WWII vet achieves dream of graduating high school

(CBS News) SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Eighty-eight-year-old Paul Lopez was just 17 when he joined the Navy. It was 1943 -- right before the start of his senior year at Santa Barbara High.

Fighting for his country was "more important," Lopez says. "So we left."

Paul Lopez manned anti-aircraft guns on the USS Maryland.
Paul Lopez manned anti-aircraft guns on the USS Maryland.
CBS News

Lopez manned anti-aircraft guns on the USS Maryland. The battleship was hit by a Japanese suicide pilot near the Philippines.

"You just can't describe, you know, walking over and helping pick up the body parts," Lopez says. "I just hope nobody ever has to go through that again."

He didn't think he could feel any farther away from home until a friend sent him a newspaper clipping about the graduating class of 1944 - his class.

"Oh I was devastated," Lopez remembers. "When I'd seen that photo and I just think of, 'My God, what am I going to tell my grandkids?' You know? 'Your grandfather didn't graduate.'"

Diego and his parents arranged for Paul Lopez to finally get his high school diploma.
Diego and his parents arranged for Paul Lopez to finally get his high school diploma.
CBS News

That day came when his grandson Diego started at Santa Barbara High.

"He would talk to me about his war days, and then he would talk about, you know, how proud he was of me that I got to go to this high school," Diego says.

At Diego's graduation ceremony this month, nobody was prouder than his grandfather -- but not for the reason you'd think.

Diego and his parents had arranged for Paul Lopez to finally get his high school diploma. It was such a good idea that the school invited four other World War II vets to receive honorary diplomas.

"It was something that I didn't think would be possible for me at my age, but hey, I did it," Lopez says, adding he plans to put his diploma "right in my mantle with my grandson's picture."

A defining moment for two seniors in the class of 2013.