In reading Richard Goldstein’s wonderful new book “Helluva Town” about New York City during the years of World War II, I was struck by the strange irony that despite the devastating horror of that bloodbath, the Big Apple had its worst incident by enemy combatants more than sixty years later.
Compared to the barbaric violence of the twin towers tragedy, life in New York City was practically a cakewalk during World War II and Goldstein, with journalistic panache describes the events of that time. There were blackouts, rationing, air raid wardens, morale boosting show business events to buttress our patriotism and war bond sales, volunteerism galore with a rousing Stage Door Canteen for servicemen manned by Broadway and movie stars and a surge of patriotism that somehow never attained such levels of enthusiasm in subsequent wars in which our armed forces were involved.
Goldstein cleverly opens his tale of the Big Apple in wartime with an account of how New York played host to the seeding of the event that ended the war with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. He notes that Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, the brilliant scientists who with Albert Einstein, first suggested to President Roosevelt, to implement a program to develop the bomb, were working with the Cyclotron at Columbia University in pioneering research just prior to the war. From out of this suggestion began the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the bomb’s development.
Goldstein reminds us that in the days prior to America entering the war, New York City was a center for home grown Nazis and Hitler supporters. He describes a rally in Madison Square Garden of American Nazis headed by the Jew-baiter Fritz Kuhn in which 20,000 American Nazi’s festooned with swastika arm bands and surrounded with massed authentic Nazi Flags thundered “sieg heil” in glorious tribute to their moustached hero under the watchful eyes of thousands of New York policeman.
During the war, New York City, although it was the principal port through which troops and material reached our allies in Europe, remained remarkably unscathed. Prowling U-boats not far from the mainland were busy torpedoing allied shipping, but in terms of property damage in the city it was not related to the war. By far the biggest property casualty during that time was the fire on the Normandie, the great superliner of France, which toppled in its berth and became a fixture in the city until it was hauled away.
For me, who was a teenager during the war, Goldstein’s book prompted deep feelings of nostalgia. As a Boy Scout in Brooklyn our troop’s Drum and Bugle Corps was present at untold unveilings of plaques in countless neighborhoods expressing collective pride in the fact that their sons and some daughters were serving in the Armed Forces. At the beginning of the war, most of the stars signifying service were blue. Later on as the death toll began to mount many of the stars were changed to gold, signifying killed in action.
We collected tinfoil and newspapers and were enormously disciplined at keeping the blackouts and everyone I know was eagerly fired up with patriotic enthusiasm which Goldstein’s book vividly describes. Remarkably though, life went on as usual and while we all knew there was danger out there somewhere, we did not feel it viscerally for ourselves. Indeed, there was a special kind of reverence for the boys in uniform who appeared with increasing visibility on the streets of the city.
Although it is clear throughout the book that New Yorkers felt deep loyalty and compassion for our troops fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific, Goldstein is careful to keep his narrative upbeat although underlying his text is the clear implication that many New Yorkers had sent their loved ones to the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific and those who returned early were badly wounded and soon many events were filled with young men in wheelchairs and stories of grieving parents.
Those years of patriotic fervor described by Goldstein continues to linger in my psyche to this day. I always shudder with pride and, quite often, produce tears when I remember marching in the Victory Parade down Fifth Avenue as a Boy Scout bugler and can still here the echo of loud cheers by onlookers when they saw our uniformed soldiers march by proudly following in lock step behind the colors.
While “Helluva Town” is a fine historical narrative of New York City in wartime nearly seven decades ago, there is something deeply chilling in the comparison I made earlier with the twin towers debacle. It illustrates profoundly that never again are our cities likely to escape destruction and death from the hands of our enemies. Today we are all on the front lines. There are no blackouts or rationing, no stage door canteens, no rousing patriotic songs and, by my observation, no real visceral awareness of impending danger, and worse, an attempt to render our enemy blurred by definition and an apparent indifference to threats by determined foes.
Goldstein reminds of all of the good old days when we had no doubts about who our enemies were. Best of all, he gives us a thousand reasons why New York is the most wonderful exciting glorious big hearted city on the face of the earth.