Charlie Levezque, 91, of Colonie, wasn’t able to finish his high school diploma, what with joining the Navy at age 17 and shipping off to the Pacific during WWII.
He eventually finished his GED – getting it in the mail one day – but never returned for his formal high school diploma as he started his career as a welder after the war. But on Wednesday, Levezque was welcomed into the Niskayuna class of 2018, receiving a degree under a state law that lets school districts grant diplomas to military veterans.
The diploma bestowal came as part of an annual panel of WWII veterans who share their stories with students at Iroquis Middle School.
“I’m happy and pleased you did this honor for me. These other veterans deserve it just as much as I do, maybe more. It’s overwhelming and I thank you,” said Levezque, who didn’t know the district planned to grant him the degree. “Well, I guess it’s better late than never.”
Levezque grew up on a farm without electricity on Wolf Road in Colonie, where he attended School 19. As a 17-year-old in March 1944, he and four friends went to Albany to enlist. He joined the Navy and was assigned to Flagship USS Teton, which handled communication for a large fleet of ships.
Speaking to the middle school students before he was granted the diploma, he recalled brutal storms that nearly capsized his ship as it made its way to the Pacific theater. When they arrived in Okinawa to support an invasion by the Marines, his ship eased into calm waters. The quiet before the real storm.
“It was calm and beautiful, nothing was happening. Oh boy, were we in for a big surprise,” he said, before recounting for the students the barrage of aerial attacks that spread out over 82 days during the fierce Battle of Okinawa in April, May and June 1945.
“They came over in throngs. They had a lot of targets,” he said. “That lasted 80 days: morning, day and night.”
His ship survived 150 attacks from Japanese kamikaze pilots, including a pair of close calls he shared with the students. At one point, he watched as an attack plane headed straight for his ship until, near the last moment, it was struck in the right wing and crashed into the ocean. “I thought that was the end,” he said. If the plane had been struck somewhere else, his ship may have been sprayed with a flood of shrapnel.
The soon-to-be high school graduate also offered the middle school students a bit of sage advice, a commencement speech of sorts. He compared life to a highway and warned students to avoid dangerous side streets like drugs and drinking and driving. But he also warned against low self-esteem and jealousy of others, urging the students to pursue their own personal passion and talents.
“Be yourself, you’re unique, you’re one of a kind,” he told the students. “Every one has talents; if you know what they are, that’s what you work on. Don’t worry about what someone else is, because you can’t be them.”
Levezque was joined by a panel of five other WWII veterans, including Bernhard Graf von Schwerin, a former German soldier who served in a Panzer tank division and fought on the German side of the Battle of the Bulge. His daughter, Monica Judd, is an eighth-grade science teacher at Iroquois.
Bill Rochelle described the intensive training he did to prepare for his job as a bombardier on a B-17. He and his crew logged more than 30 missions over Europe, including raids on Berlin, Austria and other major cities under Nazi control.
George Williams served in the infantry as a mortar man, fighting from the shores of France as Allied forces pushed back against German gains. Alan Atwell landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy three months after the D-Day landings, but he still faced German fire and debris leftover from the battles that engulfed the beaches there for the months prior. Long after the war, he was invited to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
“That’s a very high honor I will always cherish,” he said.
The students offered their own words of appreciation – in song. The Iroquis seventh- and eighth-grade choir serenaded the veterans with a patriotic rendition about the sacrifices they made so that Americans can enjoy the freedoms they helped protect.
The students sang: “We sing this grateful song to the soldier who has traveled to countries far and near. In peace and war, you paid the price, for the cause you hold so dear. That we may wake each morning brings, and now that freedom rings.”