Western Pa. played role, was transformed by victory in World War II
Everyone everywhere spilled into the streets.
Norma Olszewski followed, sharing in the excitement of victory and relief at war's end.
“I was amazed at how many people were there,” recalled Olszewski, 84, of Plum. “People were all over the place, kissing and hugging each other. That stuck in my mind; you remember certain things in your life, and that was one of them.”
Hundreds of miles away, her future husband celebrated with strangers. Henry Olszewski, who served with the Navy during World War II, joined tens of thousands of revelers in New York's Times Square.
“Remember that picture with the sailor kissing the nurse?” Olszewski, 90, said. “I was in that crowd. That could've been me. It wasn't, but it could've been. ... I got the chills. Everybody was grabbing each other, even strangers. It was a madhouse.”
The spontaneous celebrations, in Pittsburgh and other U.S. cities, erupted in mid-August 1945 at news that Japan had surrendered and World War II was over.
But the official end of the war — when the Japanese formally signed their unconditional surrender — arrived 70 years ago on Sept. 2, 1945.
War of steel
Pittsburgh had reason to celebrate, historians said, because few regions contributed to the war effort as Western Pennsylvania did.
“Pittsburgh provided the steel that allowed everybody else in other cities to do what they did,” said Leslie Przybylek, curator of history at the Heinz History Center, which is hosting the We Can Do It! exhibition on Pittsburgh's role in the war. “Pittsburgh also provided technology that helped other cities. We were a tech leader at that time, too.”
“Some people say World War II was a war of steel, and the steel industry here obviously played a huge role,” added Lou Martin, chairman of Chatham University's department of history, political science and international studies.
Women took over vacated factory jobs, inspiring the creation of “Rosie the Riveter,” a motivational caricature based on a Westinghouse worker. More than 30,000 women worked in U.S. Steel mills during the war. Children pitched in by contributing to scrap metal drives.
Heavy industry played a titanic role.
By 1945, U.S. Steel produced as much steel as all Axis powers combined, turning out enough every hour for 703 fighter planes. Westinghouse made millions of helmets and innovated breakthroughs such as electric torpedoes and radar systems. Dravo Corp. on Neville Island built submarine chasers, LSTs, destroyer escorts and other vessels.
Butler's American Bantam Car Co. developed the Jeep prototype, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass produced laminated windshields for military planes that protected pilots, among other safety precautions.
In Bradford, Zippo churned out the durable lighters given to U.S. soldiers. The H.J. Heinz Co. transformed its North Shore food factory to produce glider wings.
“Detroit would challenge us for that title (of most productive U.S. city during the war),” Przybylek said. “But Pittsburgh absolutely played a key role.”
Overseas, Western Pennsylvanians left their mark as well.
Gen. George Marshall of Uniontown became the Army's chief of staff in 1939; Michael Strank of Conemaugh helped hoist the flag on Iwo Jima in one of the most iconic WWII photos; and actor Jimmy Stewart, an Army pilot and Indiana, Pa., native, spent two years asking to fight overseas before officials granted his wish.
Everyone played a role, historians said.
That sense of collective effort did not end with the war.
“It's not an accident you see (Renaissance I in Pittsburgh) ramp up in '46,” Przybylek said. “During the war, there was a sense that if we work together, we can do this. Coming out of the war, there was still this belief that with the right effort, the right people, the right decisions, we can do anything.”
Pittsburgh's public officials turned to addressing pollution and flooding, improving transportation and diversifying the city's economy, historians said.
Smoke from heavy industry became an immediate target. New Mayor David Lawrence and banker Richard King Mellon led efforts to lower emissions, including the enforcement of smoke-control legislation passed in 1941 but abandoned during the war effort.
The city began buying riverfront property, then dominated by industry, with an eye on developing parks and cleaning up waterways.
The transformative period of Renaissance I lasted until 1973 and laid the groundwork for Pittsburgh's current transformation, officials said.
“You have people in places like Detroit today saying, ‘How'd they do it?'” Przybylek said. “It started back then.”
Martin added: “A lot of Americans looked at World War II as a triumph of planning. They believed after the war that they could marry social science and government in such ways that they could solve problems that had plagued humankind for centuries. It was a real period of optimism.”
Before such optimism could set in, though, many Pittsburghers endured long periods of uncertainty.
Rosella Billetdeaux recalled her mixed feelings when the war ended. She felt exhilaration as she followed other revelers into the streets of Pittsburgh. She watched as strangers shouted and wept and sang.
But she worried. She had not heard lately from her husband, who left his job at Dravo to fight overseas.
“I prayed a lot,” said Billetdeaux, 94, who lives at the Retirement Village at St. Barnabas in Richland. “And I wrote him every day.”
Bryce Billetdeaux, 95, was in Okinawa, Japan, when the war ended.
“I never quit thinking about her,” he said of his wife. “I had a trick: She wrote me every day, but the letters didn't come every day. If I got five, I'd open one a day so I had another for the next day. That kept me sane.”
When the Japanese surrendered, Billetdeaux recalled, he and others in his unit spent the night hiding under a truck “because every anti-aircraft artillery on the island started shooting in celebration. I was more scared that night than I ever was in the war!”
In 2013, officials dedicated the Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Memorial on Pittsburgh's North Shore after veterans lobbied more than 13 years for a memorial.
Western Pennsylvanians still remember, 70 years later.
“When I go to the store and I wear my World War II veteran hat, I still get pats on the back,” Henry Olszewski said. “They say congratulations and shake my hand. I like that.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.