PHILADELPHIA — As a turret gunner on a B-24 bomber during World War II, Joe Kiernan flew 35 combat missions, many aimed at taking out German aircraft and the country's wartime industry.
He was "shot up a bit," but made it home safely. And in 1946, thanks to the federal government, Kiernan was able to enroll at St. Joseph's University for free — an experience he said would shape his life.
"There is no way in my own life I would've been able to get to college in the prewar world," said Kiernan, 88, who grew up in Logan. "Without the war and without the GI Bill, I never would've had the opportunities I had in business that I ended up enjoying."
Sunday marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or "GI Bill of Rights," into law.
The original GI Bill lasted until July 1956 and gave benefits to returning veterans including free education and access to low-cost home loans. It is widely regarded as one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the 20th century.
The GI Bill "redefined the idea of who is college material" and "literally created the middle class," said Edward Humes, author of the 2006 book Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.
Humes, who grew up in a Crescentville home his father was able to buy with the help of the GI Bill, said generations of children would grow up not only thinking attending college was possible — but that it was an entitlement.
"The lawmakers who passed it had no idea it would have the immense effect that it did," he said. "Really, they re-engineered society in a profound way with this legislation."
For some returning World War II veterans from the Philadelphia region, the law provided a college education once thought of as impossible.
Kiernan, who now lives in Holland, Bucks County, graduated from Roman Catholic High School in 1943. That October, at age 17, he enlisted and was assigned to the 15th Air Force. Toward the end of 1945, he was discharged.
After graduating from St. Joe's in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in sociology, Kiernan went on to earn a master's from Temple University and work 30 years for RCA and Generic Electric. For more than 28 years on weeknights and Saturdays, he also taught sociology at St. Joe's as an adjunct professor.
Like Kiernan, World War II flight instructor John McCloskey was able to enroll in college because of the GI Bill.
McCloskey graduated in 1938 from Northeast Catholic High School in Frankford, and joined the Army Air Corps four years later.
When he got the orders to go overseas, McCloskey said he proposed to his wife and they headed down to Atlantic City to get married. But then, his father received a telegram on his behalf containing a change of plans: Head to Columbus, Ohio. McCloskey would spend the war giving combat training to B-17 pilots.
"I knew before I was discharged that I wanted to sign up for college," said McCloskey, 93, who now lives in Blue Bell.
He picked La Salle after seeing an ad for an entrance test.
"I had no particular idea about La Salle; I just wanted to go to college," he said.
Starting out as an employee of the La Salle bookstore during his studies in 1946, McCloskey continued to work for the school until 1992 — with much of that time spent in public relations.
Higher education, he said, was like climbing "three to four rungs" up a ladder.
Clem Piscitelli, 92, of Langhorne, returned home from his time working at staging areas in Australia and New Guinea shortly after Germany surrendered.
In January 1946 — on the suggestion of an Army friend — he went to Peirce College to study accounting. There, he met his future wife and then went on to establish his own firm. The government help put him on his "course in life."
"There wasn't much room for advancement working in the brickyard or the manufacturing plant," Piscitelli said.
It was the same story across the country.
About 7.8 million out of 16 million World War II veterans used the educational or training programs made possible by the GI Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA also backed about 2.4 million home loans from 1944 to 1952.
"That's where we started," said Russell McLaughlin, 92, of Warminster, who taught economics at Drexel for more than 40 years and bought a rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia with the bill's help. "It made the purchase of the house relatively easy, especially when you're just starting to work."
A 1988 congressional analysis also found that for every $1 the federal government spent on undergraduate or graduate education under the GI Bill, the country got back as much as $5 to $12.50 in benefits.
The law wasn't perfect. It didn't address "redlining," the practice of banks denying mortgages to certain ethnic groups, or the Jim Crow laws in the South.
Gary Orfield, a professor at UCLA and co-director of the university's Civil Rights Project, said the law deepened racial inequality. The lack of equal access to education and affordable housing has had "intergenerational effects," he said.
"[The GI Bill] didn't challenge those norms in any way," Orfield said. "It just tacitly accepted them."
But for veterans such as Tom Hickey, 95, the GI Bill was a way the government gave returning soldiers a "start."
Hickey, a World War II court stenographer, former SEPTA public relations manager and 1948 La Salle graduate, has lived in a rowhouse in Frankford since 1960.
"Instead of the Army," he said, "Now you're getting into life."