WWII Veterans Honored at Special High School Graduation Ceremony
An important event took place June 14, 2014, at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico.
Five WWII veterans from Jemez were honored and presented with honorary high school diplomas in a graduation ceremony. Several others were recognized and graduated posthumously. One of those veterans, Geronimo Fragua, had been interviewed for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, and had been one of the first men to arrive at Dachau Concentration Camp. As a member of the Tank Corps, he was also one of the first at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Others, and their families, had been interviewed for articles written for the Museum of the American Military Family.
The men from Jemez played important roles in the war, despite their being very young at the time. In fact, they were drafted before they graduated from high school. Hence, the ceremony 70+ years later.
We at the Museum of the American Military Family were honored to share in the celebration at Jemez.
I thought about the events that happened decades prior.
The teenaged boys were drafted while in school, leaving a tight-knit community, from which they had, largely, not been involved with others outside their community. They were sent to fight a war in a country far, far away for a country, which, historically, had not treated their ancestors fairly.
Tribal officials say 53 men and two women from the pueblo were called to duty during the war. The Albuquerque Journal reported that US Military historians say that more than 44,000 American Indians served between 1941 and 1945.
These pictures were flashed on a screen during the graduation. I was unable to get photos of all the young men.
The young men of Jemez and their families had their lives put on hold while the war was being fought. On the 14th, the ceremony picked up where time had stopped over 70 years ago. It was a wonderful, happy occasion.
I scanned the gym to see if I recognized anyone from my brief visit in 2011.
Several years ago, I had had the honor and pleasure of meeting Mabel, whose husband had fought in World War II, her daughter Rose, and Rosalie, who is married to Geronimo, another WWII Veteran.
These wonderful women kept their spirits up, their families together and the home fires burning, as did many other Jemez mothers and fathers grandparents, aunts, uncles and wives while their loved ones were far away.
I was eager to reunite with the women I’d met before.
We had arrived at the Walatowa Charter School gym just prior to the graduation, and the place was packed. The graduates—all in their late 80’s and 90’s — stood just inside, dressed in gowns and caps, shaking hands with everyone.
I found myself sitting next to Norma, a military mom whom I’d interviewed while at the Pueblo. We snapped pictures, commented on the way the potted plants blocked our view of the honorees, and laughed and clapped and cried as the graduates filed past.
The ceremony was moving and well planned. In typical New Mexico fashion, the ceremony was both in English and Native languages. Guest speakers included Tribal Elders and Governors, representatives from Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico National Guard and family members representing each family.
Governor Martinez sent commemorative certificates; the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C sent pins and a letter of appreciation. The Walatowa Charter School principal passed out certificates to the delighted graduates.
All of us in the room were so proud. Regardless if we knew the graduates personally or not—they were our graduates. They were our family. We were one.
These feelings are shared by all military families, regardless of generation or conflict. The emotions of pride, fear, love and duty have been etched in us since the moment we became a military family. We have each other’s back. We celebrate together.
And now some of our own were graduating—and we couldn’t be happier or prouder.
After the ceremony, there was a sumptuous lunch buffet. The women of Jemez served the over 300 guests. There were dozens of items and desserts to choose from. Between the bread pudding and the spicy fry bread, my father was in heaven.
As we walked out to the car to head back home, we met up with one of the new graduates.
What did it feel like to be the class of 2014?
“I never thought I’d see the day” he said.
We’re so glad he did.
Story and photos by Circe Woessner