After being drafted during his senior year of high school to the Army Air Forces during World War II, Wilbur E. Brown resigned himself to thinking that his diploma was a casualty of war - something he had sacrificed to contribute toward preserving America's freedoms.
So it was understandable that the 76-year-old's excitement was visible yesterday as he walked across the auditorium of Carroll County's Century High School while family, friends and neighbors cheered his belated graduation.
"I didn't think this would ever happen," Brown said moments after he and 11 other World War II veterans received diplomas as part of a ceremony to honor the men who left school early to defend their country.
"It's something I dreamt of and thought about and just never thought would happen," he said. "There's a lot of us who should have had it who didn't come back home to get it."
With yesterday's veterans graduation ceremony - the first in Maryland - Carroll County joined a growing number of school systems nationwide to recognize World War II veterans by awarding the diplomas they missed when they enlisted or were drafted. About 35 states have undertaken similar efforts since Massachusetts held the first "Operation Recognition" graduation in 1999.
Boy Scout Troop 1750 presented the graduates with a flag yesterday, though their salutes might not have been quite as crisp as they once were. Several graduates good-naturedly hollered for Lucille Zepp, the wife of a deceased World War II veteran, to use a microphone when she sang "America the Beautiful" to close the ceremony - reminding her that "we're seniors and can't hear too well."
But nothing could detract from the poignancy of a graduation ceremony that interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker called "the nicest and most important one I've been to."
President Bush, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and members of Maryland's congressional delegation sent letters of congratulations. An appreciative William Donald Schaefer, the state's comptroller and former governor who served as an Army administrator in Europe during World War II, personally thanked the graduates.
The Naval Academy's 21-piece band punctuated the ceremony with patriotic music and a medley of the four armed services' official songs.
A presentation by graduation speaker Joanna Eckenrode, a Westminster High senior, featured vignettes about each graduate's wartime heroics and photographs of the men as young soldiers, sailors and airmen and more recently as fathers and grandfathers.
"The men we honor today understand sacrifice. They understand commitment. They understand war," said Carroll school board member Thomas G. Hiltz, a Naval Academy graduate and commander in the Naval Reserves, who was master of ceremonies. "Some may have volunteered enthusiastically, others more reluctantly. ... What matters is that they answered the call to duty and defended freedom. We owe them more than a high school diploma - we owe them our way of life."
The men were visibly moved by the attention.
Navy Senior Warrant Officer Henry C. Singer, 88, mopped his eyes with a red handkerchief as he listened to the Navy's song and later choked up as he explained that he had been thinking of all the friends he lost in the war.
William H. Brown, 80, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, triumphantly raised his diploma in the air and whooped with excitement as about 200 audience members applauded the Veterans Class of 2001.
Throughout the ceremony, Wilbur Brown could not stop smiling.
"I'm just delighted," he said. "From the time I came back from overseas, I just live one day at a time because in September 1944 I should have been dead. To this day, I don't know how I got out of that plane."
Brown, an Army Air Forces flight engineer, was on a bombing mission in Germany when a swarm of nearly 100 enemy fighter planes attacked.
The B-24 Liberator in which he was flying was shot out of the sky. Burned and dangling by one parachute strap, Brown was one of three of the plane's nine crewmembers to survive. He landed in a German farmer's field and spent seven months in several German prison camps before being liberated in April 1945.
"I still have fear of flying, and Sept. 11 really set me off," Brown said. "I see all the planes around me that day blowing up and I relive it all the time. So something like this, to be recognized like this, really means a lot."