I was surprised by the American Legion Magazine interview on the GI Bill with Henry Kissinger and Hank Greenberg (June 2017). These are two public figures whom I’ve long admired despite their politics. It was a revelation that both Kissinger and Greenberg are products of the GI Bill—that leveling post-World War II legislation that changed the intellectual and productivity spaces of the United States. I too am a product of the GI Bill as are thousands of other World War II veterans.
However, what disappointed me was the absence of a voice of color uplifted by the GI Bill. World War II was not just a white conflict. Americans of all colors served heroically in defense of the nation, including Japanese Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans as well as African Americans and Mexican Americans. Of the 16 million American men and women in uniform during World War II, almost 1 million were Hispanics (Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) mostly Mexican Americans, winning more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group..
I don’t have an office on Park Avenue like Kissinger and Greenberg. Thanks to the largesse of the university, at 91, I have an office in the Library at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico, where I’m Distinguished Scholar in Residence because of the GI Bill. Silver City sits on the edge of the Gila Wilderness at 6,000 feet on the Continental Divide. I may live to be 100 because Shangri-la is rumored to be somewhere in the vicinity.
[What follows is in the same format as the Kissinger and Greenberg interviews.]
Describe your entry into the military service and early experience of it.
I turned 17 on August 23, 1943 during the dark days of World War II when victory barely loomed likely despite victories at Guadalcanal and Tarawa. There was still two years of war ahead of us.
That Spring, I had run afoul of the Juvenile Justice System in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was 16. My penalty was incarceration and rehabilitation at Thorne Hill Juvenile Detention Facility, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania under Judge Musmanno’s jurisdiction; Judge Michael Musmanno served as a judge in courts of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Thanks to his counsel I joined the Marines that August when I turned 17. My record would be sealed. After the war, Judge Musmanno served as a presiding judge for the Einsatzgruppen Trial in US military court at Nuremberg.
The day after I enlisted I was on my way to Parris Island, South Carolina for Marine Corps Boot-Camp training. I was 5’, 5” tall and weighed 129 pounds. As tough as I thought I was Boot-Camp taught me that strength of mind was more valuable than strength of body—though both would be needed to survive the war. At the end of Boot-Camp I weighed 160 pounds and stretched in height to 5’, 6”. I wound up as a Corporal with the 24th Marine Air Group, 1st Marine Air Wing in the Pacific.
How did the Marines influence you early?
When the war ended I was a Sgt. with an MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) as an Aviation Machinist Mate. The Marines and the job gave me discipline which to this day I value. Everything I know I owe to my Marine Corps service—inquiry, perseverance, and determination. Having completed only one year of high school, college was beyond my expectation.
How did the GI Bill help you?
After 2 years of toiling in the steel mills of Pittsburgh (U.S. Steel, Carnegie, Jones & Laughlin) from 1946 to 1948 I sought out the Veterans Administration for information about education. Despite not having a high school diploma, the VA placed me at Pitt as a provisional student on the strength of a commitment by Rufus Fitzgerald, Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, who had championed admission of veterans at Pitt regardless of their academic background.
That Fall I enrolled at Pitt as a provisional student. Of the 5 courses I signed up for I made 2 A’s in Spanish and 3 F’s (Chemistry, History, and English). The Registrar informed me and the VA that if I expected to enroll for Spring 1949 courses, one of those F’s needed to be changed to a D.
My English professor, Abraham Lauf, was the only one who agreed to take a chance on me. That Spring semester I signed up for English 102 with Dr. Lauf—I earned a D—he didn’t have to give it to me. Years later after I had earned a Ph.D. in English I wrote an encomium for Dr. Lauf as my most memorable English teacher published in A Celebration of Teachers, National Council of Teachers of English (New Edition), 1986. My regret is that I did not tell him in person how much he had done for me.
The GI Bill paid my university expenses and gave me a monthly stipend of $125.00. I couldn’t have done it without the GI Bill and cared for the family my wife and I had started. Of course I had to work at other jobs—all kinds of jobs–but the GI Bill was our principal source of sustenance. To augment our income I signed up for Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) which paid $28.00 a month. This still wasn’t enough to get by on. I worked at janitorial jobs, road work, beer-truck driver, taxi-cab driver as an owner-operator of a Peoples Cab, and as a jazz guitarist in nightclubs from Pittsburgh to Chicago. I also worked as a cook, waiter, dishwasher. salesman (encyclopedias, home products, televisions, insurance), you name it, I worked at it.
What was college like for veterans at that time?
More than a third of the 35,000 students at Pitt were veterans and many of the faculty were veterans as well. I joined the campus vets organization. And though I had to work extra jobs to maintain by then a wife and two children, I never complained for I realized that for the largesse of the GI Bill I would not have had a chance for a college education. The going was tough but the war had conditioned us—when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
My folks were dirt poor itinerant field workers harvesting the crops of America. In fact I was born in 1926 after my folks were returning to San Antonio, Texas—home base—from Minnesota where they had picked beets. My mother went into labor with me in Blue Island, Illinois, where her brother Jose lived.
Vets were monocentric, they kept their eyes on the prize. Many non-vets spent their days playing bridge, partying at night, and attending big intramural activities. At the 1952 graduation I received an Air Force commission as a reserve 2nd Lieutenant, having completed Air Force ROTC. I received my Pennsylvania teachers certificate in English, Spanish, and French and was accepted as the French teacher at Munhall High School, a steel town suburb of Pittsburgh. The age difference between the vets and non-vets was palpable. At 22 when I started at Pitt I felt old and did not suffer fools who were non-vets.
With the Korean War still unresolved I was recalled into service. I served 10 years in the Air Force exiting as a Reserve Major. When asked why I left the Air Force, I explain that I realized that as a Mexican I was not going to be Air Force Chief of Staff. I earned the M.A. in English at the University of Texas and the Ph.D. in English at the University of New Mexico almost 50 years ago.
How did World War II veterans defy concern that they wouldn’t integrate well?
To begin with, that concern evidenced the intellectual posture of most colleges and universities at the time vis-à-vis the general population inasmuch as colleges and universities were considered and thought of themselves as privileged institutions for the hegemonic elite rather than as open public institutions for all the citizens regardless of economic status. There were exceptions, of course, but not in the main.
It was this attitude that veterans brought to the colleges and universities, an attitude that eased their integration into college and university life. They were there for a purpose, just as they had been in the military during World War II for a purpose.
Did it occur to you that the GI Bill would have a profound effect?
Not at all. I was so fixated on doing well and improving my lot in life, away from the toils
of life that plagued my parents and los de abajo (the underclass). Every day involved a discovery and I was committed to explore every venue of those discoveries. In after-years, recounting those discoveries to others I jest that I discovered the Periodic Table in my chemistry class and no one gave me credit for it. Consciousness of the profound effect of the GI Bill came as I progressed professionally.
Do you think the GI Bill’s grass roots origin contributed to its effectiveness?
No, though I wouldn’t discount it. What contributed to the effectiveness of the GI Bill was the steadfastness of the GI’s, their eyes on the prize. It would be decades in the future before the effectiveness of the GI Bill would be realized, decades of GI Bill veterans applying skills gleaned from the experiment of the GI Bill to the challenges of life and recognition of how we acquired those skills.
What made the GI Bill so effective?
Not because it was an entitlement, but because it was a challenge of equal proportions to the war. I was not going to be done in by the challenge, not especially as a Mexican and the history of that term in the United States.
What did the GI Bill do for America?
It re-articulated the meaning of democracy and significance of the term American. Moreover, it inculcated the pride of self and the injunction of service to the nation—in its promise to its people.
What might have become of you professionally, if not for the GI Bill?
Given that I had only completed one year of high school, my future lay in the vicissitudes and hardships of the labor class, toiling in jobs of last resort or the back-breaking work of the steel mills and coal mines. Work is work and I’ve never demeaned it.
What would have become of the U.S. if not for the GI Bill?
The GI Bill was not a panacea. The human spirit is spectacular in its confrontations with life. Long before the GI Bill, the United States had transformed its imagination and vision into realities that furthered the promises of its Constitution. Every advance challenged the status quo—if we can think it, we can do it.
Through thick and thin, Americans of all classes and hues have forged futures against all odds and prevailed. As a national exemplum The GI Bill emerged at a propitiously historic moment. The after-wash of that historic moment is still with us. We must be judicious in preserving its continuation and like-minded exempla.
Copyright 2018 by Philip de Ortego y Gasca. Cover of American Legion magazine used under fair sue proviso of the copyright law.