Veterans graduate to a delayed tribute

Diplomas: Polytechnic Institute will honor eight men whose high school careers were interrupted by World War II.

May 23, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

They were young men when the calls came, high school ballplayers and track stars who left the study hall of Polytechnic Institute for the battlefields and naval campaigns of World War II.

A handful left before graduation and never got their diplomas, though they tried. Harry E. Fields, 80, tried to continue his studies while stationed at Guantanamo Bay.

"They said, `No, you're in the Navy now,'" said Fields, who was discharged as a gunner's mate 2nd class.

But today, seven veterans of World War II will get the diplomas they lost when they went off to war. Their children and grandchildren will join them, along with wives they have known 50 years and more. An eighth, Melbourne Gourley, will be represented by his widow, Madlyn, 77. Why? Because the diploma still matters.

"I just feel he deserved it," said Gourley, whose husband left school early to serve in the submarine service aboard the USS Roncador.

The ceremony will be simple. An Air Force Junior ROTC color guard will present the flags in the hallway of Poly's Memorial Corridor, where plaques honor alumni killed in the world wars. The diplomas will be stamped with the year the men would have graduated.

"The first thing I'm going to do is show my grandchildren. `Grandpop got his diploma!'" said George B. Pyle, 79.

Nearly three dozen states have made similar efforts since Massachusetts held its "Operation Recognition" graduation in 1999.

Planning for Poly's event began last fall, shortly after a newspaper story about a group of veterans in Carroll County receiving their high school diplomas, said Barbara A. Stricklin, executive director of the school's foundation.

Pyle read the story and called his old buddy, Fields. Soon, other veterans were calling Stricklin. Not many, but enough to make alumni officials pause and take note.

"I'm absolutely sure there are others out there, but there is no way to search our files," said Stricklin.

The men are children of the Great Depression. James V. Welsch's father made $2 a day working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His mother used to tell him, "Jimmy, there's nothing wrong with you wearing patched clothes, as long as they're clean," said Welsch, 78.

All found their way to the city's finest school, a shirt-and-tie place where auditorium assemblies were so quiet you could hear a pin drop and any student riding the streetcars along North Avenue had to keep an eye out for the principal, William A. De Huff, who also rode the trains to keep an eye on his students.

This was several lifetimes ago, an era so different from today it seems more than 60 years have passed since streetcars rumbled along the streets, Chesapeake Bay steamers docked at what is now the Inner Harbor, and ferries carried workers from the foot of Broadway to the Fairfield shipyards.

Sitting in his home yesterday, Fields joked about getting out of school at 2:30 p.m. and riding a streetcar down Guilford Avenue with his friends to catch a 15-cent show at the Gayety.

Then the war came.

Turn to page 30 of the Oct. 24, 1940, edition of The Evening Sun and you can see Pyle waving from the window of a train pulling out of Penn Station. He was 17 years old, a 10th-grader in the Naval Reserve.

His classmate's father, John Fields, is in another picture, a crowd scene of the more than 500 people who jammed the train platform that day. He is waving goodbye to his son, Harry, then 18, who with Pyle and 148 other men from the 3rd Division were setting off on what would be a five-year odyssey.

By 1943, Kenneth Rodney Precht, who was big for his age and ran with an older crowd, started feeling something akin to guilt. Most of his crowd was gone to war, but he was in school.

"I could feel their mothers looking at me, saying, `What's he still doing here?'" said Precht, 77.

One day he headed downtown to join the Marines, but the corps had filled its monthly quota. No problem. He walked across the hall of the old post office on Calvert Street and joined the Navy.

Name a Pacific battle, and Precht was there: Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Philippines. He was signalman aboard the USS Hornet, known as "The Gray Ghost." He carries with him stories of battles and typhoons. One particularly fierce storm bent the ship's flight deck so badly it had to return to port in San Francisco for repairs.

As they arrived, they passed the USS Indianapolis heading for Tinian, an atomic bomb on board. As the two ships passed, Precht and his counterpart on the Indianapolis exchanged beacon signals. Later, Japanese torpedoes sank the Indianapolis.

"I've often wondered if that signalman I talked to by light survived," said Precht. "I never found out."

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