AKRON, Ohio — The last graduate of the Class of 1943 at Norton High School will be awarded his diploma today.
Resting alongside 7,991 other veterans at a cemetery in Belgium, Harold L. Lytle won’t be there to accept it.
A month before graduation in June 1943, the U.S. government drafted Lytle, a Barberton native, and many of his classmates.
Joe Nedoh, a fellow classmate and veteran, recalls the letter from the Akron Draft Board. “We were all drafted,” he said.
About 90 percent of Norton High School males were drafted that year, Nedoh estimates. But most, including Nedoh and classmate Donald Verhotz, were allowed to finish high school before they were deployed.
Nedoh and Verhotz were given a two-week grace period after graduating before they were shipped to Fort Hayes in Columbus. Nedoh eventually would fly in B-24 bombers over China and Burma in the Pacific theater; Verhotz was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
Neither was close to Lytle in high school, but both say Lytle, who received the Purple Heart, deserves the honor of finally graduating.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Verhotz said.
Verhotz and Lytle, who went directly into service, both landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and fought through France and Belgium as the allies pressed toward Germany.
Much of what happened to Lytle after he landed on Omaha Beach remains a mystery, however. His body rests at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.
Every year on national holidays, Belgian schoolteacher Tom Peeters places a U.S. flag in the ground next to the cross-shaped tombstone that marks Lytle’s grave.
Peeters has adopted a couple of graves since 2010 to commemorate the fallen U.S. soldiers who fought to liberate his grandparents when German forces occupied the Netherlands. He also researches the names on the headstones and documents the soldiers’ lives on his website.
Peeters and Verhotz say Lytle most likely fought in the Netherlands and Germany. He died storming a village in Stolberg, Germany, with the 104th Infantry Division on Nov. 21, 1944, and was buried about 20 miles west in Belgium.
A box of photos surfaced at a local antique shop in Belgium. Lytle’s name was written on the back of one black-and-white print. The photos were donated to the Barberton Veterans of Foreign Affairs Post 1066.
Peeters later requested the photos from the VFW and attached them to Lytle’s story on his website.
After nearly 70 years, Verhotz, 87, was moved when he read that story on Peeters’ website. He still wonders what happened to Lytle.
He drafted a letter of his own to the Norton Board of Education, asking that Lytle finally receive his diploma.
Ken Caldwell, business manager for Norton schools, moved quickly to apply for a posthumous diploma through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The application was successful, and a tri-folded American flag and plaque commemorating Lytle’s service sit in a corner of Rob Howerton’s office at Norton High School.
Howerton, the assistant principal, will coordinate the high school’s 10th annual Veterans Day assembly, where Lytle and others will be celebrated.
“The whole reason we do what we do is to honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans,” Howerton said. “July Fourth, we think about it. Veterans Day we think about it. But really it’s something that we should think about much more often than that.”
Howerton launched the Veterans Day event a decade ago as the social studies teacher. The program, which hosted 150 veterans and guests last year, features student-performed speeches, poems and a slideshow. Bagpipes will usher in a somber remembrance this year.
Lytle will be among many who are recognized.
Howerton isn’t sure who will accept the diploma. The U.S. Department of Foreign Affairs usually gives a posthumous award to a relative.
But Lytle’s siblings have all died. And few remain who knew him.