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World War II veteran gets his high school diploma after 76 years

By JEONG PARK | The Orange County Register | Published: June 8, 2019

Phil Montano, 94, was a World War II Navy veteran.

He was a self-taught welder, eventually working as a manager in Westinghouse's Orange plant.

He also helped lead an effort to assist the Spanish-speaking residents of Placentia's Atwood neighborhood build homes in the 1970s, an initiative that contributed to the city's naming as an "All-American City" in 1971 by the National Civic League.

But there was a "final accomplishment" he always wanted to do: Get his diploma from Valencia High.

On Friday, June 7, with his family, officials and the school's 2,800 students cheering, Montano walked along into the school's Bradford Stadium and fulfilled his dream.

Montano is the first recipient through the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District's new program launched in April to give retroactive diplomas to World War II and Vietnam War veterans. Those who were interned in camps by the government during World War II are also eligible.

Friday's ceremony was a dream 76 years in the making for Montano.

When he was finishing his junior year at Valencia in 1943, he got a military draft letter.

Days later, he went to Los Angeles with his good friend and future brother-in-law, and stood in line to join the United States Navy. The line to join the Marines was too long, he said.

He immediately left for San Diego and boot camp.

"We didn't put our heads down and pondered. We kept on going," he said. "There was no ifs and ands."

In the Navy, Montano became a baker, after winning a coin flip. The other guy became a torpedo man.

He was just done with training when he got an assignment to make bread, all by himself, for 300 soldiers on the USS Mobjack, which served as a pit stop for torpedo boats in the South Pacific.

"Overnight, you became a man with a big responsibility on his shoulders," he said.

Aboard USS Mobjack, he played his part in the liberation of the Philippines and clearing archipelagos in South Pacific. He received the Bronze Star for rescuing sailors from a burning ship.

"I wasn't thinking," he said. "I was just going along."

He served in the Navy until 1946, staying for a few more months after the war to help with the aftermath of the Battle of Okinawa. He never cashed his military checks, he said. "That wasn't money."

Montano went straight to being a welde, despite having no training.

After two decades, when a supervisor told him he couldn't get promoted because of his ethnicity, he jumped to Westinghouse, and eventually became a plant manager.

In the early 1970s, family friend and community activist Ester Gonzales came to Montano with a question: Would he want to help build new homes for the Atwood neighborhood?

"Before I knew what I was doing, I said yes," said Montano, who lived at the time in the nearby La Jolla neighborhood. "What a beautiful opportunity to help people."

He led the project's steering committee, which had no money and could not get building permits for homes because the area was zoned for industrial uses. But they persevered, helping to secure a bank loan and government grants as well as assistance from Placentia in rezoning the area.

More than 30 families eventually got those new homes by 1972.

Montano retired from Westinghouse and moved on to St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, working as a maintenance worker until he was 85.

But he still had that one thing he thought he couldn't work to get: A high school diploma.

A month ago, after a conversation with Montano, his grandson, P.J., began looking for a way to get that diploma for him.  He contacted district officials who found Montano's records and arranged the graduation ceremony through their new program.

And was there Montano on Friday, wearing a blue cap and gown, a lei around his neck. He felt a little jittery and overwhelmed, he admitted, but he was all smiles as he got his diploma, amidst cheers from the crowd.

"I'm 94-years-old," he said. "It shouldn't happen now."

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