bill Clark, living in Oakland at the time of the graduation, was in Jersey City attending Dickinson High when he quit high school to get into the war.
"I was sixteen and a half when I tried to get in, but I got caught when they asked for my birth certificate, I had to wait another six months," he said.
He enlisted in the Navy in November 1942, and was discharged in November 1946. He belonged to the Signal Corps and spent three years sailing armed escorts for convoys. Eventually he got into insurance and for forty-three years worked for five different insurance companies. While the lack of a high school diploma didn't stop him from becoming one company's vice president, he felt really good about getting it.
"To tell you the truth, it's been sixty something years since I've been in a school," he said, laughing.
Steven DiBello from Saddlebrook was living in New York when he enlisted in 1942. He was seventeen years old. He went overseas a short time after he turned eighteen in 1942. He spent thirty-four months in Europe as a member of the Air Force, a mechanic for PT 38s until the aircraft were upgraded to a more powerful flying machine.
He said he worked around after the war and eventually wound up in the U.S. Post Office. He said the lack of a high school diploma didn't hinder him, and he had no trouble passing various tests he needed to advance over the years.
Mike Lupichuk came to the graduation ceremony from Wayne. He grew up and went into Merchant Marine while living in Garfield. For many years, people serving in the Merchant Marines were not considered veterans, but pressure brought to bear on congress eventually won these people veteran's stature. He spent five years in service and eventually became a marine engineer. He ran boiler room for eight hours a day in a ship. He said he remembered hearing depth charges. This service suffered the second highest percentage of deaths of all American military personnel after the Marines.
During the war, Germans sank four hundred and fifty ships off the East Coast, which eventually led to the Merchant Marine being armed with cannons and machine guns. After he came out of the service, he became a licensed blue seal engineer running boilers in various power plants throughout the state.
"Later this year I'll be receiving the New Jersey metal of honor," he said.
Frank Maher came from East Paterson. He had attended high school in Lodi when he quit to join the military, service in both the European and later in the Pacific theaters of war as part of a naval escort for supply ships.
After the war, Maher got a job as manager of the U.S. Theater in Paterson. Later, he would serve a sheriff=s officer in Bergen County, and though he had received his GED high school equivalency diploma in 1959, he was pleased to get the real thing in Secaucus now.
At the time of graduation, Joseph Bradley was living in Weehawken, although he grew up in Hoboken and was there when the war broke out. He was one of five brothers, four of whom had already gone to war. He was attending school in New York City and had to quit school to help support the family. Later, he wound up in the Army, too. When he got out, he worked in the shipyard of Hoboken until the late 1980s when retired to Weehawken. He said he missed graduation.
Like many young boys in high school during World War II, Al McClure couldn't wait to graduate to join the military.
"That's what you did back then," he said.
He quit school in 1943 and signed up for the Navy, serving his time on a torpedo boat in the South Pacific. Before going into service, he had worked part time for the Orange and Black bus line in Cliffside Park.
"They didn=t want to give me my job back when I got back, but the government said they had to, so they did," he said.
While in service he had learned a lot about diesel engines, knowledge that became very valuable in the bus industry at it switched to diesel engines after the war. The economy was booming and soldiers were anxious to get on with life, get a job, by a house and raise a family.
McClure is seventy-five. And while McClure didn't feel like he missed out on anything by not receiving his high school diploma, many veterans did.
Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto came to the event for several reasons: to honor the veterans, to honor his uncle, Vincent, who is also receiving a diploma, but also to pick up a diploma for his father B Rocco B who was receiving one posthumously. Rocco, a former Secaucus Housing Authority Commissioner, died in December,1996.
Impreveduto called his father as "an average teenager" who had what many people called "the best years of his life" cut short by World War Two.
Rocco enlisted in the army and served as a foreword observer in five major battles: at Anizo, Monte Casino, Southern France, Rome and North Africa.
"He had the great honor of being one of the liberators of the Dachau Concentration Camp," Impreveduto said.
Published, The Secaucus Reporter, 2001