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World War II vet gets a shot at graduation

May. 21, 2013 - 01:07PM   |  
George Jones, 89, will be the oldest graduate to walk the line May 23 when the Class of 2013 graduates at Kuna High School. Jones left school shortly after World War II started and never got back to get his diploma. (Katherine Jones / The Idaho Statesman via AP)
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BOISE, IDAHO — World history conspired to keep George Jones from getting his high school diploma.

Bailey Jo Bartlome and other Kuna High seniors conspired to make sure he got it.

Jones, now 88, went from a farm at Black Cat and Columbia roads to the Pacific theater and into banking.

Bartlome, 18, met Jones at a school veterans celebration last fall, according to the Idaho Statesman. She was so moved by his life and story that she worked with her fellow 250 seniors to include Jones at graduation ceremonies, complete with cap and gown.

“What he went through is amazing,” said Bartlome, who will attend College of Southern Idaho on a full rodeo scholarship next fall. “This is going to be awesome. I cannot wait.”

Jones was a sophomore at Kuna High School in 1941. He was quarterback of the Kaveman football team, wearing No. 12. In those days, the team didn’t have enough players for separate squads for defense and offense. So when the other team got the ball, Jones played linebacker.

Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Jones left school to go to Boise and join the military. But at 17, he was too young, and the military wouldn’t take him.

So he went to work for Morrison Knudsen, the global construction company headquartered Boise. He built underground fuel storage tanks in Hawaii.

He came back to Kuna High for a while. When he turned 18, he joined the Army, volunteering as a paratrooper.

After an injury in training knocked him out of jumping from planes, he was sent to the infantry — and back to Hawaii.

There he was assigned to a ship outfitted with three 4.2-inch mortars and sent into combat to lob shells from the water over the heads of advancing infantry troops.

He was at Leyte in the fight that led to Allied forces reclaiming the Philippines. He went on to Luzon, also in the Philippines, in January 1945.

At the start of the battle of Okinawa, the morning of Easter in April 1945, he was shelling the island as thousands of American forces made their way to the beach.

Ahead of him were Americans. Around him were naval vessels taking hits from kamikaze pilots.

“They weren’t after us,” he said. “We were too small.”

A suicidal pilot smashed into a cruiser 200 yards away. “I cried and cussed,” Jones said. But he came away without a scratch.

He was on his way to join the invasion force for Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war with Japan.

Back home in Boise at age 22, Jones enrolled in Franklin High School (the building was later Franklin Elementary) at the corner of Franklin Road and Orchard Street.

He met a girl, got married, had a job and wanted a family. He left Franklin after six months.

Jones was a messenger for Idaho First National Bank.

“I got on a bike and rode around town taking bum checks back to merchants,” he said.

Except for a couple of detours, Jones spent much of his life in banking, moving into branch management before working as a courier in Idaho.

In 2012, Jones went on an Honor Flight, in which pilots take veterans to see the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. On that visit, he received a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.

He decided to give it to his old high school, in memory of two fellow football players who had died in World War II.

And that brought Jones to a Kuna High School assembly last fall, where Bartlome sat with the rest of her class.

Jones talked to the students about his war experience. Even though seven decades separated the speaker and his audience, he reminded them: “Once a Kaveman, always a Kaveman.”

“We were all just sitting there crying,” Bartlome said. “We were so amazed.”

Immediately after the assembly, she talked with the government teacher about a way to honor Jones. She brought the senior class together to ask them what they thought of inviting Jones to graduate with them. They loved it.

Come Thursday, Jones will get an honorary Kuna High diploma. Under his black robe and mortarboard with a gold tassel — Kuna High’s colors — he’ll be wearing a No. 12 jersey.

Jones will lead his classmates in the traditional switching of the tassel, signifying the change from life as a student to life as a graduate.

“It is awesome,” Jones said. “As far as I am concerned, the story is what these kids are doing.”

Said Bartlome: “This is going to make the class of 2013 Kuna High School graduation better than anybody’s ever.”

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