Veterans Cross Stage of History - to Diplomas ; in 1945, Millions of GIs Came Home and Went Right to Work. Now a Grass- Roots Effort Awards the Diplomas They Never Got

Article excerpt

James Lee was a typical high school senior. His thoughts lingered on the prom, graduation, his future career. But instead of walking down the commencement aisle, he found himself running into battle with Gen. George Patton's Third Army.

Mr. Lee was sent to fight in World War II in 1943, and when he got home, he had four battle stars, two Purple Hearts, and no high school diploma. "If you didn't get a job," he says, "you didn't eat." So he went to work.

Now, 57 years later, Lee is finally getting his diploma - as are thousands of other vets like him.

As America looks toward the 21st century, the diplomas are part of a growing movement to honor those who won what was arguably the defining victory of the 20th. The ceremonies aren't merely touching veterans' hearts: They are also giving young people a window into sacrifices made by their grandparents.

"It's easy for us to forget in our busy days how important this war was," says Foster Wright, principal of Belmont High School in Massachusetts. "It was a war between the forces of good and evil. And this world would be a very different place if evil had won."

Himself a Vietnam veteran, he speaks in Belmont High's auditorium. Fifteen World War II veterans, including Lee, fidget in their front-row seats, while hundreds in the current graduating class look on.

"It's giving me chills sitting here," says one of those seniors, Lee Bloom. He stares intensely at the vets, who wear suits and starched shirts as comfortably as teens today wear T-shirts and jeans.

"It's hard for me to think about or imagine what it must have been like for them to go to war at such a young age; not to finish this [high school] experience," says Mr. Bloom, who is about the age these men were when they were sent into combat. "I don't know if I could do it."

When the ceremony ends, Bloom is wiping tears from his eyes: "I don't think I'll cry that much at our graduation."

The program behind the diplomas, called Operation Recognition, was founded here in Massachusetts last year by the Department of Veterans Services and supported by state lawmakers.

Spreading nationwide

But the veterans department is sowing its seeds nationwide. The program has already taken root in states from California to Minnesota to West Virginia.

"I'm not stopping until every state offers it at least once," says Robert McKean, the Bay State veterans official who heads Operation Recognition.

He is not alone in his desire. The Second World War has always fascinated Americans, and its veterans are often honored in hometown parades and county fairs. And now, several nationwide efforts are under way to recognize their service:

*A $100-million World War II Memorial is set to break ground this summer in Washington.

*World War II military heroes will be immortalized on new 33- cent stamps coming out May 3.

*A group of senators is pushing President Clinton to designate May 25 as a national day to honor minority soldiers who fought in the war. …