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Returning vets in NH Hall
Many returning veterans found temporary quarters in New Hampshire Hall. Courtesy University Museum

Johnny Came Marching Home

By Bill Burtis

"I thought I was going to die," says UNH Professor Emeritus Donald Murray '48, recalling his service with the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe during World War II. "That was my way of dealing with terror: just to say, 'I'm going to die,' and kind of get that behind me. So, when the war ended and I found myself attending classes at UNH, I was very pleased to be here."

That sentiment was shared by many of Murray's postwar classmates. For him and for millions of other servicemen and women, surviving the war brought with it an additional blessing. Congress had passed the Veteran's Readjustment Act of 1944 -- the GI Bill -- and suddenly the dream of attending college became a real possibility. Eight million Americans went to college under the GI Bill, and at UNH alone undergraduate enrollment jumped from 1,270 to 3,400, with veterans accounting for most of the increase.

For veterans and for the country as a whole, the GI Bill changed everything. Its education benefits and low-interest loans opened unprecedented opportunities, created a larger and more diverse middle class and contributed to the postwar boom.

Nowhere were the changes more obvious than on American campuses. Whole state-university systems were created, and new libraries, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories were built to accommodate the returning vets.

What was campus life like in those years just after the war? "We were all just happy to be home and working on getting an education," says Jack Lawson '49. "If we went to class at 7 in the morning or 6 at night and had longer semesters, it didn't matter very much. We were grateful for the chance to go to class at all."

Lawson had graduated from high school in Gloucester, Mass., in 1941 and had enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, he arrived at UNH as a 22-year-old with no college experience. In fact, no one in his family had been to college. "If it hadn't been for the GI Bill, the odds are that I would have returned home to work," he says. "But this was a unique opportunity, because with the tuition money and stipend, you could go to college even if you didn't have any money."

You didn't hear many complaints because it was like the Taj Mahal compared to where they'd been.

Murray recalls that the veterans were serious, demanding students. "We asked Professor [Gwynn Harris] Daggett for an additional class period because we wanted to get more time with him, and he almost fainted," Murray says. "We wanted our education quickly. We wanted to get jobs and single-family homes and get right into the middle class."

Because of the veterans' maturity and experience, "there was an aura of responsibility about us," according to Alphonse Swekla '50. The veterans "knew more about what life was like, and they were concentrating on preparing themselves for a good future and putting the sad part behind them."

But that wasn't always easy. "I served on a Navy destroyer escort out of Okinawa, in combat," Swekla explains. "The transition was a little rough, coming from a situation where you and everyone around you had your lives in jeopardy every day. All of a sudden you're with people who know nothing about that, and they are younger and kind of gay and carefree in spirit."

Many veterans also had to adjust to scraping by on the GI Bill's "subsistence allowance." A single veteran received $65 a month to cover the cost of room and board. Married veterans received $90 a month, or $155 if both husband and wife were vets. Veterans also received $500 per year for tuition, books and supplies. (Annual tuition at that time was $160 for state residents.)

Another problem for veterans was housing. New dormitories were built (Gibbs, Englehardt and Hunter), and surplus barracks were assembled on College Road, but housing was still tight. "I knew veterans who lived in two-room apartments with three kids," Swekla says. "But you didn't hear many complaints because that was like the Taj Mahal compared to where they'd been."

No one knows how many veterans have attended UNH over the years with the help of the GI Bill, but between the 1947 and 1950 academic years, there were probably between 6,000 and 8,000 of them. They came to the university to change their lives, and in the process they changed the university. ~

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