US & World

Elderly war vets from Riverside County get high school diplomas

Claude Chastain Jr. of Hemet (R) who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II receives his high school diploma from Riverside County Superintendent of Schools Kenneth M. Young at the annual Operation Recognition ceremony in Moreno Valley.
Claude Chastain Jr. of Hemet (R) who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II receives his high school diploma from Riverside County Superintendent of Schools Kenneth M. Young at the annual Operation Recognition ceremony in Moreno Valley.
Steven Cuevas/KPCC

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Thirty military veterans from Riverside County earned their high school diplomas this week, decades after they put aside their studies and went off to war. The annual Operation Recognition ceremony was held in Moreno Valley this week.

Veterans arrived a half hour or more before the ceremony. Some ambled in slowly, or with the help of a relative.

One came in a wheelchair. Another worried the day would never come: 77-year-old retired business executive Charles Murphy.

“I called probably once a month to make sure my name was still on the list. I was scared they’d say, ‘Well, we’re not gonna do it, we don’t have enough guys.’ I was a wreck,” remembers Murphy before the ceremony, his daughter Jan by his side.

Murphy quit high school in 1952 to enlist in the Navy at the height of the Korean War. He quickly rose to be flight director on an aircraft carrier that patrolled the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. He was still a teenager.

He hesitates when asked why he interrupted his high school education just one year short of graduation. “I hesitate because I’ve been telling a fib my whole life,” says Murphy in a halting voice. “I was young. I was going to save the world. I was a kid.”

Murphy was a restless kid. He liked to learn, but didn’t like school. He ran wild on the streets. His father didn’t hesitate to sign the enlistment papers.

“He said, ‘Gimme that pen! Better there than the penitentiary!’ I wasn’t the best kid,” recalls Murphy.

“I was a bagman, carried the numbers for the bookies from bar to bar because they wouldn’t mess with kids. I was drinking in bars from 15 on, just a messed up kid — with good potential!” said Murphy, laughing.

By 21, Murphy was on an officer’s fast track. But he also had a new wife, and a baby girl. He loved serving, but wanted out. His superiors wanted him to stay aboard.

“And they were gonna give me the enormous re-signing bonus of $,1500. And in 1955 $1,500 would buy you a Chevy! But the civilian world called,” said Murphy.

Murphy's daughter Jan said that even though her dad didn’t get that signing bonus, he did get the Chevy. “Because I have picture of me when I was 3 behind the front wheel!”

Murphy also ended up at the wheel of a couple Fortune 500 companies as a retail and shopping mall executive. He bought homes in Pacific Palisades and La Quinta. But a nagging fear returned with every step up the career ladder.

“Now when you come in on Monday we’ll have you go into HR and fill out the forms at which time I had to fill in the gaps,” remembers Murphy.

"I would simply say I was a high school graduate and usually threw in a couple years of Boston College. I lied.” Murphy’s voice trails off. He chokes back tears.

“I lied for a lifetime and, um, oh, forgive me,” says Murphy, pausing.

“It’s a big moment for me. It’s a haunt,” says Murphy. “It’s been a haunt for a lifetime.”

A few minutes later Murphy strides across the stage of the Moreno Valley Conference Center to get that diploma along with 29 other veterans. Riverside County's Operation Recognition lets vets from World War II, Vietnam and Korea apply for retroactive certificates.

Two veterans were awarded their diplomas posthumously, including Otis Lee Wilson who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His son Lewis, also a military veteran, applied for and accepted the diploma on his father’s behalf.

“Well my dad was drafted in 1945. It would have been his 18th birthday, he was a junior in high school but they drafted him anyway,” said Lewis Wilson after the ceremony.

“He tried to go back but life took over. But he always said that I wished I could get a diploma but if I can’t my five sons (will). All of us graduated from high school. You had to be critically ill before you could miss a day from school!”

Lewis Wilson will take the diploma back to his dad’s native Alabama. It’ll be placed on a wall in his mother’s house alongside the diplomas of her five sons.

After nine years in the Navy during and after the Vietnam War, Clarence Weldon Hart worked odd jobs, raced motorcycles at Gardena’s Ascot Park, and then became a realtor. But not having that high school diploma haunted him too.

“From the time I got out of the service to when I put in an application, ‘You have a high school diploma?’ I always put ‘yes.’ No one ever checked,” said Hart.

“I was lying to my kids. My daughter didn’t even know until I took the thing to her in the paper and I said, ‘I need to get my diploma!’ She said, ‘What?! I thought you had?’ No! It just bothered me that in the back of my mind that wasn’t there,” said Hart.

Hart’s daughter Diana Hede stands nearby with her two kids, her mom Carolyn, a great aunt and one of dad’s golf buddies.

“No, I didn’t know that! I was shocked,” said Hede. “I knew he went into the service and always thought he graduated before he did. It’s great that my children can see how important this is and experience this with him too.”

Hart’s granddaughter Taylor graduated from high school this year, too. She laughs that Grandpa can now join her at Cal Baptist University in Riverside.

“They haven’t told us the date of the prom! We gotta go to a prom!” laughed Hart, beaming.

His high school diploma is tucked into a vinyl folder under his arm. He’s unsure what he’ll do with it. For now, he’s just happy to finally hold a diploma that bears his own name.