Pittsburgh exhibit, events to bring WWII to area

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After Altoona native and Army Air Force bombardier Joe Conlon was shot down over Hungary during World War II and captured, a German interrogator who had failed to get more than Conlon’s name, rank and serial number plunked down a folder containing a copy of one of Conlon’s report cards from Altoona Catholic High School and clippings about him from the Altoona Mirror, telling the prisoner of war, “We already know about you.”

That story, told by Conlon to local historian Jared Frederick shortly before Conlon’s death in 2015, helped confirm there really were informants within the German-American Dutch Hill community raided by the FBI and police in 1942, after exposure of a German plot to sabotage the Horseshoe Curve and other U.S. industrial sites — although the authorities never made arrests, according to Frederick.

Such World War II tidbits — interweaving the global with the local and showing how the global affected the local and vice versa — will be among key elements of an eight-week visit to this area of a traveling World War II exhibit from the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, starting in late May, according to Frederick, past president of the Blair County Historical Society, which is partnering as event host with the Railroaders Memorial Museum, which had the necessary space.

“Stories just like that are what this whole (traveling exhibit) seeks to convey to local audiences,” Frederick said.

Transported by tractor-trailer, the exhibit consists of modular “pods” — panels and stages to be assembled by History Center workers in the third floor meeting room of the rail museum, according to Frederick and Historical Society CEO Joe DeFrancesco.

There will be interpretive panels with photos and text, vintage war bonds, “propaganda” posters, space within the exhibit for local artifacts and a repainting of the rolling stock in the railroad museum yard with World War II era lettering, according to Frederick and DeFrancesco.

The exhibit will include mannequins representing Uniontown native Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff during the war.

Mars, Pa., resident and Tuskegee Airman Lt. Carl J. Woods, Sgt. Michael Strank, who grew up in Franklin Borough and was one of the servicemen in the famous Iwo Jima photo, and Rosie the Riveter, a half-fictional character representing women workers in wartime, inspired by the Westing­house Corp., will also be featured, according to the History Center website.

The visit to Altoona will be one of 18 stops for the exhibit over three years, as part of a program in which the History Center interacts with county historical societies, according to the website and DeFrancesco.

In addition to the traveling exhibit, there will be corollary World War II-themed events in various locations, including the railroad museum itself and the Historical Society’s Baker Mansion, each tailored to suit the host organizations.

One such event will be an interactive mystery tour at the Railroad Museum, based on the Dutch Hill raid, put on by Altoona Community Theatre, according to Frederick and theater member Karen Volpe.

Actors will play characters who will haunt various museum exhibits — including the German-American bank represented there, Volpe said.

Participants will guess which of those characters is the “spy,” Volpe said.

The identity of the spy will be revealed after an hors d’oeuvres reception toward the end, said Volpe, who is writing the script for the tour with the help of Frederick, who will be the tour guide.

The Dutch Hill raid fascinates Volpe, who spoke of many houses “torn apart” by the authorities in search of short wave radios and other evidence and of the interrogation of neighborhood residents at the post office downtown.

While Conlon’s story is probably the best evidence that informants were present here, redacted names of suspects in the FBI files are also at least an indication of that, according to Volpe and Frederick.

Among other corollary events: World War II movies at the Mishler Theatre and Peoples Natural Gas Field, a World War II-related art competition at the Blair County Arts Festival at Penn State Altoona, a lecture series and exhibits at Baker Mansion, a re-enactment at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, a community band concert at Canal Basin Park in Hollidaysburg, a veterans breakfast at the railroad museum, open house at the Keirn Family World War II museum at Saint Francis University and train rides on the Everett Railroad with a World War II re-enactment group.

The Mishler will be showing “The Longest Day,” which is about the Normandy invasion, and “From Here to Eternity,” which is about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, according to Kate Shaffer, executive director of the Blair County Arts Foundation.

Shaffer hasn’t seen “The Longest Day,” but has watched “From Here to Eternity” as many as 20 times, beginning as a teen with her father in their living room, after her mom had fallen asleep on the couch.

“It’s a spellbinding movie,” Shaffer said. “All these people’s lives intertwined.”

She looks forward to seeing it again at the Mishler “for the umpty-umpth time,” she said. If one had to watch a single movie for all eternity, this would be a candidate: “You never get tired of it,” Shaffer said.

The History Center doesn’t charge to deliver the traveling exhibit.

That doesn’t mean its presence here can’t be a revenue generator for local organizations, according to DeFrancesco.

The museum will charge $20 for admission to the exhibit, a charge that also will enable admission to the rest of the museum’s exhibits, the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark and Baker Mansion, according to a document provided by rail museum Chief Operating Officer Cindy Hershey.

The History Center is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C., and so produces “high-grade exhibits and programs,” said Frederick, a history instructor at Penn State Altoona.

The traveling exhibit program allows the center to connect “at the grass roots level” with residents of western and central Pennsylvania, while giving those residents easy access to those first-rate exhibits, Frederick said.

“It (will be) such a cool big deal for the community,” Volpe said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.