DEL CITY — Frances Bickell didn't get his high school diploma, but he got an education during World War II.
While many of his classmates were graduating from Yale High School, Bickell, now 88, was marching into Germany with Patton's 3rd Army and treating survivors from one of the first liberated concentration camps in the Buchenwald complex.
On Saturday, Yale High School will give Bickell the diploma he passed up 70 years ago to serve his country.
“I missed that diploma a lot,” Bickell said. “I could have gone a lot further after the war if I'd had a diploma.”
Bickell dropped out of school and was drafted by the U.S. Army. He trained as a combat medic and sailed to France on the Queen Mary.
“When we got off the ship in France, we could see the harbor had been bombed out, and there were sunken ships all over,” Bickell said.
He arrived on the front lines just as the Battle of the Bulge got under way in the winter of 1944. Bickell was a front line medic and litter bearer. He and his buddies used to joke that the red and white crosses marking them as medics just served as a bull's eye for the enemy.
As the Allies beat back the German offensive in the Ardennes and marched into Germany, Bickell was confronted with the scenes that would haunt his memory for the rest of his life.
He was assigned to help treat the survivors of a concentration camp that had been liberated. He saw mass graves. As the Allies closed in, the Nazi officers in charge of the camp lined up many of the prisoners at the top of a trench and shot them to death, setting their bodies on fire.
“The smell in that place was horrible,” Bickell said. “You could smell burnt flesh and feces. I never want to see anything like that again.”
After the war, Bickell moved to California, where he met his wife, Anna. They eventually settled in Del City and raised a family. Bickell got his barber's license and cut hair both in Del City and at Tinker Air Force Base before he retired in 1988.
“He had stressed to the kids so much growing up that they get their education,” Anna Bickell said. “I think that stuck with them.”
Keith Bickell said his father's regrets about never getting his diploma ate at him. After the topic came up one night while they were playing board games, he went home and told his wife he was going to help his father get his high school diploma.
Keith Bickell, 59, had seen stories on the news about a program allowing World War II vets to apply for high school diplomas they missed out on during the war. He found the program, gathered together his father's military records and filled out the application.
Eager to help
Officials at Yale schools were eager to help. The Bickells visited the school to make arrangements last month.
“The superintendent met us at the door,” Keith Bickell said. “He knew my father's name. They were very gracious.”
At first, Frances Bickell wasn't sure about wearing a cap and gown during the graduation ceremony, but his children talked him into it, he said. He will walk on stage Saturday, 70 years older than his fellow graduates.
He said he is grateful to get the diploma he always wished he had and thankful for the response from those in the Yale community who have embraced him. But he won't be partying with his fellow graduates afterward.
“We're going to have a family picnic in the park,” Bickell said.