COLUMBUS, Ohio – As Paul Immel's classmates prepared for high school graduation, Immel was aboard a Navy warship off the coast of Japan helping sink enemy submarines in World War II.
Under a new state law, he plans to apply to his high school for the diploma he missed out on when he shipped out in 1944 after finishing his sophomore year.
"It's just the idea that when I go to my grave, I'll have my degree," said Immel, 75, of Marietta. "It just fills a void."
In the past two years, thousands of World War II veterans have received diplomas and attended proms inspired by Operation Recognition, an Agawam, Mass.-based program to honor veterans who left school to go to war.
Robert McKean, who started Operation Recognition in 1999, has written every state's veterans' office about his program. Lawmakers in some two dozen states have passed legislation to offer diplomas to World War II and Korean War veterans.
"They learned their geography by going to these foreign lands," McKean said. "They learned their biology lessons working on soldiers who were wounded. They learned their psychology lessons when comrades died in their arms.
"They didn't learn history; they made history," said McKean, who is the director of Massachusetts' Veterans Memorial Cemeteries.
McKean has not kept count of veterans who have earned diplomas because of Operation Recognition. But he said Massachusetts has honored at least 7,000.
The Alabama Legislature passed a law this spring to provide diplomas to World War II veterans.
"All of the World War II veterans are leaving us real fast and I think we need to hurry and do all we can to show our appreciation to them and their families," said Alabama Sen. Bobby Denton, a co-sponsor of his state's bill.
In the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, high school officials were so inspired by Operation Recognition that they organized a prom in May for vets who missed their own.
"It was beautiful. I never expected anything like that," said Leonard Turnbull, a retired mason who was elected prom king.
Turnbull, 77, shipped out with the Merchant Marines after his junior year and delivered ammunition, tanks, gasoline and planes to U.S. forces in Naples, Algiers, New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.
"I learned a lot more in the Merchant Marines than I would have in high school that year," Turnbull said. "You learned more about people and you saw a lot."
Lottie Shaw dropped out of high school in 1942 and married a serviceman who soon headed overseas with the Army. In 1943, then 19, she trained to be an aviation machinist as a Navy WAVE in Norman, Okla.
She spent the rest of the war years at a Navy base in Miami, repairing plane carburetors. In May 2000, she received her overdue diploma at Murdock High School in Winchendon, Mass.
"I was thrilled to death because I'd always wanted it," said Shaw, 77, now retired in Springdale, Ark. "I look at that thing every once in a while and stick my chest out. I'm proud of it and I did want one."
State Rep. Tom Lendrum, a World War II veteran from Huron, said he considers such programs demeaning and unnecessary.
"I still think it's a pat on the head 50 years later, saying, "You've been nice boys,"' said Lendrum, who enlisted with the Army in May 1945 at 17, then served as a military policeman in Austria. He left for the Army just after he graduated.
James "Butch" Badgett, who lobbied Rep. Nancy Hollister, a Marietta Republican, on sponsoring Ohio's graduation bill, said it's important to provide the diplomas for the aging veterans.
Badgett's father, James, 79, left Marietta High school in December 1941, 10 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"You're dealing with people who are 70 and 80 years old," Butch Badgett said. "They aren't going to take this and run down the street and get a job. This is just a thank you."
Up to 3,000 veterans are expected to apply in Ohio, according to the Governor's Office of Veterans' Affairs. The state, however, is still working out the details of who will be eligible to apply for diplomas.
In Massachusetts and Maine, for example, the law covers residents who left high school to enter the military between Sept. 16, 1940, and Dec. 31, 1946.