Thursday night at Oak Hills High School, 36 veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War received belated high school diplomas.


"For some of you, it's been a long time coming," said San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Gary Thomas. "We want you to know that your nation has not forgotten you."


The county's Operation Recognition program provides high school diplomas to those whose high school careers were interrupted by World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War -- including one veteran, Army and Coast Guard veteran Arturo Aranza, who served in all three wars -- or because they were placed in internment camps during World War II.


Some came in uniform. Others wore jackets, caps or t-shirts proclaiming their military service. Vietnam War Navy veteran Joseph L. Tucci even brought a mortarboard and gown.


"I waited 50 years," Vietnam War Navy veteran Gilberto Ortiz crowed, holding his diploma above his head as he headed down the reception line of dignitaries.


The ceremony held an added significance for two of the school officials in attendance Thursday night.


Thomas' own father, Korean War veteran Anthony Thomas, was one of six veterans to receive a diploma posthumously. (Thomas had avoided submitting his father's name, out of a fear of being perceived as using the program in his own interest, but his staff put the name in behind his back, he tearfully told the audience.)


"You'll never know how much this means to me and my family," he said.


Also among those receiving their diplomas Thursday night was Luis Porras, the father of Oak Hills High School Principal Larry Porras.


This was the third year Operation Recognition was held in San Bernardino County -- the program is based on a similar program in Riverside County -- and it was the first time the graduation ceremony took place in an actual high school.


"So, graduates, how do you feel now?" Thomas asked the veterans, who clutched their newly won diplomas. "This is just a small way for us to show our appreciation. ... So here's to the class of 2011."


Thomas then led the audience of several hundred people in a standing ovation.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.