Transcript: We Can Do It! WWII Virtual Exhibit Tour [VIDEO]

The We Can Do It! WWII virtual exhibit tour is hosted and narrated by Andy Masich, President and CEO, Heinz History Center.

Skip to: Introduction | Prelude to War | Hall of Industry | Homefront | In the Service | Combat Room | Epilogue & Reflection


I’m Andy Masich, president here at the Heinz History Center. I’m going to give you a fast-paced tour of our newest exhibit: We Can Do It! WWII. We start with a 38-ton Sherman tank. It’s an M4A3. Sixty thousand of them were built during World War II. Americans out-built the Germans 10-1 in terms of tanks. Pennsylvania produced more steel than all the Axis Powers put together.

As we enter the exhibit, we find a Pittsburgh living room. Most Americans learned about the war and the world through the radio. They also read “Life” magazine. They read books. They read “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Grapes of Wrath” – about the Great Depression – “Johnny Got His Gun.”

Those veterans remembered the Great War and the horrors of the Great War. Lloyd Gibson of Washington, Pa., scratched his city and state into his helmet during World War I. He remembered the war and the horrors of gas attacks. Many veterans suffered long-term respiratory effects from gas attacks during World War I. But it was a war no one wanted to see again.

Prelude to War

In the 1930s, America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. And here in the Strip District, in Pittsburgh, there were Hoovervilles. Father James Cox in the Strip District was “the priest of the poor.” He led a march of 25,000 unemployed men to Harrisburg and then on to Washington, D.C. in protest. They needed help, they needed jobs. It was chaos. They set up tent camps on the Mall in Washington. The Army had to drive them away, cavalry chasing men and families out of their tents and shanties.

And around the world, Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. The Japanese invaded China. And, in September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. World War II had begun.

People here in Pittsburgh received thousands of letters from family and friends trapped in Nazi Germany. Jews fled the country if they could. Others wrote to friends in the United States, urging them to sponsor them. One family wrote to a department store in Pittsburgh saying, “I need help, please send a sponsorship letter; please help us escape Nazi Germany.”

World leaders included Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan, Emperor Hirohito, Chiang Kai-Shek and his arch-rival Mao Tse-tung, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom. And of course Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States.

Americans still weren’t convinced that they should be part of this war. They remembered the horrors of World War I. Everyone felt that we didn’t want to get sucked into another European war.

On December 7, 1941, thousands of Pittsburghers rallied at Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Oakland.  It was a peace rally, an America first rally. During the conference, word was received that Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor.

That changed everything.

Hall of Industry

Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller did 42 posters for the war effort. These posters were to encourage workers to do their utmost to win the war. This poster titled “We Can Do It” was one of the most popular.

It came out in February 1943. The same week a popular song hit the airwaves:

(Masich singing) All the day long whether rain or shine she’s (fades out to song Rosie the Riveter) she’s a part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory, Rosie… (trilling an R sound) the Riveter. Keeps a sharp lookout for … (song fades out).

Well the people of America heard the song, saw the poster, and they said, “That’s Rosie the Riveter!”

Fifty thousand women war workers from Pennsylvania took the place of men and freed them up for war service. It was an amazing effort.

Here in the Hall of Industry, we learn about how Pittsburgh became the keystone of the Arsenal of Democracy. Hundreds of local companies changed over production from civilian manufacturers to war time production. The Heinz Company converted its operation from packing pickles to making gliders for the war. Curtiss-Wright Company made propellers for the Helldiver Dive-bomber. Curtiss-Wright became the largest propeller manufacturing company in the world. The Scaife Company made artillery ammunition and fragmentation bombs. Mine Safety Appliances made helmets and helmet liners. These liners were made of micarta, an early type of plastic. It was actually a fiberglass layered liner that was super lightweight and very strong. It fit inside the M1 helmet and it was the mainstay for all troops from the United States and many allied nations during the war. The Dravo Company made LSTs, Landing Ship Tanks, and also medium landing ships, as well as destroyer escorts.

In 1940 the War Department sent out an RFP, a Request for Proposals, to a 135 car makers in America. Now think about that for a minute, there were 135 car makers in America in 1940.  Well the Army wanted a miracle car, a new vehicle that could replace the horse on the battlefield. In Butler, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh, there was a little manufacturer called the Bantam Car Company. They made midget cars on the British Austin patent. Well they received the government RFP for this miracle car and they said, you know what, why don’t we give it a shot? The Jeep weighed less than 2000 pounds, about the size of a large horse. This little car changed the world.

Here in Western Pennsylvania, foundries and manufacturers turned out tanks. Stewart light tanks and the turrets and guns for Sherman tanks. The Americans out-produced the Germans 10-1 in tanks. Hitler thought the war would be over before the Americans could get into the fight. He was wrong.

Home Front

This was total war. Everyone was involved: men, women, and children. All of Western Pennsylvania, little towns and boroughs; everybody had a “We Can Do It” attitude. Everyone believed that they were making a difference, that they were helping to win the war.

Dan Rooney and David McCullough were both Junior Commandos. They fondly remember their time helping the war effort.

On the home front you might see blue star flags hanging in windows. A blue star meant you had a service member in your family that was overseas. A gold star meant that you had lost a family member. There were too many of those. Thirty-three thousand Pennsylvanians gave their lives during World War II.

In some cases, it was business as usual. There were toys manufactured, but they couldn’t be made of strategic materials. At department stores like Kaufmann’s and Mansmann’s you could buy miniature uniforms for your little sailor or soldier.

In 1942, John Peake dressed as Uncle Sam to sell war bonds. There were parades. Everyone got into the act.

In Pittsburgh, an FBI agent climbed trees and telephone poles to tap telephone lines and to listen in on conversations. He was especially interested in finding saboteurs. Pittsburgh’s industry was vital to the war effort, and the slogan was “Loose lips sink ships.” Everybody had to be careful what they said and to whom they said it.

From 1941 to 1945, more than one and a quarter million Pennsylvanians marched off to war.  Most were drafted, but many volunteered, especially after Pearl Harbor. They wondered what came next.

In the Service

Sixteen million American men and women were in uniform; all branches of the service: U.S. Navy Radioman; Stanley E Whiting of Pittsburgh; Combat Squad Leader Seymour “Sy” Saffer; U.S. Navy WAVE Secretary Margaret Emma Morris; U.S. Army Air Corps operations officer and B-24 pilot, Jimmy Stewart of Indiana, Pa. That’s right, Jimmy Stewart was a pilot. He flew Liberators. He had a commercial pilot’s license before the war and he was determined to serve in uniform. By the end of the war, Jimmy Stewart was a Colonel/ He earned the Croix de Guerre. He was featured in films and on magazine covers, but he was the real deal. He flew twenty combat missions, and after the war, he became a Brigadier General in the Strategic Air Command.

The war around the world captured the imaginations of Americans who had to learn their geography. They depended a lot on newspapers and radio reporters. Combat correspondents sent home reports. One of them, Frank Bolden, worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest African American newspaper in the nation. Frank had the distinction of interviewing Stalin, Churchill, and FDR – a feat not accomplished by any other war correspondent.

George Marshall, of Uniontown, was a real American hero. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower said: “He was the greatest military man America ever produced.” After the war, Marshall became Secretary of State. It was Marshall who engineered the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe and put lives and cities back together. And in recognition of his efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Combat Room

On June 6, 1944, tens of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of LSTs landed on Utah and Omaha Beach. The Normandy invasion was on. American troops, a hundred thousand of them, stormed the beach. It was bloody carnage, but a beachhead was secured. Jeeps screamed ashore, hurdling through the dunes.

This is a Willys Overland Jeep. It’s got the 60 horsepower “Go Devil” engine. This was the work-horse of the American Army and the other allies as well depended on it. As the infantry hit the beaches, they discovered that airborne troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne had hit the night before, parachuting in to dangerous conditions, fighting with the Germans in the night until support could come up.

During the war, American ingenuity played a key role. One of the amazing feats of innovation was performed by Lt. Ron Bagley. He figured out how to cut a truck in half and load it on an airplane. This three quarter ton truck could easily and quickly, in three minutes or less, be cut in half and shoved into an airplane. This was something no other army had done before. The German Army was still largely dependent on horses and mules.

Now, the Americans used mules as well. In fact, Delvin Miller of Avella, Pa. was in charge of a mule remount station. Delvin still wore jodhpurs, those cavalryman’s trousers reinforced on the leg.

The Tuskegee Airmen were a special unit of flyers during World War II. African Americans were often relegated to support roles driving the Red Ball Express with supplies. Lt. Carl Woods was killed over the Adriatic Sea in 1944 while flying a bombing mission to Austria.

Many of those 18, 19, and 20-year old kids who joined the army had never been more than 50 miles from their hometown. Now they were seeing the world, and many of them brought back or sent home trophies of the war. Anything with a swastika on it, Luger pistols, Schmeisser submachine guns, and daggers were packed up in the mail. The Army had a system that allowed free postage for soldiers sending things home, and many took advantage of it.

In the Pacific Theater, the same thing occurred. Men who fought in Burma, or China, or India; the forgotten front. Two hundred thousand Americans were there building airstrips and fighting in the jungle.

One of the most dangerous assignments was in the 8th Airforce in England. The bombers who were sent over France and then Germany. Some of them flew 30 missions, 35 missions and survived. Twenty-five percent of those men didn’t come home.

The soldiers who liberated the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazis were horrified. They found skeletal remains of people, some alive, most of them dead. Eleven million perished in the Nazi death camps, 6 million of them were Jews.

On February 23, 1945, photographer Joe Rosenthal took one of the iconic photographs of the war. It’s a picture of six marines putting up a flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima.

Among those six marines is Mike Strank. Mike Strank was from Conemaugh, Pa. He was a Marine’s Marine. The soldiers in his platoon said, “He’s the best Marine I ever knew.” One soldier said, “He’s the best man I ever knew.” Mike Strank never left Iwo Jima alive.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. And after atomic weapons were dropped on Japanese cities, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. The war was finally over.

Epilogue & Reflection

The war changed the world forever. It changed America in big ways, and here in Western Pennsylvania, well, things would never be the same. The GI Bill assisted veterans in buying homes and attending college. For women, many went back to their homes and became mothers. The Baby Boom, the largest population explosion in American history took place.

The Double V Campaign was only partially successful. Black soldiers won veteran rights, but many lost their jobs after the war. And in Pittsburgh, well, pollution was at an all-time high. The rivers were tainted, the sky was black with soot. The industrialization had been tremendous. At times you couldn’t see the sun in the middle of the day.

Those who made the ultimate sacrifice are honored in this little room. Seven thousand dog tags hang from the ceiling. They represent only one-fifth of the Pennsylvanians who gave their lives during World War II.

Thanks for joining me here at We Can Do It! WWII at the Senator John Heinz History Center. I’m Andy Masich, your tour guide. I appreciate your attention, and remember, it was the greatest generation that helped us win World War II. They put their minds together, they put their backs in it. They rolled up their sleeves and they said “We Can Do It.”