Tipton man receives high school diploma 77 years after joining Tuskegee Airmen

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JEFFERSON CITY - A special high school commencement ceremony was held in Jefferson City Sunday afternoon, but with a graduating class of only one.

That's because 96-year-old James Shipley was due to graduate nearly 77 years ago before he was called to serve in World War II.

Shipley completed the eleventh grade in Tipton, but did not have the means to travel to Sedalia to finish his education at the only school in the area open to African-Americans.

Instead, he began working as a mechanic until a recruiter convinced him to join the U.S. Army Air Forces.

In 1942, Shipley would enlist as a member of the 332nd Fighter Group and become one of the original Tuskegee Airmen at only 19 years old.

His service soon took him to Italy where he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant and named a crew chief of the 301st Fighter Squadron.

His work on aircraft bombers allowed the first crew of African-American military aviators to dismantle 112 enemy planes in air and damage or destroy another 298 on the ground.

With his military accomplishments, Aaron McPherson, Shipley's grandson, never realized his grandfather did not graduate high school.

"He made it this far in life being 96 years old, a black man and not having a diploma but being able to work and take care of his family; that's pretty neat...He's a happy-go-lucky guy, he's really humble, so this is a big day," McPherson said 

Tipton Schools Superintendent Terry Robinson recalled first meeting Shipley two years ago when he spoke at a Veteran's Day assembly. He vividly remembered Shipley's message of perseverance and never giving up, no matter the obstacles.

"[Shipley] continued to learn and serve our nation, even though our own school district at the time said he couldn't graduate," he said.

Even after being denied a high school diploma and working under a commanding officer that reminded the airmen often of his Ku-Klux-Klan allegiance, Shipley looks back on his younger years fondly.

"I am happy to be a Tuskegee Airman and I am blessed to be in the United States of America. It's just a privilege to meet so many nice people...People begin to realize color doesn't matter, but it's what's in your heart. That's the way I feel," he said.

Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe and retired Major General Hank Stratman presented Shipley with the diploma as part of Missouri's Operation Recognition program.

The state has presented diplomas to over 1,600 qualifying veterans since 2001.