“My family was listening to the radio” the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, said Gloria Halowell Barber, who was a student at Howe Elementary School at the time. “My dad said we probably will go to war.”
Eighty years ago, the tide of World War II was starting to turn. Though the war continued for another two years, and millions more died, by 1943 the Axis powers were defeated in North Africa. German troops had surrendered to the Russians at Stalingrad. An Allied victory began to seem more likely.
Mt. Lebanon was passionate in its support of the war effort, from December 7, 1941, until Japan surrendered in August 1945. More than 2,600 residents served in the military, and 65 died. Students, known as Junior Commandos, collected 40 tons (yes, tons) of scrap metal in one day, on April 11, 1942, and continued to collect after that. A similar drive in October 1943 earned them a commendation from Chief of Police Charles Senn, who praised their “VIM and VIGOR.”
According to The Pittsburgh Press, Mt. Lebanon had the largest contingent of air raid wardens in the county. By the spring of 1942, more than 300 Mt. Lebanon residents had trained to become air raid wardens through the Office of Civilian Defense. They were headquartered at each of the township’s six elementary schools. (Hoover wouldn’t open until 1965.) Each school had an air raid siren on the roof, and when it went off during nighttime drills, the wardens patrolled the streets, making sure that all residents had their lights off and their shades drawn.
Mt. Lebanon had imposed a nighttime blackout almost as soon as war was declared, making for a dark wartime holiday in 1941. A December 21 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph article noted that “Mt. Lebanon Township, leader in Christmas lighting decorations,” was encouraging homeowners to set up daytime displays instead. The Mt. Lebanon Civic League offered prizes of up to $10 in defense stamps for the best front yard tableau. A later story noted that William Christman of 880 Osage Drive won first prize.
The written record of Mt. Lebanon during wartime is fascinating. But Chuck Vogel and Gloria Halowell Barber were there. Vogel, 92, and Barber, 91, both live at Concordia of the South Hills, on Bower Hill Road. They were children when the war began, and ready for high school when it ended. Their memories are vivid.
As an employee of the phone company, Barber’s father was exempt from the draft. But she still remembers those years as a frightening time.
“I remember there was a big bomber that would fly over us. It had a low drone,” Barber recalled. “I remember that noise. It scared me.”
“In grade school, when there was (an air raid) drill we had to crouch down in the hallway. You never knew if it was real.
“Sometimes they wanted us to run home to see how fast we could get there,” she added. The schools had three levels of evacuation drills: no evacuation, which kept the kids in the schools; partial evacuation, when kids who could get home in 15 minutes ran home; and complete evacuation, when anyone who was within 30 minutes of home left the building.
“People talked about the war everywhere,” Barber recalled. “We bought war stamps” which could be collected and traded for war bonds.
“You couldn’t always get the meat you wanted,” because of rationing, Barber said. “But we had what we needed.”
Even during wartime, though, a Mt. Lebanon childhood had its pleasures.
“We’d walk to the Denis Theatre for movies,” Barber recalled. “Or we’d ride our bikes on the sidewalk on Castle Shannon.” Sometimes she’d pick violets in the woods near Adeline Avenue. At night, she’d listen to Little Orphan Annie on the radio, and she sent away for her secret decoder pin.
Barber said there was a soda fountain on Castle Shannon Boulevard (possibly McKeen’s Dairy Store) where she and her friends would buy penny candy.
Vogel lived on Lyndhurst Drive and attended Lincoln Elementary. He remembers all the students were assembled, “probably in the gym,” the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. “I don’t think any of us really realized what a big deal it was.”
Not long after the war began, Vogel started helping out at Winterhalter’s, a grocery store on Beverly Road.
“Somehow my folks knew the Winterhalters,” Vogel remembered. Mr. Winterhalter went off to war, and his wife was glad to have the help.
“My first job was to ride in the car and drop off the groceries,” he said. “Eleven cents a pound for bananas—that still sticks in my mind.”
Both Vogel and Barber remember food rationing, and the stamps that were issued to each household. Sugar was strictly rationed, but Vogel shared a family secret, 80 years after the fact: “We had a big waste can with a lid in the attic.” It was filled with sugar.
“I’m not absolutely sure where it came from,” he added. “The kids were sworn to secrecy. We were never without sugar.”
Ration books were closely guarded (or they should have been—every lost and found column in the newspapers featured plaintive pleas for the return of missing ration books). Butter was rationed; Barber and Vogel shared in what seems to be universal revulsion of oleomargarine, the wartime butter substitute: hydrogenated vegetable oil sold with a yellow coloring capsule.
“It was bad stuff,” Vogel maintained.
Mt. Lebanon was one of Pittsburgh’s early suburban neighborhoods, and though not every family owned a car, gas rationing was a hot topic. Most car owners were limited to three gallons a week.
“There were no new cars” during the war, Vogel said. “Used cars were at a premium.” And they weren’t their grandchildren’s cars: “If you got 40,000 miles, you’d probably have to get a complete engine rebuild.”
Not everyone was willing to wait for the next month’s ration books. On August 3, 1944, the Press reported that “12 sons of prominent families” in Mt. Lebanon were charged with stealing enough coupons to purchase 8,000 gallons of gas, tires, tools, and accessories. They broke into gas stations from Steubenville Pike to McMurray, police said. Neighbors got suspicious of all the “joy-riding,” and tipped off law enforcement.
“They were having a gay time, riding high, wide and handsome,” one officer noted.
Three of the boys were over 18 and kept at the Washington County Jail. According to the story, the Press obtained their names but declined to print them. (By contrast, a Press story three months later identified an 18-year-old convicted of larceny not only by name, but as “Negro.”)
Vogel also remembers ice skating on Cedarhurst Lake and riding bikes with his friends down Washington Road to Donaldson’s Crossroads (a harder trip on the way back, he said).
Both Vogel and Barber remember well when the war finally ended in an Allied victory—first in Europe, in May 1945, and in Japan that August. By then, both were Mellon Junior High students.
“Big celebrations,” Vogel said. “That was the subject of the day, the boys coming home.”
“There were parades,” Barber recalled.
It was a dramatic time to become a teenager (a word just coming into use in the mid-1940s). “I guess we were insulated a lot,” growing up in Mt. Lebanon, Vogel conceded. “Things were pretty stable.”
THAT WE MIGHT HAVE A BETTER WORLD
Robert Stanley Lewis lived at 201 Jefferson Drive. At Mt. Lebanon High School, he was a homeroom officer, ran track, and earned his letter in football. He was killed in action in France on August 3, 1944. He was 19 years old.
PFC Lewis is one of at least nine Mt. Lebanon High School alumni who died in World War II, and are buried in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. A total of 58 former students and one staff member (PFC Harold Fry, a health teacher and basketball coach) were killed in the war. Many are buried at other regional cemeteries, or in military burial grounds overseas. The remains of some were never found: in most cases, the government declared them dead after they had been missing a year and a day.
We know their stories because of a book, That We Might Have a Better World, created as a tribute to Mt. Lebanon High School’s war dead, by Mt. Lebanon’s Class of 1947. Each page features a picture of the deceased serviceman and his parents’ names and address. Their high school activities are mentioned, as well as the circumstances of their deaths.
It’s a treasure. These men and boys walked the same streets we do. Their high school experiences weren’t too different from students today: Robert Creps of 265 Magnolia Drive was chairman of the poster committee and acted in a class play. Paul Hughes Jr., who lived at 460 Mapleton, was homeroom president, made the honor roll, and took part in the school operetta.
Some of the soldiers’ wartime experiences were horrific. Lt. John Irwin Orr Jr., class of 1934, served on the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed and sunk in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945. It’s believed that Orr was one of 890 crew members who survived the blast, but when rescue crews arrived four days later, he was not among the 316 who survived. The Japanese surrendered two weeks later, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Lieutenant Junior Grade William Murchison’s family lived at 275 Ashland Avenue. He graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 1932. Murchison joined the Navy in 1940 and was sent to fight in the Philippines. He was captured and spent 33 months as a Japanese prisoner of war. There are no further records of him after January 1945.
Captain Howard Richardson Long of 731 Washington Road was wounded by shell concussion in France, shortly after D-Day. Long never recovered: he was sent home and “became ill of the wounds received.” He died in December 1946. According to his obituary, Long left behind a wife and 18-day-old son.
In 1994, Mt. Lebanon Junior High School teacher Kay O’Brien created a video based on That We Might Have a Better World. It was shown on the school district’s cable access channel on Memorial Day and other occasions for several years. The video seems to have disappeared, but original editions of the book can be seen at the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon.
The alumni buried in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery are Staff Sgt. George Abbott (Arden Road), Corporal Robert Warren Bamford (Avon Drive), PFC Robert J. Creps (Magnolia Place), First Lt. Paul Edward Dean (Roselawn Avenue), Aviation Cadet Malvern Hilliard (May Street, Castle Shannon), PFC Robert Stanley Lewis (Jefferson Drive), Navy submariner Machinist’s Mate Second Class Charles Oliver Markle Jr. (Shady Drive East), PFC Rolla Woods Miller Jr. (Lebanon Hills Drive), and PFC Walter Stanley Smith Jr. (Trotwood Acres).