Helluva Town; The Story of New York City during World War II

Helluva Town; The Story of New York City during World War II by Richard Goldstein. Free Press, 2013, paper.

Richard Goldstein’s title is taken from the hit song “New York, New York, It’s a Helluva of a Town.” It was in a Broadway musical called On the Town, a salute to the US Navy, which opened in 1944. The Army also had its musical review This is the Army with songs by Irving Berlin and the Air Force, Winged Victory by Moss Hart. They were good public relations for the armed forces. Though, since they were used as recruiting vehicles, they rarely touched on the downside of the war.

New York was the major port from which troops embarked for Europe. Hence there were tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines stationed in the city for brief periods or for the duration, if carrying on support tasks for the military. They needed to be entertained and their entertainment was part of New York’s war effort.

The port also shipped out a massive amount of war materiel. Goldstein cites the statistic that in World War II, it took a ton of ammunition, food, clothing, medical equipment, and petroleum products to keep one soldier in frontline combat for a month.

The Midwestern industrial heartland and California manufactured most of the planes, tanks, and ships used in World War II. But employment in New York’s garment industry, electronics, printing and publishing, as well as entertainment, did lift it out of the Depression. Disadvantaged by these patterns of military procurement, New York had catching up to do after the war.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard was one exception to New York’s light industry. It built the battleships Missouri, Iowa, and North Carolina and many smaller war craft. But it was mainly involved in repair and maintenance. At one time it employed 75,000 workers.

New York was the country’s ceremonial city; Goldstein describes one of its grand military parades. In June 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was home on leave and led a motorcade through New York’s streets that was cheered by an estimated four million people. It was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse, both in uniform, in Times Square, which became the cover of Life magazine’s special issue commemorating V-J Day.

This home front had its thrills but also its miseries, often long hours of work and crowded living conditions.  And anger. Goldstein has a chapter on the Harlem riots that took place in 1943. They were part of wave of riots and looting in many US cities, sparked by continuing racial segregation and differential treatment in the armed forces. There are several versions of the initial incident which sparked the riots, but all agree that it was fueled by pent up anger and frustration. African-American leaders and New York mayor Fiorella La Guardia worked to quell the violence, which occurred over several days and nights.

Even the casts for the musical reviews like On the Town, advertising the contribution of our fighting men and women to the war, were largely segregated. Although to the credit of the entertainment industry, it began calling on known black musicians.

Goldstein has a chapter on an incident involving a B-25 Mitchel bomber that flew into the Empire State Building in July 1945. The pilot, intending to land at Newark airport, mistook the East River for the Hudson and could not pull up fast enough to keep from slamming into the Empire State Building between its 78th and 79th floors. The crash ignited the plane’s aviation fuel and the ensuing fire spread to the next six flours. The building remained standing and nearly all of the occupations exited safely.

Goldstein ends with a short piece about the entry into the New York harbor of the transport ship, Joseph V. Connally, two years later. It was carrying 6,200 coffins containing dead soldiers. The reader is reminded that New York, a vibrant city during the war and an active home front, was still far removed from the fighting, and its sorrow.