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St. Petersburg High Class of 1944 recalls D-day on 70th anniversary

C.O. Ritch as a senior, above, and with historic papers in his home at left. Ritch, 88, served in the U.S. Navy on submarine patrol after graduating.
C.O. Ritch as a senior, above, and with historic papers in his home at left. Ritch, 88, served in the U.S. Navy on submarine patrol after graduating.
Published Jun. 5, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

Martha Rudy Wallace remembers it well. Newly graduated from St. Petersburg High School, she and some friends had crossed the bay to celebrate.

"We were enjoying our freedom after the graduation ceremony, and six of us went over to Tampa and found ourselves hungry," she said. Nothing would do but Cuban sandwiches, and they headed to the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. "It might have been 1 or 2 in the morning at that time."

There was a newspaper vending machine outside, "and the big, black headline was there," Wallace said.

D-day. The invasion of the Normandy beaches in France. The beginning of the end of World War II.

Graduation ceremonies were the evening of June 5, 1944. Today, the 70th anniversary of the onslaught, the class of 1944 will meet at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club for what they are calling their "last hurrah."

The reunion committee — Wallace, Gene Bauerlein, Bill Davenport, Bill Hough, Ed Maloof, Janice Guenther Miller, C.O. Ritch, Barbara Peters Sexton and Mickey Branning Walker — decided it was time. Of the 386 in their graduating class, about 10 percent plan to attend the luncheon.

Over the years, the classmates got together as a group in 10-year increments, then every five "as we aged," Ritch said. "We were losing too many members."

"In the last few years, we have met every year for a luncheon," Wallace said. They bid farewell to Dr. Joe Burns, a St. Petersburg surgeon and their "forever president," after his death in July. "This is the first time we've had a reunion without him," she said.

"We are part of the Greatest Generation," said Ritch, 88. The retired stockbroker and his classmates were born just before the Depression and World War II, endured both and "helped the nation get back on its feet," he said.

Unless disqualified, every boy in the class served in the military in some way.

"All of us went somewhere," said Ritch, who was in the U.S. Navy on submarine patrol outside Jacksonville and prepared to head to the West Coast before the war ended in 1945.

At St. Petersburg High, most of the students participated in the Victory Corps, collecting paper and junk, learning to wrap bandages, studying marksmanship.

Ritch, who described himself as having been an average student, said he was more concerned about graduating than about going into the armed services.

And once he had completed his studies at the University of Florida, he said, "I knew that if I possibly could, I wanted to come back and live in St. Pete," where he remembered swimming in Coffee Pot Bayou. "When the tide was out, it was all white sand. There was something about the pace that appealed to me.''

Wallace, a onetime Pinellas School Board member, mentioned "the enduring friendships" sustained among their peers.

"We think this is a very special and exciting time, and we are all looking forward to it," she said.

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