‘It’s quite an honor’: 93-year-old veteran receives honorary high school diploma

WWII Vet receives honorary diploma

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (WWBT) — A 93-year-old veteran from Virginia is finally getting a diploma, more than 75 years after World War II interrupted his education.

James Yarbrough, of Hanover, received an honorary high school diploma on Monday during a Veterans Day ceremony at Washington-Henry Elementary School in Mechanicsville.

"We want to say thank you for your willingness to serve, your willingness to protect all of us, by recognition of your education,” said Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Gill.

Yarbrough was a senior at Washington-Henry High School, now the Washington-Henry Elementary School. But before Yarbrough could walk across the stage at graduation with his Class of 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve during WWII.

"Before the 15th of February I guess, I received a letter from my draft board that I had been classified 1-A,” Yarbrough said. “I had to report to Virginia Union University over on Lombardy Street to be examined to go into service.”

Shortly after, Yarbrough was sent to Texas for preparation in the war. On Sept. 9, 1944 Yarbrough said his service began and was honorably discharged July 22, 1946.

In the years that passed his decision to leave high school has always been on his mind.

"That's not one of my better decisions to leave high school,” Yarbrough said. “I'm not very proud of that one."

But he answered when his country came calling. "I didn't do anything anybody else wouldn't have done at the time," Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough’s humble personality is what lead his family to contact the Hanover County school system.

“Last spring, Mr. Yarbrough’s son-in-law contacted the School Board, and was looking for assistance to help Mr. Yarbrough receive his high school diploma,” said Washington-Henry Elementary School Principal Lisa Thompson. “He shared that he had been part of the Class of 1943 and he was drafted into WWII and had never had his diploma conferred.”

Thompson said school administrators started digging for information which later turned into planning the Veterans Day ceremony held Monday.

During that ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance, elementary school students read letters to veterans.

"If we did not have veterans our country would be unprotected," said one student.

"Thank you for risking your lives for us,” said another student.

The ceremony was filled with patriotic songs including “America, the Beautiful”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and even the 1944 WHHS “fight song”.

"We didn't have anything like a chorus like that at Washington-Henry when I was a member," Yarbrough said.

However, the highlight of the ceremony was more than 75 years after he was supposed to graduate, Yarbrough received his Honorary High School Diploma.

“I didn’t expect all of this,” he said. “I’m no war hero.”

"People are very humble and they don't want to share all the details in their story, but we know enough to know there is a lot of time missed with family, a lot of sacrifices," Thompson said.

Sacrifices Yarbrough knows all too well as his family stood by his side.

“They’ve been mighty supportive,” Yarbrough said as his lip started to quiver. “Couldn’t have made it without them.”

The school has changed significantly since the 93-year-old wandered the halls.

“The principal's office is still the same,” Thompson said.

“I need to check on that,” Yarbrough laughed. “Spent some time there."

But after more than seven decades, walking across the graduation stage doesn’t compare to how Yarbrough felt on this Veterans Day.

“Just being here with the veterans and the kids… It’s quite an honor,” he said. “I never expected such an occasion.”

“For our kids, I hope they can begin to understand a little bit of the emotion that they saw with the adults today because they are kids, but we’re planting the seeds,” Thompson said.

Veterans Honorary High School Diplomas recognize the life experiences of honorably discharged veterans who were unable to complete their high school education because of service in the armed forces during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Since Yarbrough was discharged in 1946 he made a career for himself at Philip Morris. He still resides in Hanover County, around the corner from his old high school.

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