Pittsburgh at war

World War II brought our region together as never before, or since

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This article first appeared in the Post-Gazette Aug. 14, 2005. We are reprinting it today as Pittsburgh dedicates the Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Memorial on the North Shore.

The 60th anniversary of World War II’s end is likely to pass quietly across the nation. Tomorrow’s V-J Day marks an abrupt end to what had been years of total war. The U.S. homeland did not suffer the destruction that would befall Europe or Asia but it was a homeland at war nonetheless. Pittsburgh was collectively subsumed by the war, and as a result produced an unprecedented level of output that was the foundation of eventual victory.

With civilian production of almost all durable goods suspended for the duration of the war, the steel industry would convert solely to the war effort. The entire Pittsburgh economy became a war economy like almost nowhere else. As the Trenton Bridge proudly advertises “Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” so it went in Pittsburgh. Probably at no other time in its history was so much of the output of Pittsburgh’s industries destined for overseas customers or for U.S. forces deployed around the globe.

Steel was a vital cog in nearly every war-related product that was essential to U.S. and Allied forces. From steel tanks and steel-armored ships to steel rifles and helmets. The American steel industry as a whole produced almost 90 million tons of finished steel during the peak year of 1944, and 427 million tons from 1941 through 1945. That level of output would not have been possible without the concentration of infrastructure, talent and resources in southwestern Pennsylvania’s industries.

If Pittsburgh had not existed as the United States entered World War II, Pittsburgh would had to have been invented in short order.

The industrial output produced here would not have been possible without an unprecedented level of cooperation everywhere in the region. Government and business would work together at all levels. Management and labor would coexist with minimal conflict for the duration of the war. Rationing and shortages would force cooperation in the allocation of resources between firms that otherwise would have been fierce competitors.

Innumerable other products were produced in Pittsburgh during the war. Entire industries would retool to meet war production requirements. A local ship-building industry would be created almost overnight and more than 290 ships, in addition to structural components for 43 aircraft carriers and 81 cargo ships, were built at local shipyards of the Dravo Corp. and the American Bridge Co. More than 200 of the ships built locally were LSTs — Landing Ship Tanks — the backbone of the D-Day invasion. The bulk of the Normandy invasion fleet would thus float down the Ohio long before crossing the English Channel in June of 1944.

Like all victories, World War II’s would not come without a price. Many servicemen did not make it home. The region would not get a Purple Heart for the indelible environmental damage accelerated by the war. Industrial overcapacity wrought by the war’s artificial demand would defer the normal evolution of industry here, magnifying the transition that would eventually have to happen. But there were no complaints, because there were no other options.

The lack of wartime exigencies would make cooperation after the war difficult to extend. As a result, victory at home would in many ways be more difficult than victory overseas. The armed forces would remain segregated through World War II. Women and minorities who entered the work force en masse would be displaced as soon as veterans returned to their former jobs.

But many seeds were sown for the victories at home that would come. Rosie the Riveter would go back to homemaking at the end of the war, but her daughters would enter the workforce like no generation before them. And it was the Pittsburgh Courier that launched “The Double V Campaign” — “Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad” — to promote the rights of blacks in America. It would be a goal unmet in 1945, but it would plant an unheralded seed for the civil rights movement to come.

Is it possible to recreate the cooperation that existed here in World War II?

As war has changed, so has its impact on the region. Even heavily armored equipment these days is as likely to be built with Kevlar or other advanced materials, not steel forged here. There are innumerable examples of defense-related production in the Pittsburgh region, but there is no comparison to the regional war economy of World War II.

Sixty years ago, the daily reminders of conflicts overseas were everywhere. From food rationing to war-bond advertising, there was no escaping the fact that the nation was at war. Today, conflicts overseas seem remote. Twenty-four-hour news and multichannel, multimodal news coverage seems to inoculate as much as it informs.

Sixty years ago, Pittsburgh was safely ensconced in what was the strategic rear, where enemy attack was inconceivable — a notion long-since overcome by events. It was not the threat of daily bombing that made Pittsburghers come together for the common good, but the unity of purpose they had for the goals at hand. In the end, it’s hard to say whether Pittsburgh altered the war more than the war altered Pittsburgh.

The legacy worth remembering is that for a brief period nearly everyone worked together for Pittsburgh to accomplish what was asked of it.

Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research and a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve (

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