A WWI mystery solved
by David L. Burrows
One of the most beautiful and artistic designs for a WWI homecoming medal was used for the Pittsburgh Homecoming Medal. The large gilt medal is fitted with a named eagle brooch by chain links that support a large planchet adorned with the seal of the City of Pittsburgh. This is backed with a drape of gold and black — the colors of Pittsburgh. Based on the large numbers of men who served and the large population of Pittsburgh, there should be a large number of medals in circulation — but there is not.
The Western Pennsylvania firm of Heeren Brothers & Company designed and manufactured medal. William F. Heeren, the founder of the company, was born in Germany and started the Company in Pittsburgh in 1867. He and his company were renowned for excellent craftsmanship, especially in making commemorative medals. Examples of the firm’s medals include the Company’s 25th & 50th Anniversary strikes as well as their 1909 Commemorative Medal for the Allegheny Arsenal explosion .
By 1924, the company had become one of the largest jewelry vendors between New York and Chicago. Meanwhile, at the time of America’s entry into WWI, Pittsburgh was the eighth largest city in the United States.
As unrivaled industrial giants ,Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania had major roles in WWI. Many of the soldiers in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Keystone Division were Pittsburgh men. Men drafted into service from Western Pennsylvania made up the 80th Blue Ridge Division. The 15th Engineer Battalion was raised and trained in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh soldiers were instrumental in several campaigns including the 2nd Battle of the Marne, the Battle of Soissons, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Since a large number of Pittsburgh soldiers served, there was excitement when the guns ceased firing and soldiers returned home. The people of Pittsburgh planned for a great homecoming celebration, though 508 would not return, and many came home bearing wounds.
This is where the mystery becomes apparent for collectors: There just aren’t that many extant Pittsburgh Homecoming Medal. Based on the large numbers of men who served, and the large population of Pittsburgh, there should be a large number of medals in circulation.
In spite of a long-time involvement in medallic artistry, Heeren Brothers minted only two WWI homecoming medals. Besides the Pittsburgh Medal, the only other issue was a medal made for Lawrence County, Penn.: A 35mm copper pendant showing a soldier firing a rifle in a kneeling positive. It wasgiven to returning soldiers by the New Castle Herald
But why is it almost impossible for local collectors to find the Pittsburgh WWI Homecoming Medal?
IT WASN’T FOR THE SOLDIERS!
When members of the 18th Infantry Regiment and 15th Engineers arrived at the Liberty Train station, Pittsburgh’s victorious sons marched to the Syria Mosque in Oakland. After eating breakfast at the Mosque and reuniting with their families, they marched along Fifth Avenue to the downtown district and past a reviewing stand three blocks long. It was one of the largest parades ever in Pittsburgh.
Did the returning doughboys receive a welcome home medal at the parade’s conclusion?Discerning collectors have finally discovered the answer.
All of the Pittsburgh Homecoming medals were “named.” Through internet searches, it has become apparent thatthe Pittsburgh Homecoming Medals were only issued to politically connected people who were instrumental in planning the Homecoming Parade and festivities! Known examples of the Pittsburgh Homecoming Medalwere issued to a W.J. Patterson (Captain in the Civil War and Commander of the GAR); A.J Kelly, Jr. (City council member and 6th President of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh); Charles C. Kohne (involved in Pittsburgh real estate); and J.F. Moore (veteran of the Spanish American War and school principal in Pittsburgh). The conclusion to the mystery is that the number of medals was restricted to the Homecoming Committee.
There was no official Pittsburgh medal for the returning soldiers — other than those awarded by other local companies or churches to members who had fought in the war. As is often the case, history explains the inconsistencies between the soldiers who served, and those on the home front.