SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — An "Old Reliable" who fought for years in World War II will graduate from high school Saturday, two months after turning 100 years old.
George Hulka Jr., attended a one-room schoolhouse as a kid until eighth grade and then worked on his family's dairy farm in the town of Saratoga until the military plucked him for duty in 1941. A combat infantryman, Hulka rifled his way across north Africa and Europe for nearly three years and fought Nazis in eight combat campaigns. He survived the decisive D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and subsequent battles in France and Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge.
"We just kept going," Hulka said Tuesday at a nursing home where he's recovering from a broken leg.
Hulka returned to Saratoga County after the war ended and raised a family with his wife, Shirley. He turned 100 in April. On Saturday, several family members will look on as the ex-soldier receives a high school diploma from the Schuylerville School District. The ceremony comes with a special twist. Hulka will graduate alongside Devin Stark, his 19-year-old great-grandson who is a member of Schuylerville's Class of 2014. Stark will accept Hulka's diploma at a podium and present it to him at a ceremony in Saratoga Springs.
Hulka is one of six veterans who will receive diplomas from Schuylerville schools as part of "Operation Recognition." The statewide program allows school districts to issue diplomas to World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans who lived in the state and attended New York schools but didn't finish their education.
Born in Victory, Hulka attended a small school in Saratoga until he finished eighth grade, the last grade offered at the rural schoolhouse. He chopped wood, fed cows and worked as a mechanic before getting drafted into the Army at age 27 on Jan. 7, 1941.
"He says that's the only lottery he ever won," Hulka's daughter, Karen Austin of Saratoga, said.
Hulka was returning home from Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Dec. 7, 1941, when he stopped at a gas station in Albany and heard the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By the time the private made it to his parents' farm, Army commanders had called for him to return to base.
"They told me to come back and I went back and joined the 9th Division," Hulka said. The division became known as the Old Reliables. Hulka landed in north Africa and saw action in the Algeria-French Morocco and Tunisia campaigns. He fought at Sicily and landed on Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day.
"It was hell," Hulka said. "I got out of a landing craft and ran like hell, ducking and jumping over bodies and all the things that go with war." The invasion of Europe marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
Hulka moved with the Army and battled Germans in northern France, the Ardennes, central Europe and Rhineland, according to military records. While overseas, Hulka came down with malaria and suffered loss of hearing when a bomb exploded near him. He received a Bronze Star and several other medals, and was honorably discharged on Aug. 6, 1945, at the rank of technical sergeant.
Shirley, Hulka's wife of 64 years, died in 2010. The couple had four children. Hulka will move back into his own home in Corinth when his leg heals, Austin, his daughter, said. She put the pieces together for Saturday's graduation.
Hulka plans to frame his high school diploma and hang it on a wall in his home. His great-grandson, who lives on farmland where Hulka grew up, said he was very proud of the ex-soldier.
"I think he's a very amazing man for what he did," Stark said.
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