small text medium text large text

America is great--America will win--
Let's Go Dancing.

Mary Hresko & Mary Vincher Shiner
interviewed by Mark Kernion.

America is great--America will win--Let's go dancing

Scanned photo of Mary Hresko.

Introduction of the Narrators.
For many women currently in their late 70's and early 80's, World War II memories are distant and surprisingly fond remnants of the monumental tapestry of time called the 20th century. Two particular women, both Slovak in heritage, wove their life's fabric in small towns surrounding the urban area known as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spent their pre- and early married life as active 20-year-olds at the time America was engaged in the War. Mary Hresko was born on June 12, 1921 and was raised by her blue-collar parents in the working man's town of East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. East Pittsburgh was best known as housing one of the largest Westinghouse Electric Corporation plants in the nation, at one time spanning many square miles in area and employing thousands of workers. Mary Vincher, born on September 8, l919, was raised in the town of Rankin, Pennsylvania, just several miles west of East Pittsburgh, but engulfed by the great steel mills of Braddock, Munhall, and Homestead, PA. These two Marys didn't really know each other until after they graduated from high school began a social life that reached its apex in the early to mid 1940s.

Not surprisingly, their friendship has continued, now spanning more than 60 years. They've shared the trials and tribulations of raising families through the fabulous 50s, turbulent 60s and scandalous 70s, and have been brought together once again; this time to share their memories of what was, for some, the harshest decade, the 1940s. In particular, each was interviewed by the author as to what "Pittsburghers," like themselves, experienced on the U. S. homefront during WWII. After interviewing these women in some detail, it is the author's opinion that these two women were fairly representative of the 20-year-old, white, blue-collar-background women of Pittsburgh at that time and, as such, their interviews should be considered valuable.

During the course of the interviews, many of the comments made by both women caused the author to develop an impression of what the women experienced during that era of their lives. Mary Hresko said things like, "The war wasn't here." "We were all busy working" and "I had so much faith in America!" Similarly, Mary Vincher commented, "It all came and went pretty fast." "We were busy with work; we'd come home and rest and then go out to dance!" and "It was so nice when all the boys would come home [at the Pennsylvania Station], because before the war they used to throw stones at each other." It seemed quite clear to the author, that the message of these women with regard to how they felt and what they experienced on the homefront, based on the brief comments above, as well as the narrative that follows, can be summarized by these few words:

America is great. America will win.
We're better off now because of the war.
We're concerned about our boys in the war and we'll do all that we can but,
let's make some money, let's spend some money, and
let's go dancing!
The irony of this disclosure is that, although the 1940s can be rightly described as "harsh" for so many, for women like these it can, in many ways, be viewed as quite the opposite.

Scanned photo of Mary Vincher Shiner.

Prior to and through 1941.
Before 1941, neither of the Marys was completely aware of what was happening in Europe with regard to the rise of the Third Reich. This was especially true prior to 1939. Although each had a bit of knowledge, neither recalled being especially cognizant of Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia, the country of their not-too-far-removed relatives. Subsequent to their graduation from high school, both had standard woman's jobs. Mary H. worked as a waitress at a restaurant near the aforementioned Westinghouse Plant while Mary V. was a worker in a laundry in her hometown of Rankin.

Mary H. recalled the feeling that war was inevitable in the final months of 1941. Both women were hired by Westinghouse, at the East Pittsburgh plant, in the later stages of that year, oddly, working in different divisions but performing roughly the same job.

December 8, 1941, a watershed day for so many Americans, was a day that each woman remembered. Mary H. said it was a Sunday. [In reality, it was a Monday.] She had gone to her friend's house when she heard the President on the radio requesting Congress to declare war, and recalled saying to her friend, "I think I'm going to go home. The President has just declared war.... I don't feel like going out." Mary V. recalls hearing similar news while eating dinner over what she described as the crystal radio. She said, "It didn't hit me at first [the magnitude of the moment]."

1942 and Beyond.
As 1942 rolled in, both Mary H. and Mary V. were well into their jobs as members of work groups that made Springfield motors [the kind that might be found in modern washing machines]. Mary H. recalled that initially she underwent two weeks of training followed by a six-week trial period, at the onset of her employment, for a job that involved the "winding of coils" for the small motors. Her boss was a man, but her group leader was a woman. She ended up working that same job for about 5 years. Her first paycheck, for four days work, was for $24.00. She remembers one week, with overtime pay she made $80.00. She recalls thinking at the time, "Man, am I rich!" Every payday she used to buy her little brother a toy and, as she could, she would buy war bonds. She recalled buying lots of new clothes and even bought a brand new fur coat. When questioned about the frivolousness of such a purchase, she replied, "Everybody got one!"

Rationing was something that didn't negatively impact Mary H. in a big way. Although in her twenties and working, she still lived at home with her parents. She didn't have a car, so the rationing of gasoline didn't affect her. Her mother cooked her meals, so the rationing of food was not something of which she needed to concern herself. There was one product though, of which the rationing thereof did affect her...and that was cigarettes. She spoke often, in the interview, the phrase: "Lucky Strike Green went to war." She said she wasn't sure why cigarettes had to be rationed. She speculated that the soldiers simply needed them more than the people at home [to steady themselves or have something that would help pass their time]. She somewhat embarrassingly recalled that she was able to dishonestly procure an extra carton of cigarettes every month for herself because her aunt worked at the drug store where they could be purchased. To this day she says she feels somewhat guilty over this unpatriotic indiscretion.

Mary V., although not disliking her job, didn't seem as enthusiastic about it as Mary H. She always worked second shift [Mary H. always worked daylight]. Mary V. didn't mind though because she said, "Things really didn't begin to heat up until second shift was over." What was it that heated up in the evening hours around Pittsburgh, PA, in 1942 that excited these women so much? It was the nightclubs... which brings us to another aspect of their lives back then...entertainment!

World War II Social Life on the Homefront.
Both Marys, although not knowing each other in high school and coming from different communities, ended up doing most of their dancing at a club in Duquesne, PA [near Kennywood Amusement Park] called Green Gables, where they first met. To get to the club they would either ride the streetcars, walk (sometimes more than several miles) or hitchhike! Green Gables brought in live bands and both Marys would frequently dance the night away...up to five nights a week! Mary V. said, "We didn't go there to talk!" Because both Marys hung out with different groups of friends, they used to compete to see who could sit in the booths closest to the bar. That's because that's where they could get the best dancers. There were soldiers in uniform [on leave], single men who were 4F-ers, and even married men who "just liked to dance," said Mary H. Both Marys said that the 4F-ers were not looked down upon because there were a lot of legitimate reasons why some men didn't go to war. A few reasons they were aware of included being the only son in a family or being the youngest son as well. Mary H. said that she also was aware of valid medical reasons as to why some men didn't serve.

Mary H. recalled many of the stars of the entertainment industry [who sometimes came to some of the bigger places in Pittsburgh like Kennywood and the Stanley Theater to perform]. Some of her favorites were Harry James, The Dorsey Brothers, Russ Morgan and Glenn Miller. She said that, in her opinion, Glenn Miller was the best of them all. Interestingly, she recalled that he enlisted in the service and ended up missing in action. She also remembered that everyone couldn't wait for him to return...but, sadly he never did.

She then went on to speak about the Andrews Sisters. Besides hits like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, there was one song they made popular that Mary H. spoke about with considerable enthusiasm called Rum and Coca-Cola. The rise of passion in her voice as she talked about this somewhat risque calypso song was noteworthy in terms of its exhibition of the naivete that many of the young women possessed on the homefront. A sampling of the lyrics follows:

Since the Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin' mad
Young girls say they treat 'em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise

Drinkin' rum and Coca-Cola
Go down to Point Cumana
Both mother and daughter
Workin' for the Yankee dollar

Out on Manzanilla Beach
GI romance with native peach
All night long, make tropic love
Next day, sit in hot sun and cool off

Drinkin' rum and....

A bit of research concerning the song indicated that the overtly sexual nature of the song made it a favorite among the GIs despite the overtones of prostitution. Maxine Andrews, in an interview concerning the song some years later, indicated that she and her sisters were attracted to the song by its calypso beat and unique harmonies. She said that she didn't mean to make any excuses [she should have been aware] but the lyrics of the song "went pretty much over our heads." What makes this so noteworthy is that both Marys described the song in much the same way. They loved to dance to it but didn't think too much about the meaning of the song. Mary H. admitted that she didn't even get it right away and that she had to be told the song's meaning. This naivete can be seen as a small representation of an overall naivete concerning the war in general that both women possessed. This is not to say that the women were at fault for their lack of sophistication concerning the war. As was stated before, the war wasn't in their backyard. The information they got was through limited and somewhat controlled channels. Also, no one in their immediate families was a casualty of the conflict. It is the opinion of the author that their somewhat sheltered view [at least during the time of the war] is completely understandable given their experiences and circumstances.

In addition to giving indication of their credulous perspectives, talking about the song Rum and Coca-Cola also caused both Marys to relate stories concerning fidelity in relationships strained as a result of the war. Mary V. knew her husband Joe before the war, however it wasn't until 1943 that they were married. Joe was in the army and while he was home on Christmas leave in that year, they were married. She said that she tried to write to her husband as often as she could when he was overseas because she wanted to make sure that he didn't get [what she described] as "lonely." The problem was that she really didn't like writing much and after a while she ran out of things to say. Several times she actually plagiarized letters from books she had read! She said that her husband was quick to pick up on this questionable, but well-intentioned behavior, though, as he wrote back requesting, "Would you please write down your own letters." She also said that if she sent him other things [besides letters], his commanding officer would often intercept them. One thing the girls back home were told never to send [principally by their peers] was a Hershey bar! The perspective of young women on the homefront was that a GI could get whatever he wanted for a piece of chocolate. What they wanted might include satisfying their sexual appetites with the local girls alluded to in the Rum and Coca-Cola song.

In a similar light, both of the narrators commented on the term "war bride." In particular they both knew a fellow from East Pittsburgh who brought home a German girl named Louise. Surprisingly, they both said that she was accepted by the hometown folks quite easily upon her and her husband's return to the U. S., experiencing no hardship due to her nationality. The narrators also said that this type of behavior [i.e. where men in the service became involved with women in the occupied lands] created a lot of broken-hearted women on the homefront towards the end of the war...several that they knew personally. They were quick to point out too, that this occasion for infidelity often reared its head from the opposite perspective as well. Mary H. said that she knew a fellow who came back from the war only to find his wife was pregnant. Since he hadn't been home in the time frame that would have allowed him to be the father of the child, the distraught GI knew that his wife hadn't been faithful. Consequently, they divorced. Both Marys said they were aware of other similar situations and that there was a significant amount of divorce at the time. Neither, however, experienced these problems first hand.

Had both of these Marys been born the opposite sex, perhaps their perspectives of the early years of the 1940s would be significantly different. Mary H. said, "It didn't change my [overall] life too much. I just went on like I would've had anyway...but it might've been different if I was a boy." Even with this thought in her head she still saw a lot of boys anxiously go to war and then come back. Therefore, even the idea of possibly being male didn't mandate a change in her view. In other words, she wasn't forced [or even strongly urged —internally or externally] to critically analyze the situation from perspectives other than her own. She knew only of three boys from her high school class who died as a result of the war. In retrospect, she believes that 20 or 21 years old wasn't old enough for her to realize the overall magnitude of the event called World War II. Both narrators gave indication that whenever they listened to the news, although they heard some bad things, on the whole it was mostly good news. It seemed to them that America was winning practically all the time. They both expressed the feelings that America was on the side of right. They believed America was better. They believed America had better troops and better equipment. There was no way America would lose! Mary V. had a friend who went as far to say that she would be sorry to see the war end. She didn't want to lose her job!

According to Mary V. the pictures in the papers from the correspondents didn't envision death that much. Mary H. said that she learned about that aspect of the war from her husband, years later. She said, "If I would've known more [about the realities of the war] I might have felt different." But, as it was, she just didn't know better. It is the opinion of the author that this "I'm unaffected" simplicity with regard to the war, was prevalent in the young women on the homefront in Pittsburgh during the war. In fact, if there indeed were an effect, it would've been one that changed most things for the better. And so, one can summarize these thoughts in just a few words and get a pretty accurate view of what women like Mary Hresko and Mary Vincher experienced in those early years of the 1940s:

America is great. America will win.
We're better off now because of the war.
We're concerned about our boys in the war and we'll do all that we can but,
let's make some money, let's spend some money, and
let's go dancing!

Last Updated: 21 May 2001.

Up  Return to the top