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ROCK RIVER — On stage before their family and friends on Thursday, the six teenage graduates of Rock River High School talked about what all graduates talk about: their hopes, their plans and their values they will carry as they approach adulthood.

But sitting with the six was a seventh member of Rock River’s class of 2012. And for 85-year-old Burt Noe, graduation day wasn’t a milestone opening the door to life’s opportunities — it was a culmination of a lifelong dream.

In 1944, Noe — pronounced “NOH-ee” — dropped out of Rock River School his senior year to join the U.S. Navy. He served as a gunner on an ammunition supply ship — a prospective target that terrified sailors on other ships to tears when they came near it. He shot down several attacking Japanese fighter planes and was wounded after falling onto a bed of metal shrapnel.

Noe’s accomplishments didn’t end with the war. He returned to Wyoming and worked as a truck driver and on a ranch breaking horses. He married and now has two kids, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He even got his GED in the early 1950s.

But the entire time, Noe said, he kicked himself for not staying in school long enough to get his diploma.

“Hell, you make a lot of mistakes in life, and I think I made a mistake when I went,” Noe said. “I just felt like this would complete my life if I get to go back to high school and get to graduate.”

Noe has overcome a lot of hurdles in his life.

Growing up west of Wheatland, his mother packed a suitcase and walked out on the family when he was 5. She told Burt that his father would be home later that day.

But his dad didn’t come home. There was a cave-in that day in the canyon where he was building a road for the Works Progress Administration, blocking his route home.

Burt spent the next week at home alone, milking the cows and collecting eggs as usual. For food, he broke into jars of canned peaches and pears with a rock.

When Noe was 9, he went to work for the nearby Shaffer family, who treated him almost as a son.

Every day, Noe rode a horse in to Rock River for school. But during his senior year, the self-described loner abruptly decided on a different path.

Without telling anyone, Noe left school and hitched a ride to Cheyenne to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

After gunnery school and Navy training — which included having to swim 60 feet under burning water — Noe was assigned to the U.S.S. Waco Victory, which followed behind Navy warships with 850,000 tons of ammunition.

Sailors on other ships were scared to death, Noe said. But he wasn’t.

“I was glad I was on it, because I figured if this baby goes, I won’t come back crippled,” he said.

Noe’s initial job was to operate the winch to move ammo over to other ships. But one day, a gunner broke down and started crying for him. Noe took over a .20-caliber machine gun.

As a supply ship’s gunner, Noe wasn’t allowed to shoot at enemy planes until Navy command gave him permission. Even so, Noe said shot down at least seven Japanese fighters, though he didn’t want to talk much about it.

“War is terrible. It’s terrible,” Noe said. “It’ll just drive you nuts.”

Noe wasn’t hurt in action, but one day in 1945 he fell 30 feet off a ladder, falling on a pile of loose ammunition pieces and metal shards.

Returning home in 1946, he took up ranching again. He met a United Airlines stewardess and got married. He now lives in Evansville with his daughter.

But one day earlier this year, Noe paid a visit to Dean Mahaffey, a Wyoming state veterans’ service officer. When Noe mentioned that he never graduated high school, Mahaffey told him about a state program called Operation: Recognition, which arranges to get diplomas for World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans who left high school to join the armed forces.

“He got very excited,” Mahaffey said. “To me, he’s one of my heroes. He left high school to go defend our country.”

Mahaffey was on hand during Thursday’s commencement ceremony to read letters of commendation to Noe from Wyoming’s congressional delegation and numerous state officials.

Standing at the end of a receiving line after the ceremony, Noe was besieged by well-wishers wanting to congratulate him and thank him for his service.

Noe gregariously shook hands with dozens of people, and responded to the praise with humility.

“You stick with your job, and I’ll stick with mine,” he kept saying.

Finally escaping to a nearby room to remove his blue graduation gown, Noe had tears in his eyes.

“It’s wonderful. Absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “People are just so grateful. We’re all working together, and you can’t ask for more. You just can’t.”

Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at 307-632-1244 or Jeremy.pelzer@trib.com

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