Veterans honored at Poly, awarded their diplomas

World War II soldiers reflect on Iraq conflict

March 28, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A tad sheepishly, Hugh "Jack" Walters, 78, and Frank Barrett, 77, returned to their old high school yesterday to receive their diplomas.

After nearly 60 years, everyone thought it was about time.

The two former students of Polytechnic Institute, who quit high school to enlist in the armed services during World War II, were presented their certificates in a ceremony marking the enormous sacrifices made by their generation and by America's young warriors who now find themselves in a distant desert.

Ian Cohen, Poly's principal, conferred the diplomas.

"This is a bittersweet moment because we are at war again," said Cohen. "It makes us ask, `What lessons do we learn?' "

Barrett said he wondered, too. He grew up in Fells Point and after the war, earned two high school credits at Poly's arch rival, City College, and later a degree at Loyola College. The chairman of the Baltimore County Council from 1970 to 1972, he retired as an insurance executive and lives with his wife, Rita, in Cockeysville.

"Our war is so far away. ... I just pray now for our young Americans in Iraq," Barrett said during a lunch at the school after the ceremony. "I pray for the president, the Iraqi people. I pray for peace."

Then 18 years old, Barrett shipped off in 1944 to the Army Air Forces and served as a radio operator in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and finally, in Basra, Iraq, for a short mission before the war ended.

"We all did what we could do back then," Barrett said. "But going through that made our generation stronger. We returned from the war and started up careers and families. But we had the gratitude of the nation behind us. That changed with Korea and Vietnam, and the soldiers who fought there suffered a great deal because of it."

A pleasant surprise

Barrett, a former American Legion post commander, introduced some levity at the gathering.

Seated next to his wife, he said for all to hear, "Well, now that I have my diploma, when is the prom?"

"I'll have to get a new dress," Rita Barrett added quickly.

"Perhaps we will skip the prom," the veteran said.

Walters, a retired engineer who grew up in the North Baltimore community of Remington, said his family tricked him into going to the ceremony. Family members had told him they were taking him to lunch.

"It really feels odd," Walters said to gathered family members, school officials and members of an American history class. "My grandchildren graduated from college before I officially graduated from Poly, my high school. I have no regrets."

A third former Poly student who joined the military to serve in World War II, Marvin Wheeler, was included in the ceremony but did not make the trip from Florida.

Barbara Stricklin, a former chemistry teacher at Poly who is now the executive director of the Poly Foundation, arranged yesterday's ceremony with the help of the two veterans' families.

She said that 22 former Poly students have received their belated diplomas courtesy of legislation passed three years ago in Maryland.

"We recognize their sacrifice," said Stricklin. "One has to say they were taken away in their youth and put forth their sacrifices in a very adult situation."

At Poly, students and faculty members have been discussing the war in Iraq. Nearly everyone there knows someone -- a family member, a neighbor, an acquaintance -- serving in harm's way. With live reports, the combat, the prisoners of war, the exploding buildings -- the Iraqi conflict appears stark and scary.

But Antoinette Dow, 16, wanted her school's guests to know that she appreciated their contributions, too.

"If I was in their shoes back then, I would have done the same thing," she said. "I just wanted them to know that we, the younger generation, know they saved our world, that they did something good for all of us."

A bloody siege

Walters also left Poly at age 18 after enlisting in the Army. He wound up with the 90th Infantry Division in France, in the Allied breakout from Normandy. It doesn't take long for him to tell you that he served under Gen. George S. Patton.

An infantryman or "grunt," Walters was wounded while Patton's 3rd Army besieged the German fortress at Metz. He suffered a severed radial nerve in his left arm. While recuperating in a military hospital, Walters read that after a bloody siege that lasted two months, Metz had been captured for the first time since the year 471.

"It was a great outfit, I can say that," Walters said. But he is troubled by the war being waged in Iraq, a conflict without front lines, and by the news that becomes grimmer as each day passes.

"I am so discouraged that we had to go to war," said Walters. "Those young kids over there now ..."

And the old soldier's voice tailed off.

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