George Kunz of New Suffolk celebrated his 18th birthday in 1944 aboard on a troop train bound for the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Last month, more than 70 years later, the 91-year-old finally received his high school diploma from the South Huntington School District.
On Nov. 8, Mr. Kunz was honored at a school board meeting, receiving six proclamations from officials statewide, including state Senator Carl Marcellino and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who were present, and the office of Congressman Thomas Suozzi.
“It was gratifying. I didn’t think they were going to make a big production,” Mr. Kunz said. “I thought I was just going to go to a board meeting to be presented with a diploma.”
Mr. Kunz recently learned about Operation Recognition, a New York State program that grants high school diplomas to veterans of World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War. He called his son, Steve, a teacher in Plainview, to ask if he might be able to get his diploma. Both his children, Steve and Patti Pettit, are both educators and urged their dad to take the necessary steps.
“People say they have something on their bucket list. That was one of the things that was on my bucket list and I was so busy working two jobs most of my lifetime, I never got time to go back and finish,” Mr. Kunz said.
Mr. Kunz grew up and went to school in Huntington. He left high school at 16 and got a job at a Cadillac dealership, explaining that he’d been a “motorhead” ever since his father had a Model T. At 17, he enlisted in U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. He said some papers got shuffled around, so it took a while for him to hear back.
“On a Friday night, I got a call telling me to get on a train, because my 18th birthday was on Tuesday,” he recalled. “They said, ‘We gotta rush it through because we gotta get you before the Army gets you.’ I jumped on a train and went into the city, went through all the exams, and spent my 18th birthday on a troop train going to Great Lakes Naval Station.”
He shipped out from Norfolk, Va., in 1944 as a motor machinist’s mate, to Bizerte, North Africa.
“I didn’t want to sleep in a foxhole,” he said, laughing about why he chose to join the Navy instead of the Army.
Later, the 18-year-old sailor landed in southern France, where his ship was hit and blown onto the beach. Despite his best effort, he actually did spend two nights in a foxhole while waiting for the Navy to rescue him.
Nick Ciappetta, president of the South Huntington school board, said this was the only request the district has received gotten through Operation Recognition.
“It was awesome,” Mr. Ciappetta said. “My grandfather had received a similar diploma, so it’s very special to me.”
Mr. Kunz has lived in New Suffolk with his second wife, Peggy White, since he retired in 1992 from a 40-year career at the former Long Island Lighting Company.
“It was so nice that his service would be recognized as opposed to how some people view elderly people today,” Ms. Pettit said. “Who would ever know this was on his bucket list? While my brother and I grew up, my dad worked two jobs. My father instilled in me a strong work ethic and he also instilled a sense of kindness, compassion and gratitude.”
Mr. Kunz was honorably discharged in 1946 and was recognized with the American Theater Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Medal, the European Theater Medal and the Victory Medal.
“I’m very appreciative to all the people in the South Huntington School District who put that together and made that happen for Dad,” Steve Kunz said. “It was just incredible.”
Kimberly Latko, Mr. Kunz’s great-niece, teaches in the South Huntington School District and was instrumental in planning the grand event for him.
Mr. Kunz and his family traveled to Washington, D.C., for his 90th birthday last March, where he was greeted by so many people who saw him in his WWII veteran’s hat.
“I felt like Obama myself,” he said, referring to the former president.
Mr. Kunz proudly held up his high school diploma and his six proclamations and said he was so grateful for the opportunity.
“It felt really good,” he said. “To see all the officials from the town and the veterans associations that were there, it was really overwhelming.”
“He was always taking care of people and didn’t expect anything in return,” Ms. Pettit said of her father. “He deserves a little happiness.”
Top photo caption: George Kunz at his New Suffolk home with his high school diploma and proclomations. (Credit: Rachel Siford)