As a longtime collector of military medals and awards, I enjoy uncovering the history of the people behind the medals who made their contributions to their respective countries. In dealing with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself writing for a national magazine, Military Trader, satisfying not only my collecting habit, but allowing for a creative outlet that shares information with fellow collectors. Like most collectors, I am always searching for something new and unique to add to my collection. This story is unique—spanning several years and resulting in a special connection between two local veterans.
My story starts with a local ad in the Almanac. Much to my surprise, I spotted a small listing of a Civil War medal for sale. I immediately called the seller, who said she was moving to a senior community and downsizing from her Mt. Lebanon apartment. Knowing that the Civil War had few official national medals (only the Medal of Honor), I suspected that it was probably a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Civil War veteran medal. I met the seller and found my guess was correct—I opened a small box to find a GAR medal. I soon realized that beneath the veteran medal was a Pennsylvania 85th Volunteer medal, and Civil War medals for a particular unit are very rare. Now I was excited, and after some tough negotiations, we finished the purchase. Even better, the seller said she had a complete history of the veteran who received the medal: William H. Mahaney.
Mahaney, who was born July 18, 1844, spent his early years near Washington County and lived in California, Pa. William lost his parents—first his father in 1854, and his mother two years later. Other family members raised him from there, and, at the age of 17, he ran away to Uniontown, Pa., where the 85th Pennsylvania Infantry was organizing. William mustered with the regiment into a three-year commitment.
William saw early service in Washington, D.C., and he was fond of telling the story about how he met Abraham Lincoln while at the Capitol Building, built during his first tour of duty. He would go on to see 20 actions, including the battles of Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, Seven Pines and Yorktown during the Peninsular Campaign. He also saw service in North Carolina and Florida before fighting around Richmond and ending his service on November 22, 1864, in Pittsburgh. Fortunately for William, he never suffered any wounds or injuries during his years of service.
Mahaney would live a long and successful life in California, Pa—working in mining, boating on the Monongahela River, and as a local mail carrier. Active in politics, he even became the Mayor of California for two terms. He would become the oldest living Civil War Veteran in Washington and Fayette County, and he died April 11, 1944, just three months short of his 100th birthday. At this point, remember this date since it will connect him to the second veteran in our story.
Two years earlier I made a major military find at Trader Jack’s in the Bridgeville area. At that time, I bought all the issued medals and paper history of veteran Joseph R. Luxbacher. Interestingly enough, Joseph was born February 10, 1920, in Washington, Pa. He spent most of his young life in Washington and enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 15, 1940. He was trained at Fort Bragg, NC.
At Bragg, Joseph trained with the 47th Infantry Division, and early in 1942, he moved into the 9th Division area. Major General George S. Patton assembled the entire 9th Division on the 47th Regiment parade ground later in 1942, to tell of a major offensive planned for North Africa. Shortly afterward, Joseph Luxbacher’s Company K was on its way to North Africa—Safi, French Morocco, to be exact. Joseph saw extensive combat in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for several months. His division returned to Oran, Morocco, in July 28, 1943, to sail for the invasion of Sicily. In September 1943, Italy surrendered and Joseph and his unit returned to England, where they prepared for the ultimate invasion of mainland Europe.
By the middle of 1944, they were ready. Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, the unit heard landing operations were beginning on several points of the northern coast of France. On June 11, 1944, Joseph’s 47th Infantry regiment landed at Utah Beach. The unit’s primary mission was to battle the German forces on the Cherbourg Peninsula. Joseph’s unit met fierce resistance and suffered heavy casualties, Joseph among them. He died of major wounds on June 16, 1944, and his mother soon received the ominous telegram telling of her son’s death. I later learned that Joseph Luxbacher had a sister, Marian Luxbacher Davic, who, with her husband Walter Davic, owned and operated the well-known Walt’s Tavern, which was located at the intersection of Gilkeson Road and Robb Hollow (Kelso) at the border between Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair.
Although separated by four major United States wars, our two heroic veterans from Washington County, William H. Mahaney and Joseph R. Luxbacher, died within two months of each other.
With some serendipity at play, as soon as I made this connection, I found a 1944 calendar at a local flea market, titled Banner of Liberty. It displayed ghost-like images of veterans of various U.S. wars, behind a woman sewing a United States Flag. It was open to May 1944, but also showed the month before, April, and the month proceeding, June. The visual representation of our veterans’ death dates—April 11, 1944 for William H. Mahaney and June 16, 1944 for Joseph R. Luxbacher—separated by two months really struck me in that moment.
I hope my story, coming after our recent Veterans Day celebrations, highlights the sacrifices of these two local veterans from two different time periods. They helped protect the freedoms of the United States. Thankfully, collectors often preserve history that would be lost after our heroes become distant memories.