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Pittsburgh and World War II: We Can Do It!

on Tue, 11/03/2015 - 00:00

World War II was arguably the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind. From Europe to the Pacific Ocean, the planet was engulfed in a battle that raged for over half a decade, leaving millions of people dead in its wake and destruction on a scale never before imagined. The Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh has paid tribute to the men and women who sacrificed their lives in that struggle, as well as the role the region played in the ultimate fight for freedom, with its We Can Do It! exhibit, on display from April 25, 2015, until January 3, 2016.

An estimated 1.25 million Pennsylvanians served in the armed forces during World War II, with 175,000 of that number coming from the Pittsburgh region. The Steel City did more than contribute to the millions of men and women who fought overseas, however, as its manufacturing might likewise played a key role in the outcome of the conflict. It could be argued that the industrial strength of the United States was what ultimately tipped the scale of victory towards the Allies, and Pittsburgh was not only at the forefront of that manufacturing output but the cornerstone of the “Arsenal of America” as well.

“By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Pennsylvania industries had been making war materials for more than a year,” the Heinz History Center explains. “America’s entry into the war intensified that need. Pittsburgh led the way as Pennsylvania businesses turned to war production. Heinz built gliders. Westinghouse made torpedoes. Dravo engineered an assembly line for building ships. U.S. Steel smashed production records as the region’s mills poured 95 million tons of steel into the effort. By 1945, Pennsylvania produced as much steel as all the Axis powers combined.”

In addition to the city’s steel making capabilities, other area companies also played significant roles during World War II, and the We Can Do It! exhibit highlights many of their achievements. Westinghouse Electric did more than build torpedoes, for instance, as helmet liners, bomb fusers, tank-gun stabilizers and radar systems likewise rolled off their assembly lines. Pittsburgh Plate Glass, meanwhile, developed new plastic resins and fiberglass that were used as aircraft windshields, while other PPG technologies improved the durability and safety of battleships, trucks and tanks.

Technological innovations like the automobile and airplane affected the ways that wars were fought in the Twentieth Century, and the War Department needed a new light-weight motor vehicle as part of its efforts during World War II. The American Bantam Car Company in nearby Butler, Pennsylvania, was one of only three manufacturers in the country to deliver a working prototype within the timeframe dictated by U.S. Army.

Bantam was on the verge of bankruptcy when it invented the Jeep, and its uncertain financial footing and small manufacturing capabilities ultimately forced mass-scale production of the vehicle to Willys-Overland Motors and the Ford Motor Company. Despite such limitations, the American Bantam Car Company still manufactured 2,765 Jeeps during the early 1940s.

Butler was not the only nearby community to play an important role during World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once referred to George C. Marshall as the “true organizer of victory,” and the Army General was born and raised in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, located 46 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Marshall rose to Chief of Staff on September 1, 1939, the same day that Adolph Hitler invaded Poland. The U.S. Army was only 200,000 strong at the time, but under Marshall that number rose to 3 million by 1942 and 8 million in 1945—the largest military expansion in the history of the United States.

It wasn’t just men who contributed to the war effort, but women as well. Recruits into the armed forces after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led to workforce reductions in the plants and steel mills of not only Pittsburgh but throughout the United States, and it was left to women to fill these production voids. The Heinz History Center, for instance, estimates that more than 30,000 women were working at U.S. Steel by September 1943.

To both commemorate and inspire this new workforce, artist J. Howard Miller created a poster that displayed a female Westinghouse Electric employee rolling up her sleeves under the caption “We Can Do It!” Miller was inspired by the photograph of a Michigan factory worker, and famed illustrator Norman Rockwell likewise crafted a cover for the Saturday Evening Post that featured a female worker taking a lunch break. Rockwell’s painting was called “Rosie the Riveter,” but the name was soon transferred to Miller’s poster as well, resulting in one of the most iconic images of not only World War II but the entire Twentieth Century.

Efforts on the home front were only one of the ways that Pittsburgh contributed to the war effort, and the We Can Do It! exhibit at the Heinz History Center likewise pays homage to the men and women who served in the armed forces. Many of those veterans, as well as their families, contributed artifacts from the war as part of the installation, and together they tell the story of World War II from the soldier’s perspective. Although only a small handful of those narratives are contained at the History Center, they serve as a microcosm for the experiences of all 175,000 men and women from the Pittsburgh region who were stationed in Europe and the Pacific nonetheless.

It required a massive effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II, and millions of lives from around the globe were lost during the conflict. Pittsburgh is a long way from the beaches of Normandy or the islands of the Philippines, but the effects of the war were felt in Western Pennsylvania just the same. The Steel City may not have been the sole key to victory but it still played an important role, and the We Can Do It! exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center serves as a tribute to not only those efforts but the thousands of men and women from the region who helped to keep the world safe from tyranny.

Anthony Letizia

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