Book takes a look at New York City during World War II

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Over Here!: New York City

during World War II

By Lorraine B. Diehl

BRATTLEBORO -- World War II was a double-edged cataclysm that reached every corner of the globe, in the process claiming at least 50 million lives, while doing enormous environmental damage during those years before Germany and Japan were each ultimately crushed.

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Germany had initiated its eventually unsuccessful attempt to create by force its thousand-year Third Reich in 1939; and Japan likewise began its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere two years earlier. The United States was not drawn into the war until December 1941, and then through its huge commitment of armed forces and overwhelming input of matériel, was finally instrumental in bringing World War II to its successful conclusion in 1945.

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By way of introduction, New York City at the time thought of itself (more or less correctly) as the capital of the world. Its population then was approximately 7 1Ž2 million, making it the largest city in the country as well as serving as its most important port. A few ethnic generalizations will prove useful regarding what is to follow: Prior to the war, the Yorkville section of mid-town Manhattan represented a largely German-speaking enclave, although New Yorkers of German origin comprised only a small fraction (perhaps 3 percent) of the city’s total population. Overall, perhaps one-fourth of New Yorkers of that time were Jewish; another fourth were black.

The volume under review is a fascinating and tellingly illustrated account of how that momentous war effected the city of New York. Diehl gleaned her information in large part by scouring some 78 published accounts, but much of the presentation is enriched by reminiscences recently gathered by the author (and none too late) from 65 or so individuals who had been living in the city at the time (in the interests of full disclosure, including this reviewer). Although the author herself is a native of the city, she did not offer any personal contributions, having been only an infant during the war, but at least two members of her family are among those she was able to lean upon for supplying relevant insights.

The text is divided into three major parts: the first covers New York City during the seven years prior to our entry into the war, 1934-1941; the second covers the impact of the onset of the war, 1941-1942; and the third covers the full wartime period, 1941-1945. Each of these eras is vividly captured: the first in its indifference and ambiguity; the second in its awakening fervor, patriotism, bumbling and ineptitude; and, ultimately, the third in its purposefulness, growing efficiency, practical adaptations and generosity despite numerous privations and other inconveniences. A brief Epilogue only touches on the immediate postwar period, 1945-1947.

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We are introduced to the actions of the several tens of thousands of pro-Nazi New Yorkers and their huge pre-war public demonstrations. We learn of the German saboteurs dropped off by submarines near the city shore, and of their ultimate fates. We are reminded of the terrible toll taken of our oil tankers and other merchant ships and their crews off the coast of the city (the sinking every so often to be witnessed from the city’s shoreline). We are given details of the incredibly forceful role played by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in preparing the city in the event of an air attack. And we learn of the shockingly pervasive anti-semitism throughout the city during this entire era as well as of the despicable treatment of the blacks as Untermenschen. The widespread discrimination against New Yorkers of Japanese descent is also noted, but only in passing.

But we also learn of the outpouring of the warmly welcoming acceptance of and assistance to the many thousands of transient soldiers, sailors and merchant marines, both American and Allied, who passed through the city throughout the war. Amply presented is the massive and crucial shift by women from hearth and home to the industrial work force (and the loss of most of those opportunities at war’s end is noted as well). The reader is sure to be impressed by the vast crowds (often much larger than the entire population of Vermont) that periodically gathered in Times Square to spontaneously celebrate one auspicious event or another. And it was heartwarming for this reviewer at least to learn of the uneasy feelings displayed by the New Yorkers being quoted over the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the ensuing tremendous losses of civilian lives, especially, it was felt, because by then it was clear that Japan had already lost the war.

This book can be recommended to historians and laymen alike for having captured and revealed so well, so persuasively and so readably an important moment in American history.

Reviewed by Arthur H. Westing of Westing Associates in Environment, Security & Education.


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