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  • The Best Years of Their Lives: Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s World War II Veterans Era, 1946–1950

Between 1946 and 1950, World War II veterans dominated virtually every aspect of campus life at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API), which later became Auburn University. API’s “experiment” in the conversion of veterans into college students was a small part of a greater historical watershed in American higher education. By the autumn of 1946, over half of the nation’s two million collegians were World War II veterans. This explosion in postwar enrollments immediately created unprecedented crises in housing, instruction, and funding for colleges across the county. API’s innovative responses to this emergency and the veterans’ impact upon “town and gown” in Auburn laid a foundation for the dramatic evolution of this small Land Grant institution into a modern diversified university.1

In 1944 Congress opened the door for veterans to college campuses with the passage of Public Law 346, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights. Soon after President [End Page 316] Franklin D. Roosevelt affixed his signature to P. L. 346, colleges prepared for the arrival of the first wave of ex–servicemen. In March 1945, API President Luther N. Duncan predicted that since postwar employment in engineering, agriculture, and veterinary medicine required “definite preparation along scientific, technical, and practical lines, […] we shall have as many of these veterans as we shall be able to house and teach.”2 With only one hundred ex–GIs on campus at that time, Duncan’s words proved to be remarkably prescient.

Duncan quickly recognized the potential financial opportunities inherent in the GI Bill. Yet, he also understood that this new federal program was not a long–term source of funds for the college. Since the veterans would earn their degrees within two to four years, government funding for tuition paid directly to API provided only a temporary infusion of money into the college’s cash–starved accounts. Moreover, API assumed a significant administrative burden in its GI Bill contract.

Anticipating this obligation, in late 1945, Duncan established the Auburn Veterans Affairs Office as a central clearing house for all GI Bill and Veterans Administration (VA) paperwork, including verification records of students’ eligibility for monthly subsistence allotments. Duncan also appointed P. M. “Mike” Norton as the coordinator [End Page 317] of this office. A graduate of Birmingham–Southern College and a former high school teacher and coach, genial Mike Norton was an ideal choice for this demanding job. He streamlined administrative procedures and implemented rudimentary counseling services for ex–GIs with academic and personal problems, thereby facilitating their transition to civilian life.3

The GI Bill’s flexibility and the VA’s generous subsistence allotments expedited many veterans’ adjustment to college. Thus, young men with meager incomes could resume or initiate college careers without incurring any sizable debts. Effective January 1, 1946, the federal government funded all approved college and vocational training for veterans for one full year plus their time in uniform. Since World War II veterans typically served from two to three years, this stipulation allowed a realistic time frame for the completion of their studies. API received direct payments via the GI Bill for veterans’ tuition, books, equipment, and supplies. The VA mailed monthly subsistence allotment checks of $60 and $90 to single and married students, respectively. In 1948 allotments were raised to $75 for single veterans and $105 to $120 for men with one or more dependents.4

By the time Auburn’s veterans era had run its course in the spring of 1950, 9,277 ex–servicemen had received GI Bill and VA benefits. Of this number, 4,052 had completed their degrees, with 3,515 still enrolled under P. L. 346. Collectively, the GI Bill and the VA disbursed to API over $10,000,000 for tuition, books, equipment, and supplies and about $20,000,000 directly to students in subsistence allotments. In June 1949, as veterans’ enrollments declined, API requested a 54 percent increase in its annual legislative appropriation. Of Auburn’s [End Page 318]

Photo 1. GI Bill veterans registering for classes in 1946; Veterans Affairs Coordinator P.M. “Mike” Norton with his back to camera. Image courtesy of Auburn University Libraries Special Collections and Archives (AULSCA).
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