When I was asked to curate the new “Mt. Lebanon Goes to War” exhibit, I never expected to discover more stories, artifacts, and documents than could fit into the exhibit space. The exhibit features uniforms and equipment, airplane spotting handbooks and genuine scrap, along with many fascinating photographs. We also show old newsreels, cartoons, Army training films, and resident oral histories on the society’s new flat screen TV to give visitors a sense of the sights and sounds of the era.
My digging through the historical society’s archives yielded a few surprises, and I made sure to include them in the exhibit.
I never knew, for example, that there was a good deal of isolationist (perhaps more fairly referred to as “non-interventionist”) sentiment before the war. One “peace committee” formed within the Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church in 1939 argued strenuously that the United States should not get involved in the wars already underway in Europe and Asia. I was struck also by how slow much of the community was to come around to the dangers of Nazism. The Mt. Lebanon school district’s emblem still bore swastikas well into the war, and the Mt. Lebanon Women’s Club didn’t get heavily involved in the war effort until 1943.
Residents in early 1944 noticed a lot of young people—“sons of prominent families”—joyriding far beyond what should have been possible on tightly rationed gasoline. Mt. Lebanon police cracked the case: the kids had stolen thousands of dollars worth of gasoline ration coupons, a serious crime for which they were jailed.
On the other hand, most of Mt. Lebanon’s young people mobilized quickly and with great energy for the war effort. The high school student newspaper noted in early 1942 that their lives had done an about face. “Students have become more serious in their work,” it declared. “Everyone has realized they must play a vital role in the war.” Much of the exhibit deals with these new roles: war bonds drives and air raid drills; Victory gardens and airplane spotting; rationing and scrap collecting.
Then, of course, there was the incredible flood of Mt. Lebanon’s young men and women into military service. They served all over the globe in every branch of service. In all, well over 10 percent of the community’s population joined the armed forces, an astonishing statistic considering that today’s military represents less than one percent of Americans. Each of these service men and women had a story to tell, and we highlight a few.
Perhaps most sobering are the portraits that ring the top of our exhibit: the 65 men from our community killed during World War II. I like to think of this exhibit as a small gesture of honor to these young men from Mt. Lebanon who never got to return home.
— Todd DePastino, exhibit curator
DePastino, a 1984 Mt. Lebanon High School grad, lives on Magnolia Place and serves on the society’s board. He has a Ph.D. in American History from Yale University and teaches at Waynesburg University. He is the author of “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front” and runs the Veterans Breakfast Club, a non-profit organization that creates communities of listening around veterans and their stories. Serving on the exhibit committee was Mark Johnson and society president Jim Wocjik. The Mt. Lebanon History Center is located at 200 Lebanon Avenue on the corner of Washington Road. Regular hours are 9 a.m. to noon, Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Thursdays. You can make an appointment for a private or group tour by contacting 412-563-1941 or email@example.com.