To 1940s teenagers in Connellsville, World War II was a constant companion
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout the month of December.
When the news of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio on Dec. 7, 1941, Art McGann, 89, was a senior at Connellsville High School and already had two brothers in the service, including one in North Africa. Before the war was over, five McGann brothers had served, including Art. All returned home safe and sound.
Fotenie Mongell, whose parents owned The Star Restaurant in Connellsville, had graduated from high school and was visiting friends in Detroit when their 8-year-old daughter came running into the house screaming, “They bombed Pearl Harbor.”
“After that, everyone was glued to the radio,” said Mongell, 90, a retired Connellsville junior high science teacher.
Betty Sandusky, 87, and Betty Eutsey, 88, have similar memories.
Mary McCartney, 88, was sitting at the counter at Hagan's Dairy Bar in Troutman's Department Store downtown when the news came over the radio. “It didn't sink in at first. We were just kids,” said McCarthy, who graduated from Connellsville High School in 1943. “And then, (boys from home) started getting killed. It was a very sad time.”
“Some of the boys enlisted even before we graduated from high school,” recalled McGann. “I remember the first two who enlisted were the first ones from here who were killed.”
McGann: ‘I'm lucky'
McGann will tell you he's a lucky man. He survived 43 missions with the 13th Air Force in the South Pacific. He walked away from an air crash that occurred while he was still in the United States and he survived several near-misses overseas. On one mission, he was one of two waist gunners aboard a B-B-17 bomber plane over the Philippines when a 20-millimeter enemy shell flew right past him and hit the other waist gunner.
“It blew his stomach out and he died,” said McGann, who returned home to Connellsville physically unscathed. Among other 1942 graduates who returned home were McGann's classmates John “Wally” Schroyer, who lost a leg at Anzio Beach, Italy, and John Lujack, a Notre Dame college football Heisman Trophy winner. Schroyer passed away last year and Lujack lives in the Midwest.
“Guys just didn't talk about the war very much afterwards. We picked up and went on with our lives,” said McGann. He married his wife, Dorothy, worked for more than 50 years, and raised a family; the couple has been married for 68 years.
Mongell said her husband suffered bad dreams after the war. “He'd jerk himself awake and the sweat would just be rolling off him.”
Sandusky wasn't married to her husband of 60 years, Fred, during the war, but she saw five brothers off — and one didn't come back. “My brother, Clarence DeBolt, was killed at St. Lo, France, and my brother, Tom, was wounded in Germany,” she recalled. “You grow up fast in times like that.”
Losing a brother
Sandusky remembered the shock of how her mother learned about Clarence's death. “Clarence was married. Our family was headed to a camp above Uniontown. Clarence's wife, Virginia, met us at the car. She had received a telegram. She told Mom, ‘We're not having camp today. Your son was killed,'” Sandusky said. “That's how Mom found out about it.”
The group shared memories of war letters, which were called Vmail. “Every letter sent home was censored,” said McGann.
“We would get love letters from our boyfriends,” said Eutsey. Among those boyfriends was Charles Eutsey, who was serving with the Air Force in the Pacific — and whom she married after the war. “Of course, then, I threw away all the other letters and kept his,” she joked.
Food rationing was something that affected everybody's lives.
“There were lines everywhere. In fact, when my mom saw a line, she got on it, even if she didn't know what it was for,” said Sandusky.
She laughed, remembering the birth of margarine because butter was so scarce. “It was a fancy name for lard; they just gave you a yellow capsule that you broke and stirred into the white stuff to make it look like butter.”
To this day, Sandusky remembers winning a contest at McCrory's store for selling war bonds.
“Actor Robert Preston came to town to promote the bonds,” she said.
Canteen was famous
McCarthy's mother-in-law, Eleanor McCarthy, volunteered with the Connellsville Canteen. The dedicated group of 600 women met every troop train between 1944 and 1946. They fed and cheered up a half a million servicemen and women headed to and from the war.
“When I was in the South Pacific, people from all over the United States talked about the Connellsville Canteen,” said McGann, who marveled at how close home felt at times during the war even when he was so far away. “I remember Wally Schroyer telling me how, when he got hit at Anzio Beach, they put him on a tank to carry him away and a guy came up to him and said, ‘Say, I think I know you. I'm Denver Gallentine from Indian Head,'” McGann said. “They were in Italy and there they were together. I thought that was amazing.”
Recalling war's end
While McGann was overseas at the war's end, the four women — just teenagers at the time — remembered reading about it in the newspaper.
“There were parades in the bigger cities, but nothing big here that I can recall,” said McCarthy.
“Well, sometimes we'd beat pots and pans at the train station to greet the servicemen,” added Eutsey.
“I had a friend in Florida whose brother was coming home from the war. She invited me to visit again at Christmas, so I did. It was an exciting time,” Mongell remembered.
The significance of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 — which ended the war with Japan and ushered in the Cold War — was lost on most young people, the group said.
“We didn't recognize (the bombs') importance. It just didn't sink in. We were just happy that the war was over,” McCarthy said.
Friday: The 1950s were a mix of the cold and cool.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.