STAPLES -- For many decades Roland Mohler wouldn't attend his high school reunions.
It wasn't that the 75-year-old Willmar man didn't want to see his former school chums from the Class of 1944 from Staples-Motley High School. He felt he didn't deserve to go because he didn't actually receive his diploma.
Like many men of his generation, Mohler enlisted in the military as soon as he turned 18, leaving Staples his senior year to join the Air Force. He spent most of World War II as a bombardier gunner on a B-17 stationed in England. After his military service, Mohler was a construction worker, a longtime bricklayer and owned three Dairy Queen stores in Willmar and Richfield until he sold them 15 years ago.
Mohler always wanted to go back to school to receive his diploma but the timing was never right, he said.
Roland Mohler received his high school diploma Wednesday during Staples-Motley graduation ceremonies after having left high school early to serve in World War II.
On Wednesday, Mohler and former classmate Joseph Steindal, Coon Rapids, walked into the gym at their former school to receive their high school diplomas.
Called "Operation Recognition," a dedicated group of high school students involved in a student volunteer organization tracked down six World War II veterans to award them their Staples-Motley High School diplomas, a relatively new program for war veterans who left high school early to serve their country.
Mohler and Steindal, two of the six veterans who were honored during Wednesday's ceremony, were awarded their Class of 1944 diplomas in front of the 138 graduating seniors during their cap and gown program at the high school. Other World War II veterans from the Class of 1944 at Staples-Motley High School who received their high school diplomas Wednesday but couldn't attend the ceremony were Floyd Johnson, Clifford Clossen, Robert Case and Albert Bacon.
"We've always kept track of them," said Ida Kirk, Staples, a Class of 1944 graduate and class reunion organizer who helped search for the World War II veterans from her class.
Kirk said there were about 85 students in the Class of 1944. Of those, 30 men entered the military when they turned 18 and did not officially graduate with their class. Of those 30 World War II veterans, 15 men have since died.
Kirk joined seven other Class of 1944 graduates Wednesday as they watched Steindal and Mohler receive their diplomas, 57 years later.
"These men have earned their diplomas the hard way," said Ken LeVasseur, a retired Staples-Motley teacher and veteran who represented VFW Post No. 1910 at Wednesday's ceremony.
"It's beautiful," Steindal said of his diploma. "There was a time when I didn't think I'd see that."
Steindal enlisted in the Navy his junior year of high school and worked on submarines in Australia during the war. He said he lost out on entering a Navy cadet program years later because he didn't have his high school diploma. He said students need to realize how important it is to get their high school diploma.
Steindal later worked for a telephone company, grocery store and spent 34 years with the Linseed Oil Co. in Fridley. Returning to the Staples-Motley gym Wednesday brought back many memories for him. He was a boxer in high school and remembers competing in boxing matches there.
Mohler was on the high school tumbling team and often walked on his hands across the entire gym floor.
"I think sometimes high school students don't always realize the importance of today (graduating) until about 20 years from now," said Staples-Motley High School Principal Todd Lyscio. "It's important to recognize the sacrifices that people made during wartime and for many that meant not receiving a diploma."
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