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Smithsonian exhibit sets out how Pittsburgh region propelled war victory

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Photo by Dane Penland, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM2014-06678).
National Air & Space Museum curator Jeremy Kinney
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Heinz History Center
Dr. Jeremy Kinney, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, will discuss the Curtiss-Wright propeller featured in the History Center’s 'We Can Do It!' World War II exhibition,

History will take to the air this weekend.

As a part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, the Heinz History Center will host guest speaker Dr. Jeremy Kinney. The curator from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum will discuss the Pittsburgh area’s integral aeronautics contributions to the Allied Forces victory.

Kinney’s lecture, which will begin at 11 a.m. July 25, will educate Pittsburghers on the city’s role as the world’s center for airplane propeller manufacturing leading up to and during the World War II.

“We think about steel, but there’s also this aeronautics history,” Kinney says of Pittsburgh, whose significance during World War II he discovered while studying American military aviation at Greensboro College and Auburn University.

Many area companies with national reach made Pittsburgh an important industrial “arsenal” during the war, as Gov. Arthur James described it at the time.

Notably, Curtiss-Wright, a commercial, industrial and defense manufacturer stationed in what is now Vanport, Beaver County, became the world’s leading manufacturer of aircraft propellers by the end of the war.

Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel poured 95 million tons of steel into bombs, shells and armor plates for the combat efforts, while Pittsburgh Plate Glass innovated aircraft windshields that closed when pierced by a bullet.

“You’ll be surprised by what you’re going to learn,” Kinney says of Pittsburgh’s wartime legacy.

The electrical propeller blades that Curtiss-Wright manufactured, an example of which will be on display, gave flight to many Navy and Army planes for combat soldiers and cargo transportation.

While airplane propellers are often seen as archaic since the development of jet engine planes towards the war’s end in 1944, the advent was state-of-the-art for its time, says Kinney, who has over 21 publications on aeronautics to his credit.

Kinney’s appearance will run in conjunction with the museum’s ongoing World War II exhibit chronicling the area’s many industrial and combat contributions.

The exhibit, which was unveiled in April after a decade of planning and curation, is titled “We Can Do It” after the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster created by Pittsburgh native J. Howard Miller.

“We Can Do It” displays over 275 rare World War II artifacts, including ones borrowed from the Smithsonian, with whom the History Center is affiliated.

Among its main attractions is the earliest-known surviving Jeep — “Gramps” — which was manufactured in Butler, along with six other WW II vehicles, some of which visitors can take pictures in.

Local war veterans and many of the antique vehicles’ owners will be in attendance to discuss the significance of and background behind many of the artifacts.

Matthew Zabierek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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