HELLUVA TOWN: THE STORY OF NEW YORK CITY DURING WORLD WAR II
In the signature number from the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, three sailors heading out on a 24-hour search for love in wartime Manhattan sing "New York, New York, it’s a helluva town."
The Navy boys’ race against time mirrored the very real frenzy in the city that entertained three million servicemen on their way to an uncertain destiny.
This was a time when soldiers and sailors waiting to be shipped out, when defense-plant workers flush with cash, jammed the Broadway theaters, the Times Square movie houses with lavish stage shows, the nightclubs like the Latin Quarter and the Copacabana. It was a time when bobby-soxers rioted outside the Paramount in the crush to swoon over Frank Sinatra, a skinny but adored substitute for the boys who had gone to war.
Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II recalls the electricity of the wartime homefront while recounting the important role New York played in the national war effort and its emergence as the world capital at war’s end.
More than 800,000 New Yorkers went to war, and six of them received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, three of the citations bestowed posthumously.
The Port of New York became known as "Last Stop USA." While soldiers boarded troopships in the harbor, headed to Britain, the Brooklyn Navy Yard turned out battleships and aircraft carriers and repaired thousands of Allied vessels. Here, too, is the story of a wrenching winter’s night in 1942 when the famed French liner Normandie, undergoing conversion to a troopship, caught fire and capsized at her Manhattan pier, never to sail again.
Helluva Town recounts the pioneering experiments by émigré nuclear physicists at Columbia University leading to creation of the atomic bomb. It tells of the Navy officers and the pioneering Waves who trained on New York college campuses. It recalls the breaking of racial barriers at the Coast Guard boot camp in Brooklyn and the training films produced by the Army in Queens.
This is also a portrait of New York as a haven for thousands of refugees from Hitler, among them Europe’s leading scientists, artists and writers. New York healed as well: the Pfizer drug company of Brooklyn produced the penicillin accompanying the American infantrymen who invaded Normandy on D-Day.
On Broadway, the plays of Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson and John Steinbeck championed the democratic cause. Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory paid tribute to the military with their all-servicemen casts; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" hailed American optimism at a time of national testing; the Leonard Bernstein-Jerome Robbins production of On the Town introduced two iconic figures of American music and dance to the theater world. Broadway’s leading actors and actresses entertained servicemen at the Stage Door Canteen in midtown and at bases and hospitals around the world.
Helluva Town re-creates a time long before "9/11" when New Yorkers felt vulnerable to a foreign foe. The city was labeled "Target Number One" if the Germans could send bombers into America’s skies or shell the coastline from U-boats. Some 400,000 New Yorkers served as air-raid wardens while antiaircraft guns ringed the city. The neon advertising signs in Times Square went dark. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia warned of terror from the skies. Calamity indeed arrived, but not at the hands of the Germans. On a summer’s day in 1945, an Army Air Forces bomber pilot fresh from combat became lost in rain and fog on a routine flight and crashed into the Empire State Building.
Here too are tales of the FBI chasing down Nazi spies in the city, Britain’s counter-espionage network housed in obscure offices in Rockefeller Center, and the Navy’s use of Mafia bosses to help avert German sabotage on the mob-run piers.
New Yorkers joined together to buy war bonds and donate blood, but racial and ethnic tensions simmered and finally burst. Longstanding racism and the indignities endured by New York’s black GIs in the training camps of the South spawned a riot that devastated Harlem in the summer of 1943. The German-American Bund, based in Manhattan’s Yorkville section, spewed anti-Semitism, and Irish-Catholic youth gangs attacked Jewish youngsters and vandalized synagogues while the police remained indifferent.
And this is the story of New York’s emergence as the power and glory of the world stage in the war’s aftermath, underlined when the newly created United Nations voted to establish its permanent headquarters astride the East River and a vast international airport arose in Queens.
Finally, a personal note.
In recalling life in the wartime city, and telling of its men and women who went to war, I was struck by the story of a particular GI. His name was Irving Strobing, he was from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, and he was a radio operator in the Signal Corps. When he died in Durham, North Carolina, at age 77 in 1997, he made the obituary pages of The New York Times. His life over the previous three decades seemed ordinary enough: He worked for the Federal Aviation Agency and the Department of Agriculture before retiring. But the obit headline told another story: "Hero of Corregidor."
It was nearly five months since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and two months since General Douglas MacArthur fled the Philippines for Australia. In the tunnels of the rock called Corregidor, the remnants of the American forces under General Jonathan Wainwright were in the last throes of their holdout, waiting for the Japanese onslaught.
Their final words were tapped out on May 5, 1942, by Private Strobing, 22 years old and the son of a tailor.
"General Wainwright is a right guy and we are willing to go on for him, but shells were dropping all night, faster than hell. They are piling dead and wounded in our tunnel.
"My name Irving Strobing. Get this to my mother, Mrs. Minnie Strobing, 605 Barbey Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. They are to get along o.k. My love to Pa, Joe, Sue, Mac, Garry, Joy and Paul. God bless you and keep you."
Strobing’s radio message was picked up in Hawaii by an Army radio technician named Arnold Lappert, a Manhattan boy. Lappert relayed Strobing’s words to the American mainland, and they were printed in newspapers, touching the emotions of the homefront.
In September 1945, Strobing was released from a Japanese prison camp. A month later, Irving Strobing of Brooklyn and Arnold Lappert of Manhattan joined together to re-enact their connection in springtime 1942 at a Madison Square Garden pageant telling of the contributions American Jews had made in all the nation’s wars.
Strobing had graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and attended Brooklyn College for a year before entering the Army. I grew up in Brooklyn as well and I graduated from Jefferson in 1959. I, too, went on to Brooklyn College. I’m Class of 1963.
We were a generation apart. But I feel a kinship. And so a belated salute to Irving Strobing, to Arnold Lappert, and to all the men and women who left New York for the military training camps of America and their roles at home and abroad in the winning of the Second World War.