“Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II” (Free Press, $28) is a helluva read. Richard Goldstein, who writes for The New York Times, is the author of several books about World War II. For his latest, he takes a line from “New York, New York,” a song in the musical “On the Town,” where three sailors on leave sing about the city as a “helluva town.”
During the war, it was certainly that.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, panic gripped New York, which was considered at risk for bombing. Residents feared what happened to London during sustained bombing by Germany might happen to Manhattan. The Empire State Building was considered a prime target.
Within hours of the attack, young men started enlisting, the mayor’s Office of Civilian Defense was said to have 950,000 volunteers, and there were more than 115,000 air raid wardens.
The city didn’t have a single air raid siren.
Along with the rush to secure the city’s treasures, like a Gutenberg Bible and the first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” New York also worked to set up a way to black out the city.
The FBI was kept busy hunting Nazi spies, and the Navy received help from mafia bosses to secure the city’s piers.
New York’s harbor was packed with warships and cruise ships pressed into service to take troops abroad. Many of the ships were also packed with ammunition, making fires extremely dangerous, and there were several.
Amid the fear and patriotism, the theaters still staged plays — productions such as “This Is the Army” and “Winged Victory,” and nightlife went on. Many Hollywood stars performed at the Stage Door Canteen, entertaining those about to ship out to war.
Amid the bustle, refugees from Europe began pouring into New York. With them came artists, scientists and giants of the literary world.
Goldstein also tackles the darker side of the time — Irish Catholic youth gangs attacking Jewish youngsters while the police looked away, racism that sparked the riot of 1943 — but then presents the case for New York’s postwar status as the new center of the world.
“With London yet to recover from the blitz and the buzz bombs, Paris still emerging from the long German occupation, and Berlin and Tokyo in ruin, physical unscathed New York reigned as the pre-eminent international city.”
“Helluva Town” is a fascinating look at a remarkable time and a remarkable town.