Welcome to VZW's Military Tributes

World War II veterans get diplomas

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(PUBLISHED Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2000)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — When the United States was threatened by foreign attack in the early 1940s, many men willingly left the classroom for the battlefield, never again stepping a foot back into school and never regretting their decision.

Although many World War II veterans may have learned more from the armed forces than public schools, Tennessee joined other states in 2000 by enacting a law to give regular high school diplomas to those who were drafted or dropped out of school to serve their country from 1941-45.

On Monday, the Johnson City Board of Education presented three local veterans with their high school diplomas after more than 55 years since the Second World War's end. Another veteran's diploma was awarded posthumously.

"Everywhere you go they ask if you are a high school graduate, and now I'm too old to use my diploma," laughed Thomas B. Hager Sr., who served with the 98th "Iroquois" Infantry Division in the Pacific Theater of Operations from 1942-46.

"But this is a real shocker, and I'm honored to receive my diploma after all these years. I am proud of everybody who served, and I hope we never have another war, but it seems like every generation has one."

While state law does not allow diplomas to be awarded posthumously, Dr. Robbie Anderson, the city school system's curriculum director, said an exception was made for Monday night's ceremony at the Columbus Powell Service Center.

Raymond Davis O'Dell, 78, was scheduled to receive his diploma, but died Nov. 26 at his Johnson City residence. O'Dell served in the 3529th Ordnance Maintenance Automation Division in Normandy and Northern France and received the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of Operations Medal with two Bronze Battle Stars.

In his honor, O'Dell's wife , Juanita, son, Ray, and daughter, Joy Yates, accepted the diploma Monday night.

"He did a lot during the war, including help establish the Red Ball Express," Mrs. O'Dell said. "He even went in on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day-plus-two and helped put undercoats on the vehicles so they could float in the water. He knew he'd probably never use it, but he was so excited that he was finally going to receive his diploma."

Other diploma recipients included David Sorrell, who served with the 2nd "Hell on Wheels" Armored Division, and Clarence David Slemons, who served with the Navy in the South Pacific.

Sorrell, 76, served with the 2nd Armored Division from the shores of Safi, French Morocco, and Sicily to Normandy and Berlin.

"We landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-three, but most of the heavy equipment had been removed," he said. "They were still cutting the bank out, and I was a motorcycle driver for directing military convoys and supply depots and taking them to the front line.

"I've waited 55 years for this, and I have thought about it for a great deal. I wondered what it would have been like if I had stayed in high school in Johnson City. But if I had finished high school in time, it would have been just in time for the Korean War draft."

As for Slemons, he retired from the Navy in 1966, having attained the rank of senior chief petty officer.

"I quit school my sophomore year in 1943 and immediately went into the Navy," he said. "Of my graduating class, all of the boys went into the service, and there were only four or five boys left. The only reason they were left behind is because they couldn't pass the physical. Everybody left school and went into the service. It was the thing to do."

Veterans wishing to obtain their diploma are required to submit dishcharge papers showing they served in World War II between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 14, 1945. Veterans should have been of school age when they served in the war.

While diplomas are available for any veteran who fits into those categories, veterans are required to apply for their diploma in the school district in which they currently live, regardless of where they attended school.

For more information, contact Jerry Hill of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs at 615-741-4797 or your district's school system.

Story Copyright © 2000-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press,
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
Stories by Vincent Z. Whaley

All photographs, images, and stories:
Copyright © 1996-2010  By Vincent Z. Whaley All Rights Reserved
Used Only Under Authorization

All photographs, graphics, and stories may be used only for personal research
and with written consent from the author and Webmaster:
Vincent Z. Whaley

Web Site and Graphic Design by Vincent Z. Whaley