High School Dipoloma

Hal Winer receives his High School Diploma, 68 years Late!!!!

There was a sense of fatigue and serenity on the plane as the ninety WWII veterans settled in for the flight back to Chicago from Washington, DC.  The had all been up very early before boarding a 4:30am flight to visit the World War Two memorial with the Honor Flight Chicago.  It was a long day for these aged veterans who averaged 85 years old and several were in their nineties.  Almost all of them were in wheel chairs.  But the trip was not over as these WWII vets were unaware what lay ahead for them in just a few minutes. 

On May 12, 2010, I accompanied my father Hal Winer and his close friend Morrie Factor on the Honor Flight Chicago to Washington, DC.   Hal had been an infantryman in the 7th Division on Okinawa while Morrie was a recipient of three Bronze Battle Stars with the Merrill’s Marauders in the China-India-Burma campaign.  Morrie who will be ninety in October 2010, needed wheel chair assistance and I was appointed to be his “Guardian.”  It was a trip that will never be forgotten as I accompanied these wonderful men, who as part of the “Greatest Generation” made that phrase apparent throughout the day.  Each and every veteran was polite, friendly, appreciative and true to form, despite their age and the grueling schedule there was not one complaint or demand. 

In 1942 at the age of 16 years old, Hal Winer was a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin High School in Rochester, New York.   The son of Russian immigrants Hal spent his spare time on the street playing pool, poker and hanging out with the neighborhood boys.  He never finished the 1942 school year as he dropped out and went directly to work.  One day an employee of Bausch and Lomb, who went door to door in the neighborhood, knocked on Hal’s door looking for factory workers.  Most of their male employees had been drafted and they there was a severe shortage of factory workers.  The war was in full swing and Bausch and Lomb made optics for military equipment. Hal worked in the machine shop that manufactured the machinery to produce military lenses for binoculars, periscopes, bomb sights, etc.  For two years as a teenager Hal worked in their machine shop.  He was a part of the war effort and brought home a steady paycheck.  

Then on January 3, 1945 the inevitable draft letter arrived.   Hal was sent to Camp Robinson in Arkansas.  In a letter to his parents dated January 4, 1945 it stated “This is to advise you that Harold Winer has been accepted for active military service. He will be in transit for the next few days it will be difficult to reach him.  It is therefore requested that no attempt be made to communicate to him except in an emergency until you received further advice.”   Thus, a journey began that would inextricable change Hal’s life.

Hal completed sixteen weeks of infantry training in Arkansas and on June 11, 1945 he boarded a troop ship that would eventually arrive in Okinawa where he was a infantryman in the 7th Infantry Division called the Hour Glass Division.   Luckily for Hal the island of Okinawa had been secured and the major battles already fought.  He took part in patrols that mopped up the remnants of the Japanese stragglers.  Relics of those days sit in my home including a Japanese rifle, flag, helmet and officer’s sword.  While on Okinawa the 7th Division was training for the imminent invasion of Japan.  As a member of the 7th Infantry Division Association Hal obtained an article containing the plans for the invasion of Japanese called “Operation Downfall. ”   It was to be the biggest invasion in history against a fortified and fanatical enemy.  The 7th Division was to be in the first wave to land on the east coast of Tokyo.   Hal’s life was in the balance, but in August, 1945 the two atomic bombs were dropped and Hal’s life was spared.   To accept the formal surrender of the Japanese in Korea Hal’s Division was sent there and confronted thousands of Japanese soldiers who lined the streets with their backs turned as a sign of humiliation.  While stationed in Seoul Korea,  Hal was assigned to be a military policeman.  His duties included guarding prisoners, patrolling the Geisha district and investigating reckless driving and accidents.  Ironically, sixty eight years later he is still involved in law enforcement.

Upon his return to New York,  Hal moved to Syracuse to work in Schiff shoes as a salesman.  The city of Syracuse, unlike his hometown of Rochester, was a college town and Hal recognized that unless he obtained an education his future would be limited and selling shoes was not a great career choice.  At twenty-four years old Hal entered a veteran’s accelerated course to obtain a GED.   While working full time and attending night school Hal received his GED in six months.  He promptly entered Syracuse University under the GI Bill and graduated in 1950.
Several times throughout the years, Hal would say “for a kid who dropped out of high school I didn’t do too badly.”   Although he was a successful defense attorney and municipal prosecutor for Deerfield and Vernon Hills there was always a serious regret for never finishing high school.   It was one of those nagging feelings of unfinished business.

As the WWII veterans were quietly reflecting on their memorable day and their aged bodies settling in for the flight home there was a sudden flurry of activity in front of the airplane.  A loud voice boomed “MAIL CALL…. JONES, GERACI, BIASI, ROEL, WINER……”  Then the Honor Flight volunteers began to hurriedly pass out manila envelopes filled with letters from family and friends to all the veterans. 

I quietly sat next to my father knowing the surprise that awaited him.  A few weeks before, I called Benjamin Franklin High School in Rochester, NY and was transferred to Dawn Opperman who worked in the district’s record department.  She was told of the Honor Flight and the surprise “Mail Call” and sprung into action.  Within a week the honorary diploma was issued and placed in Hal’s manila envelope. He opened the envelope and after reading many heartfelt letters from family and friends he came across the diploma. Several of the volunteers knew of the surprise and alerted Channel Five Reporter Phil Rogers and his cameraman William Jennings who accompanied us in the trip.  Before long Hal had a microphone and camera in front of him.   At first he stared at the diploma for a few seconds, not exactly comprehending what this paper was.  Hal read it and tears slowly formed in his eyes.  He looked at me and said “David, you’re a wonderful son, Thank you.”  I could see the glow in his eyes and for a brief moment this 83 year old WWII veteran, grandfather and successful lawyer was a teenager back in Rochester, New York standing on the stage at Benjamin Franklin High School receiving his diploma sixty eight years late.  

Post script:  You can see the Channel Five segment of the Honor Flight and a shot of Hal holding his diploma at http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local-beat/The_Honor_Flight_Chicago.html.   Honor Flight is a charity organization that has devoted itself solely to taking WWII veterans to Washington DC to see the memorial they fought so hard for.   Currently 90 percent of WWII veterans have passed away and this race against time.  You can earn more about them at Honorflightchicago.org.

David J. Winer proudly works with his father at the law firm of Winer and Winer in Waukegan.