The City, On The Brink Of War


In our collective consciousness, New York City during World War II often conjures up imagery of sailors “On the Town,” the “Stage Door Canteen” and Alfred Eisenstadt’s iconic photo of a sailor and a nurse in Times Square celebrating Japan’s surrender with a kiss. Except for an occasional History Channel glimpse of a troop ship leaving the harbor or a nod to the distant past from a gentrifying Brooklyn Navy Yard, the city is remembered, if at all, as a convenient recreational stop before American GIs moved on to more serious work overseas.

The current exhibition at the New York Historical Society, “WWII and NYC” is a vivid reminder that this was not the case. In fact, New York was a city mobilized for war. If America was the arsenal of democracy, New York was not only the port through which the men that liberated Europe embarked, but a vital center for the weaponry, manpower, muscle and brainpower that ultimately defeated the Axis.

Of the almost 15 million men who served in the Armed Forces during the conflict, more than three million shipped out of New York for the fronts in North Africa and Europe. New York provided 900,000 of them. Among the memorabilia on display are the service stars that hung in the windows of families whose sons were in the fight: a blue star for someone who was serving, a silver star for someone who was wounded, and a gold star for a boy who’d been killed. New York lost 18,000.

Even before Pearl Harbor, New York was a city gearing up for war. Shortly after entering the exhibition, we come upon Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning that German physicists were working on a nuclear device and it was incumbent on us to beat them to the punch. Thus was born the Manhattan Project. The nuclear age, for better or worse, started in New York. On display is a cyclotron, the early particle accelerator developed at Columbia University, from whose bowels would come the terrible force of nuclear fission. To the modern viewer it looks like the Tin Woodman taking a nap, a Rube Goldberg confection of brass and copper that appears more like a yellow submarine than the progenitor of nuclear weaponry. Accompanying the cyclotron is a map of the various sites in Manhattan associated with the project, from Pupin and Schermerhorn Halls at Columbia to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s home on West 87th Street. The payoff came several years later, as recounted in a video by erstwhile Corporal Benjamin Bederson, then a City College physics student who’d been recruited to work on the project and who followed its western hegira to Los Alamos and ultimately to Tinian Island, from whence the Enola Gay flew on its fatal mission to Hiroshima. Bederson, whose task was to show the bomber crew how to trigger the mechanism, recalls that Tinian’s contours bore an odd resemblance to Manhattan, so much so that its improvised streets were named after New York byways, as evidenced in a map showing a grid that includes Broadway. The Enola Gay took off not too far from West End Avenue, thus bringing the Manhattan Project full cycle.

To be sure, the show offers an abundance of the expected: news clips of Mayor LaGuardia creating his War Emergency Board after Pearl Harbor and urging New Yorkers to “toughen up,” the sign in Katz’s deli to “Send a Pastrami to Your Boy in the Army,” Air-Raid Warden helmets, ration booklets and the accompanying one-cent ration coupons that doubled as dreidel collateral for small-fry or poker chips for their older siblings.

The comics are enlisted in the war effort with covers of Captain America going after Axis villains and Joe Palooka knocking a Nazi off an enemy sub. The show is introduced with a Philco transistor radio broadcasting Edward R. Murrow’s description of an air raid during the Blitz. Murrow’s calm demeanor and clipped, rugged tones seem to defy the Luftwaffe in their sheer moral authority.

And there is the unexpected: Photos of American children giving the raised-arm salute at the Pledge of Allegiance until Roosevelt ordered that it being altered to a salute with hands on hearts. A paperback edition of “Into the Valley,” John Hersey’s searing account of the fighting on Guadalcanal, published by a freshly minted Pocket Books only five years after its inception in 1938. And there is an identification tag belonging to Marilyn Moskowitz of P.S. 125 in Brooklyn. Such tags, embossed with the bearer’s name, serial number and school, were worn by New York City schoolchildren, so that in the event of bombing, they could be identified.

Wherever Marilyn Moskowitz may be, it should be noted that a significant number of visitors to this exhibition seem to be her peers — of an age old enough to remember the war but too young to fight in it — full disclosure: including myself. One of the unexpected rewards of this show is the ability to eavesdrop on their recollections. More than a few of them manifested decided preferences in what could have been added or altered. This observer was not immune.

For instance, while it’s always a delight to hear Murrow — who was so important in wakening America to the Nazi peril — it might have been evocative to also hear the voice of Gabriel Heatter, who brought the fighting home to millions of Americans once the U.S. had entered the war, with his signature opening: “There’s good news tonight!” That being said, all such endeavors are matters of selection and this one stays on course in presenting New York as a city on a wartime footing.

Photographs are usually the emotional heart of such shows and this exhibition offers some stirring examples. There is a telling depiction of mass rallies using three events at Madison Square Garden that remind us of the vast political differences that existed here before and during the war. One shows a pre-war pro-German Bund rally opposing America’s entry into the fight against Hitler, and a second depicts Soviet and American flags in an event keyed to war relief for Stalingrad. A third shows the now-famous “We Will Never Die” pageant in March 1943, with an accompanying video that has Edward G. Robinson intoning that two million Jews have already gone to the slaughter and four million more await the executioner’s knife. His numbers were fatally accurate. The pageant, which drew more than 40,000 to two shows in Madison Square Garden, was created by the activist screenwriter Ben Hecht and featured such stage and screen stars as Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney and Luther Adler, in addition to Robinson. Produced by Billy Rose, it offered moving tableaux of children resembling corpses intoning, “remember us,” and culminated in a dramatic reciting of Kaddish by 50 rabbis. The presiding spirit behind the event was Peter Bergson, a nom de guerre of Hillel Kook, a Zionist emissary whose “Bergson group” was instrumental in placing newspaper ads and organizing marches calling attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The efforts of the Bergson Group played an important role leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board, which ultimately financed rescue work of the Jewish remnant.

But it is the private images that speak to us most vividly. New York’s two great railroad hubs, Penn Station and Grand Central, are the stage sets for these intense, personal dramas. Penn Station is a vast cathedral bearing victory flags with military personnel queuing up for departures. Grand Central is more of a Canaletto, a bustling public square with soldiers seeming to be heading everywhere at once and yet caught in a timeless frame. We see a shot of a young sergeant feeding his baby from a bottle while his adoring young wife looks on. A better, bittersweet shot is the image of a young
technical sergeant bidding farewell to a weeping woman — his wife, or girlfriend. She wears a black hat and fur-trimmed black coat and is not doing a good job of holding back tears as he tries to comfort her. The station behind them with its whirl of humanity blurs in the background.

Ultimately, it is the stories of the individual soldier that resonate most with us, and here the show excels. We are enriched with a spectrum of tales about New York servicemen that evoke the city as a place whose soldiers represented first or second-generation immigrants. We see a picture of Sid Diamond, a City College student who enlisted in 1942. A handsome, dark-haired young man, still in civvies, he is standing in front of a row of buildings with his sweetheart, Estelle, a slip of a girl who can’t be more than 18. We read his letters to Estelle as he fights his way through Bougainville in the Pacific, telling her how much her love has meant in keeping up his spirits. There is a nice shot of him at a break in the fighting, tanned, smiling, a bit cheeky with the kind of wised-up look we’ve seen hundreds of times on New York street corners.

Sid Diamond was killed in the Philippines in January 1945. He was 22.

There is George Jones, writing thoughtfully about his experiences of racism in the army — and how he overcame them to become one of the first black officers to command a predominantly white unit.

There is Private First Class Robert Fleischer who writes movingly of liberating Dachau, and sensitively of being a gay serviceman in an earlier time.

And there is seaman Tito Puente, drafted at 19. Already a drummer in Spanish Harlem, he became the bugler on his aircraft carrier which took a direct hit from a kamikaze in the Pacific. As ship’s bugler, Puente played taps on the vessel.

And then there is Fred Harris, who emigrated from Vienna in 1929, and was 36 when he was drafted in January 1944. We see a picture of Harris with his wife and 6-month-old son just before he went overseas..

And we read the yellowing Western Union telegram that begins with the dreaded words: “I regret to inform you…” Harris was killed in Normandy in early August 1944. The son, whom he never saw again, would be well past retirement age by now.

“WWII and NYC” is worth seeing, for more than just a graying generation on a nostalgia trip. It is particularly instructive for a younger one to see how a city came together to share the mixed blessings and suffer the unbearable burdens of a war that had to be fought.

“WWII and NYC” is on view through May 27, 2013 at the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, at 77th St. For information call (212) 873-3400 or visit