A high school reunion remembers its D-Day graduation

From left, Ocean City grads Annette Dungan, Roland Gannon, Helen Foor. Gannon left school to join the Army in 1943 and got his diploma in 2003.
From left, Ocean City grads Annette Dungan, Roland Gannon, Helen Foor. Gannon left school to join the Army in 1943 and got his diploma in 2003. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 08, 2014

When the 74 students gathered that night for the graduation ceremony at the Music Pier in Ocean City, N.J., they didn't know about an even more momentous event unfolding 3,000 miles away in France.

At 8 p.m. on June 5, as Ocean City High School's Class of 1944 filed into a building - with painted or cloth-covered windows - thousands of Allied paratroopers were jumping behind German lines.

The D-Day invasion had begun.

On the home front, the lights on the Music Pier and along the shoreline were typically blocked or turned off at night because tankers and other ships could be silhouetted against them, making them easy targets for German U-boats.

"I thought we'd lose a lot of people [on D-Day] but that it was necessary to win the war," said one of the graduates, George Godfrey of Somers Point, who learned about the invasion, as others did, the next day and who entered active Army service less than a month later.

Godfrey, 88, a trauma specialist, general surgeon, and founding member of the American Trauma Society, was one of 11 members of Ocean City High's Class of '44 who gathered Friday for their 70th reunion at the Greate Bay Country Club.

They recalled their unusual graduation as though it were yesterday, renewed old friendships, and caught up on news.

"We were locked in the [Music Pier] building, and when the ceremonies were over, the lights were turned off," Godfrey said. "We were escorted out by people with flashlights."

By midnight in Ocean City, the main invasion force was hitting the beaches in Normandy, and the next morning, news of the attack crackled over the radio.

"We didn't know which way it would go," said Karl Clouting, 88, a '44 graduate who served in the Navy and now lives in Northfield, N.J.

He served on a repair ship and was in the Puget Sound Navy Yard when he learned the atomic bomb had been dropped in 1945. "You wondered how much longer the war would last," said Clouting, who later worked as a technician in the Federal Aviation Administration.

Another Ocean City High School graduate, Josef Kolinsky, also remembered hearing news of the Normandy invasion over the radio.

"The shells and bombs landed too much inland and didn't hit the [German] bunkers," said Kolinsky, 88, a psychiatrist and Somers Point native who lives in West Orange. "It was upsetting."

"I had friends who were there, so it was very tragic, very disturbing."

Many Ocean City High students volunteered for service before graduation. Roland "Rocky" Gannon, part of the Class of '44, dropped out of school during his junior year in 1943 at age 17.

"I went home one day, and my mother was crying," said Gannon, 89, who has homes in Ocean City and Darlington, S.C. He'd gotten a letter from the military and was sworn in to the Army in Camden.

Gannon became an aviation cadet and was in pilot training when he learned about the invasion at 4 a.m. June 6. A tactical officer "came in and said, 'Get up! D-Day is on!' " he recalled. "That was exciting."

"I was a teenager, and I was going to kick ass," he said. "We were going to take Europe on the ground, but in the beginning, we didn't know if we'd make it."

A pool was held at a local barbershop to guess when the attack would be held. "I guessed the date within a few hours," he wrote to his mother on June 6. He won 50 cents.

By the time Gannon was ready to head to Europe, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide. The war with Nazi Germany was winding down in 1945.

He was a happy 19-year-old pilot flying a B-17 with a nine-man crew - though he had never had a license to drive a car. Later, Gannon flew missions or served as a controller on the ground in Japan, including at Iwo Jima, and during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Though he had earned his GED, bachelor's and master's degrees, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, 10 air medals, and other decorations, he was delighted to receive his Ocean City High School diploma in 2003. "I tell the kids not to be discouraged," he said. "It took me 59 years to get my diploma."

One of the attendees at the reunion was not a member of the Class of'44, but he was a D-Day veteran of Omaha Beach.

Howard Hampton, 89, of Somers Point, was a medic who tried to patch up his many wounded comrades on the beach amid the gunfire and explosions.

As the radio reports arrived in Ocean City, he was living a nightmare on the beach. "Our job was to get the wounded out," said Hampton, a native of Atlantic City who managed supermarkets in Absecon and Linwood. "There were so many."

"They told us, 'If you don't think you can save the man's life, don't work on him,' " he recalled. "We had a tough time."


ecolimore@phillynews.com

856-779-3833 InkyEBC

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