Days honor mothers who fed 'our boys' of World War II

| Friday, May 10, 2013, 6:18 p.m.

This weekend, we celebrate National Train Day and Mother's Day.

In Connellsville, it makes sense to merge the two events by honoring the city's railroad heritage as well as the mothers who fed “our boys” during World War II.

More than 600 Connellsville area women “mothered” a half-million soldiers and sailors, doing what all good mothers do: feeding them comfort food and making them feel at home on their way to and from the battlefield.

When troop trains rumbled into Connellsville, plenty of stomachs were rumbling as well. But as Army Pvt. David Pirrung wrote in 1944, the boys knew the women of the Connellsville Canteen were waiting with hot coffee, sandwiches and home-baked goodies.

“The (train) coaches ... had no water, and our rations were low,” Pirrung said in his thank you letter. “Suddenly, one G.I. shouted, ‘Don't worry, fellas. We'll soon be in Connellsville. Then we'll get some real hospitality.' ”

No matter the hour or the weather, it was always the same at the B&O Railroad Station. When the locomotive chugged to a stop, the Canteen women — hundreds of whom had husbands and sons in uniform — were waiting with motherly greetings.

Rose Brady remembered

Rose Brady of Connellsville was the canteen's Mother Hen. Interviewed in 1983, when she was 85, she recalled how the project began.

She had just served her brother dinner, and the two lingered at the table, talking about the war. Her brother, a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Francis Bailey, had an idea how local ladies could help “our boys.” On a whim, he suggested serving snacks to servicemen at the railroad station.

Brady pondered the idea and ran with it. With lots of volunteer elbow grease from community-minded men and women, the dilapidated Boyts-Porter machine shop along Water Street was transformed into a spic-and-span canteen that opened April 10, 1944.

Bailey's simple “snack” turned into a 24/7 beehive of bustling women 20 to 70 who served an average of 3,500 meals each week to service personnel.

The local community, including towns outside of Connellsville, pitched in to lend a hand, volunteering and donating food. Farmers sent produce, eggs and milk. Rummage sales and scrap drives raised cash for the cause.

“I guess we felt that by helping the service people, we were helping our own,” said Brady in 1983. Her son John served in the war.

A united cause

“We were all together back then,” volunteer Mary Rush of Connellsville said in 1983. “We'd do whatever we could to get donations.”

That included asking people for food ration tickets to purchase things that were hard to get during the war, such as sugar and shortening.

“My Lord, if you got powdered sugar, it was like the impossible dream!” Rush exclaimed. “We'd dash home and bake a sheet cake for the boys.”

Local businesses pitched in, such as Spotto's Hardware, which donated gallons of paint and other fix-up materials. The B&O Railroad provided a new furnace, so the canteen stayed warm and cozy even in the dead of winter.

Rose Cavalier and R.H. Pritts organized a motor corps. The volunteer drivers would give Fay-West area servicemen a ride home from the train station if they needed one — at dawn, noon or even in the wee hours.

“Our boys were fighting for us. It was our duty to serve them,” said canteen secretary Ruth Kunkle of Connellsville in 1983, when she was 88.

40-year-old ‘thank you'

The guys sure appreciated it. The canteen received hundreds of “thank you” letters, including one 40 years after the war from Gust J. Mihal, a retired Army colonel from Dubuque, Iowa. He had never forgotten Connellsville's hospitality. In 1987, he sent a $500 donation to the local Masonic lodge requesting that the money be used for a community project in memory of the Connellsville Canteen.

The late Perry Culver of Connellsville was the Mason who received Mihal's letter. Culver had a soft spot in his heart for the canteen. His mother, Mary Culver, had served many a sandwich to servicemen as a volunteer.

The Masons voted to present the $500 donation to the Carnegie Free Library, which gratefully accepted it. Librarian Julia Allen, who died two years ago, honored the canteen's memory with a display of World War II memorabilia.

Fifty years after the Connellsville Canteen opened, the Connellsville Area Historical Society unveiled a historic plaque honoring those women who had volunteered. It was placed near the parking lot of Central Fellowship Church on Water Street, across from where the B&O Railroad station had stood.

A luncheon was served at Central Fellowship Church that day, during which surviving canteen volunteers were honored.

“It's time the local community makes its thanks official,” said Rita Ross, a canteen worker who was also a member of the historical society in 1994.

Canteen immortalized

The canteen will be resurrected once again when Connellsville's new railroad museum opens this year. The West Crawford Avenue building, now under construction, houses an enormous model train display that was made by the late hobbyist Harry Clark of Normalville. Inside the museum is a café, Connellsville Canteen — an apt title, given the city's railroad legacy.

Most canteen workers are gone now, but a few still remember those war years of so long ago. Brady's daughter-in-law, Doris Brady, is determined to seek out those volunteers still living — and she found one last November, when Ross returned home for a visit. Ross, who now lives in California, is well into her 90s, but she was happy to let Doris Brady snap a few photos of her for posterity.

Brady, now in her 80s, fondly remembers her mother-in-law's efforts and is proud of her family's involvement with the Connellsville Canteen.

“An idea of a sister and a brother — Rose Brady and Father Francis Bailey — made a significant difference in many, many lives, thanks to a sharing, caring community,” Brady said.

That sentiment was echoed by the late Lavina Maricondi of Connellsville in a 1987 interview. Maricondi, who was then 72, fondly remembered Rose Brady and her fellow canteen workers.

“We just did what we had to do. It was a labor of love.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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