One night back in 1944 a group of seven young men in Bradford, Pa., were talking – four were 16 and three 17 years old – and by the time the conversation had ended, they had all agreed to join the Navy.
Why the Navy?
I don’t know, said Ed Cunningham, who is now 85 and a retired truck driver living in Fort Wayne.
Back then, in the thick of World War II, it was common for kids to quit school early and join the military. If you were 17 the military would take you if your parents approved. So Cunningham, who was 16, just changed his year of birth on his birth certificate from 1927 to 1926, and he was old enough to serve.
He doesn’t have a whole lot to say about his years in the Navy. He was a hot shellman, or the guy whose job it was to catch hot artillery shells as they exited artillery guns and throw them overboard. He was a trainer, the guy who turned the gears to aim 5-inch guns.
He learned to operate a crane because he also worked with SeaBees, the Navy construction battalion. Meanwhile, he got to see a lot of England, Wales, the Moors, and a little bit of London. By the time he arrived in England, he said, Germany was launching V-1 flying bombs at London and people had stopped scrambling for air raid shelters.
All seven of the young men who agreed to join that Navy that night survived the war.
I don’t regret a day of it, Cunningham said. I learned a lot more than I would have learned in school.
After he left the Navy he got a job in a grocery and later moved to Indiana, where he got a job as a truck driver, and that’s what he did for the next 49 years.
All in all, Cunningham lived a full life – except for not getting a high school diploma.
Cunningham didn’t think about that a whole lot. You didn’t need a high school diploma to get a good job back them, Cunningham said, especially if your background included catching 1,000-degree shells, aiming artillery and watching buzz bombs fall from the sky.
A few weeks ago, though, Cunningham’s niece, who still subscribes to the Bradley, Pa., newspaper, noticed an article right next to the obituaries in the paper. Students who quit high school before graduating to join the military during World War II, Korea or Vietnam were eligible to receive a high school diploma.
Cunningham’s niece contacted Bradford Area High School and submitted a one-page form on behalf of her uncle, including a copy of his discharge papers from the Navy.
In short order, Cunningham was notified that her uncle qualified. So on June 6, at age 85, Cunningham will put on a gown, mortarboard and tassel, and during Bradford Area High School’s commencement ceremony will receive a high school diploma.
Then, his niece says, they’re going to have a graduation party for him, complete with a cake emblazoned Class of 1945.
It’s safe to say he’s earned it.
But there’s one question that remains unanswered in this whole event. It was a question on the one-page form applying to receive a diploma. It asked, What are your future career plans?