INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – In 1944, thousands of service members were in the peak of combat overseas as the U.S. entered the Battle of Normandy. Back at home the U.S. Congress was in the throes of passing one of the most influential pieces of legislation of all time, the G.I. Bill. It’s a bill that thousands of service members took advantage of as they exited the war and entered a saturated job market and slow economy.
Battling the Great Depression, Indianapolis-native James Matthews enlisted in the Navy in 1940. In his early 20s, he had every intention of getting out relatively quickly and enrolling in college.
“I thought I might go to medical school. That’s what my plans were,” said Matthews.
But, Matthews’ college plan took a five-year detour once WWII got underway.
“Most of the time I was on the Memphis I was in charge of the working crews and was also in charge of a whale boat if we ever lowered the boat to go anywhere,” said Matthews.
Matthews spent about half of the war in the Atlantic on the Memphis before being transferred to the USS Vincennes in the Pacific. It was an area under constant kamikaze attack.
“And so there was a kamikaze that was coming right toward us midship, and I could see it was going to hit right where we were at because the millimeter was in the middle of our ship, midship,” said Matthews.
Matthews’ life was spared when he says the kamikaze changed course once he saw a more enticing target. Matthews’ younger brother, Stan, wasn’t so lucky. Stan went down with the Scorpion submarine in the South China Sea.
Military life was quite the family affair for Matthews. He even served with his own father who previously fought in WWI. His dad was called up to active duty for a brief period at the beginning of the war.
Finally, Matthews was discharged while on leave in 1945 because the war was coming to an end and his active service was no longer needed.
As soon as Matthews was discharged, he picked up his dream of education where he’d left off.
In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. It became commonly known at the G.I. Bill. There was a saturated job market with thousands of service members leaving active duty all at once. The G.I. Bill gave veterans the option to go to college for free. The longer you served active duty, the more college the government would pay for.
“It helped a lot because it had a deluge of people trying to find jobs right after the war,” said Matthews.
Matthews went to Saint Ambrose University and received his bachelor’s of science degree, eventually also graduating from Notre Dame’s Law School. He received almost all five years of his education for free.
“Ever since I was young I always thought of maybe being a lawyer but also being a doctor,” said Matthews.
Matthews’ drive for education is something his family values, as well.
“He’s certainly been an inspiration to me and my siblings in terms of, we’ve always made education a big value in our family,” said Matthews’ son, Jim Matthews.
With jobs still hard to come by, Matthews worked for most of his life as an insurance claims adjuster. Then, at 70 years old, Matthews joined a law firm. He worked as an attorney for 20 years, finally retiring six years ago at 90 years old.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, some changes to the G.I. Bill were made in 2008. It adds even more incentives for veterans with active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, including more expenses covered, a living allowance, books paid for and the freedom to transfer unused credits to a spouse or children.