History Center looks at Pittsburgh's role in WWII
Walter Patton of Glassport knows quite clearly how World War II was won on the beaches of Normandy as well as in the factories of Western Pennsylvania.
Drafted a year-and-a-half after Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor, he served in England and France.
“Everything was rationed because everything we had was being used in the war with Germany and Japan,” says Patton, 90, about his time on the homefront. “And that was OK because all we were concerned about was defeating the enemy, wiping them off the world scene.”
Experiences like his are the heart of “We Can Do It! WWII” a Senator John Heinz History Center look at the area's role in winning the war and at the conflict's effect on the area.
Even one of the symbols of American determination — the tough, muscular Rosie the Riveter — has its roots here as a poster made for Westinghouse Corp. A life-size figure of the broad and her bicep will welcome visitors to a section on the area's industrial effort.
The exhibit opens April 25 and runs through Jan. 3. Through that span, it will include a number of special events, such as oral-history programs and film festivals.
Opening day will feature a mini-motorcade with World War II veterans in Jeeps, a reception line for them and a folding of a 36-foot American flag. Vets, active military and their families will be admitted free.
After the 10,000-square-foot program closes here, a scaled-down version will begin 30 to 40 visits to museums across the state, says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the history center.
While most World War II programs this year are marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, this one looks at the 75th anniversary of the start of the war's role in this area, Masich says.
“There is a misconception that the war began with Pearl Harbor,” he says. “But 1940 is when the Jeep appeared in Butler County and when U.S. Steel started into high gear. There was a war going on before we got into it, and it was affecting life in Western Pennsylvania.”
The story of the Jeep — which began its life as a mechanized military workhorse at Butler's Bantam Car Co. — is an obvious link to battlefields overseas. But area plants became tied to the war effort in many ways, from gliders being made at the Heinz factory to propellers spinning into life in Beaver County.
The display will feature four Jeeps, including the oldest one from Bantam, along with 275 artifacts and life-size figures such as Rosie and that of Gen. George C. Marshall, a Uniontown, Fayette County, native.
Just as the war affected the area before Dec. 7, 1941, it also had an impact on Walter Patton before he ever donned a uniform. His brother, William, was killed in a training flight in New Mexico, and his mother asked him to promise not to volunteer for the service.
But he says that duty was “a foregone conclusion,” and he was drafted in 1943 after finishing McKeesport High School. But before he left, he saw the homefront gearing up with women going to work in plants, scrap drives to collect needed metal and rubber, and the overall “We Can Do It!” attitude.
The display begins with a look at Western Pennsylvania's struggle to rise from the Depression, says Leslie Przybylek, the curator of history at the center. It is far removed from events in Europe and the Far East, but that all comes together at the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The exhibit then takes visitors into a factory-like setting that examines all the products with Western Pennsylvania industrial ties: the glass that made airplane cockpits and the Norden bombsight and the steel that went into ships made in Dravosburg.
That effort, of course, has a strong link to the scrap drives and war bond efforts at home, Przybylek says. This section of the exhibit includes a filmed interview by Masich of historian David McCullough, a Pittsburgh native.
The exhibit then turns to the military story. It discusses George Marshall's success at enlarging the Army to its needed size and, then, tells the story of the war by looking at the local participants in famous campaigns.
“When you look at it, the exhibit is probably 60-40 (percent) home to military,” Przybylek says. “But I think the combat section will really stand out in people's minds.”
The Iwo Jima heroism of Johnstown's Michael Strank rivals the cleverness of Indiana County's Ronald Bagley in that section. Strank initiated the famous flag-raising ceremony, while Bagley was co-inventor of a way to break down Jeep-like vehicles so they could be transported in planes.
Those type of support roles were vital to winning the war, Przybylek says.
“For every 1 million in combat, there were 16 million playing roles to help them, sailing the ships, fueling the planes,” she says.
That support role went directly back to work on the homefront, too, Masich says. It also changed America's direction.
“It created a sea change in American society,” he says. “The Rosie the Riveters came out of the plants and went to colleges. They became the mothers of the Baby Boom, the best-educated, best-fed, healthiest generation ever.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.