SW Kansas high school awards diploma to WWII veteran

? After a 66-year delay, a man who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II finally received an honorary high school diploma.

In 1943, William Craft had walked across the stage at Kinsley High School as a provisional graduate. On Saturday, Craft, now 85, was awarded an honorary diploma from that school.

“I was half a credit short in history,” he said. “I had plans to finish it up by correspondence, but that didn’t work out.”

During what would have been his college years, Craft was aboard the World War II destroyer USS Alabama on active duty in the Pacific Ocean. He was 20 and his brother was 19 when they were both drafted just weeks before the end of the 1943 school year.

As a farm family, they received deferments until after the wheat harvest and left Kinsley together in September. Both ended up on the Alabama.

Saturday’s ceremony included a presentation of the colors by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guard. Two members of the class of 2009 who planned to enter the military after graduation were named as his escorts.

“We are glad to honor Bill Craft, both as a school and a community,” said Kinsley High School Principal William King.

Time, along with glaucoma and macular degeneration, has dimmed Craft’s eyesight, but he remains a soft-spoken man with an easy sense of humor. He is legally blind and has a 60 percent loss of hearing.

Despite those challenges, he enjoys going out with friends for breakfast or helping with housekeeping chores, and he still gets down on the living-room floor to play with his seven great-grandchildren, ages 2 to 11.

In June, he and his wife, Merle, will have been married for 63 years.

On the Alabama, William Craft served as an electrician, responsible for the wiring that fired two of the ship’s nine 16-inch guns that were grouped in three turrets.

“When they asked me if I knew anything about it, I told them I had helped my dad wire the house from the windmill,” he said. “We had put two lights in the house. They made me an electrician.”

His brother Neil was assigned as a powder bag carrier tied to firing the big guns. Because they were stationed on opposite ends of the ship, they didn’t see much of each other.

“We were out there fighting the war,” Craft said.

The ship was launched in February 1942. It saw 37 months of active duty during the war and earned nine battle stars.

Craft doesn’t remember being afraid during those battles.

“I had my job to do, three decks down,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on up top.”

After the war, he and Merle married. They lived in Kinsley and later Hutchinson, where he worked for Consolidated Rebuilders and the Hutchinson school district. She worked for 21 years at Hutchinson Community College.

They have one daughter, the Rev. Linda Steward, of Wichita, a United Methodist minister, and a son, Richard, of Maize. Both are married. They also have eight grandchildren.