Patriotism Before Pomp and Circumstance: 89-Year Old U.S. Army Veteran Set To Receive High School Diploma

James Lenon

After serving during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, James Lenon, Jr., will receive his high school diploma on Tuesday, November 10, at the age of 89.

At dawn every morning, 89-year old Riverside resident and U.S. Army Veteran, James Lenon, Jr., steps out onto his patio to raise the flags of the United States and the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry. At sunset each day, he reverses course and lowers both flags for the evening.

“When I’m raising and lowering the flags, I’m thinking about where those flags have been with me in my life,” Lenon said. “I remember all the places I’ve been and how many times I’ve given a salute to that flag.”

Now a resident of Riverside, Jim Lenon is set to receive an honorary high school diploma as part of Riverside County’s Ninth Annual Operation Recognition event on November 10. In advance of Veterans Day, Lieutenant Colonel Lenon will be one of 11 veterans who will walk across the stage in caps and tassels on Tuesday, November 10, 2015, at 2 p.m. at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center (14075 Frederick Street, Moreno Valley). The event is free and open to the public.

Operation Recognition is a program of the Riverside County Office of Education that presents diplomas to residents of Riverside County who missed completing high school due to military service in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or due to internment in World War II Japanese-American relocation camps. Operation Recognition high school diplomas are authorized to be granted to eligible veterans by the California Education Code, Section 51440.

As a child growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, Jim Lenon Jr. embraced his roots as a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Native American tribe and a deep family tradition of outdoorsmanship that provided a foundation for becoming a highly-decorated soldier in the U.S. Army where he served during World War II, the Korean War, and during the Vietnam War.

Lenon learned to ride a horse bareback before entering kindergarten and started hunting with a .22-caliber Ruger rifle only a few years later. Before attending school each day with the other 75 students at Gibson Elementary just off the reservation, he would check his many muskrat traps.

“There was a bounty on rabbits and other small animals,” Lenon said. “Magpies were worth 2.5 cents a head and that was spending money for me.”

As a teenager, Lenon relocated to the Pacific Northwest and found work in the budding defense industry before joining the U.S. Army in 1944. After basic training, his marksmanship skills found him carrying a M-1 Garand rifle to the front lines of World War II in Germany. After extended time in foxholes and on endless patrols, the war ended. Because he had just arrived, he was required to stay as part of the “rebuilding life” period of occupation and became responsible for collecting and overseeing thousands of German officers who were prisoners of war.After returning to Blackfoot, he met a young woman at the local cinema and decided to ask her out on a date—unknowingly setting into motion a series of events that has led to 67 years of marriage.

“There was this spark from the beginning,” Jim said. “We courted for 6-8 months and that’s how Helen became part of the Lenon tribe.”

Unable to find solid work, Lenon re-enlisted and served as a recruiter before applying and being accepted to Officer Candidate School in 1948.

“I came out of World War II as a first sergeant, but didn’t know anything about what that meant,” Lenon said.

Lenon’s assignments took him all across the country with Helen at his side—including when the Korean War broke out and orders arrived in 1949 to report to Japan as part of the 1st Cavalry. For nearly a year, Lenon fought in Korea while Helen waited in Japan—living through the winter in a Quonset hut.

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While in Korea, Lenon was involved in several conflicts that resulted in him receiving the silver star, bronze star, and two purple hearts.

“We couldn’t see them, but we could hear the bullets popping over our heads and even feel them whiz by us,” Lenon said. “I didn’t know I had been hit—I thought it was dirt that had kicked up on my leg.”

Lenon had been shot in the foot and hit with shrapnel from a mortar round to his leg. He returned to Tokyo to recuperate and was reunited with Helen. He returned home shortly thereafter and served in a variety of roles at military bases in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Many of his assignments employed the same skills he had honed with a rifle ever since he was a child in the Idaho wilderness. He trained the nation’s best marksmen that were in training for military service—including snipers and athletes training for Olympic shooting competitions.

After having moved his family all around the country for more than 20 years, it was time to end the constant relocation. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Lenon retired after 23 years of service to his country in September of 1967 during the middle of the war in Vietnam.

Although the G.I. Bill was available to veterans for education, Lenon was intent on building a career and never considered pursuing education beyond the GED that he earned after returning from World War II.

“I realize now I that I didn’t do as much as I could have with education,” Jim said. “But, I knew I wanted my kids to be better than me and they are all doing well in their careers.”

Eldest son Jim graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, and daughter Lacy is working on her second master’s degree.

“From time to time, I thought about what more I could have done with an education,” Jim said. “I would come in contact with people who I could tell were educated. I could see how it had helped them along the way.”

Along with one of his war buddies, Lenon earned his real estate license after retiring from the military and built a successful business selling homes in Orange County—most in the $30,000-$100,000 price range. His enjoyment of the outdoors continued with fishing, hunting, and hiking trips. At the age of 75, he climbed Mt. Whitney.

At the age of 89, recently relocated from Orange County, Lenon remains involved with the National Sojourners, an organization of retired military officers who promote patriotism. For many years he presented ribbons and medals to JROTC students at local high schools in southern California as part of their promotion ceremonies. While at the events, many students would ask him about all the medals on his uniform that still fits him half a century later.

“I enjoyed seeing the sharp cadets and the next generation that will serve our country,” Lenon said.

With Helen still faithfully by his side, Lenon is planning to step into his U.S. Army uniform once again for the Operation Recognition event and shared what he’ll be thinking at the ceremony.

“I think what will be going through my head is how to stay upright,” Lenon said.

Operation Recognition Class of 2015

David Beaudoin
Palm Springs
U.S. Navy – World War II

Robert Michael Coe
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

Benjamin John Cusumano
Rancho Mirage
U.S. Army – World War II

Harvey Robert Harris
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

James Esco Lenon Jr.
U.S. Army – World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War

Joe Peña Jr.
Canyon Lake
U.S. Army – World War II

Juan Peña Jr.
U.S. Marine Corps – Vietnam War

Ruben Martinez Peters
U.S. Army – World War II

Richard Rosenthal
Palm Springs
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

Jacinto Reyes Salinas
U.S. Army – Vietnam

Ralph Hamilton Wolfe Jr.
U.S. Navy – World War II