Sunday, July 1, 2012

I'll Take Manhattan!

Fourth of July, like Memorial Day, leads me to thoughts of the wars our country has endured, and our history of struggles against enemies, foreign and domestic. As a New Yorker, following September 11, 2001, the sense of New York has changed for me, and for all of us, I suspect. We began to alter our routines and we had to become accustomed to men with guns and dogs and periodic terror alerts.

But this is not the first time Manhattan has undergone this change.

During World War II, the City, under the guardianship of fiery Fiorello La Guardia, was on high alert. Everyone participated in some way as all eyes turned East, toward the Atlantic Ocean, and the threat of German invasion. There were citizens patrolling, and working as lookouts. There were Victory Gardens, there were rubber and iron drives. Shelters were devised, and apartments were commandeered for female WACs. Bond drives were plentiful, and famous and rich inhabitants donated money, and jewelry and more to the cause, rallying the public to do the same. The Brooklyn Navy Yard became a massive ship-building operation churning out the hundreds of boats that bulked up the US’ previously sparse navy.

And they were not on alert in vain. There were, indeed, German U-boats off the coast of New York and Long Island. There were spies – saboteurs landed on Long Island and were captured through the vigilance of a 19 year old patrolling the beach where the men landed.

While there were no air attacks, air raids were prevalent and everyone was always on alert for planes overhead that might bear the dreaded swastika.
And there were the pro-Nazi political activities and spying operations of the German American Bund. The Nazis in Berlin worked with them, appointing leaders of the various movements, and them removing them if they felt they were not serving their purpose. The massive rally at Madison Square Garden that took place at the outset of the war in Europe was attended by a huge crowd, including Charles Lindbergh and protestors rushed the stage and were dragged away. This event loomed large in the minds of New Yorkers once war with Germany was declared. There were fights with German citizens, and the heavily German Yorkville section of the City was always under watch and suspicion.

Two books, “Over Here” and “Helluva Town” (by Lorraine B. Diehl, and Richard Goldstein, respectively) recount the experience of living in New York City during World War II.

From the actresses who populated the Stage Door Canteen, to the police and firemen who dealt with wartime accidents, including the explosion of several ships in our harbors, to the scientists who began work on The Manhattan Project (so named because it began in Manhattan, and continued with work at Columbia), the citizenry was involved. There were air raids. Blackouts became the order of the day, including in Times Square where Broadway marquees went dark.

Knowing that I am walking the same streets that a young girl may have walked, patrolling a blacked-out city, or passing a building that may have housed a spy ring, this can be intriguing knowledge and it is one reason why my World War II novellas are all set in Manhattan. They each explore the lives of ordinary people who become embroiled, in one way or another, in the wartime drama. The novella I am currently working on involves a young actress at the Stage Door Canteen who meets a soldier preparing to ship out. As was the case with so many, the urgency of the times compels them to an intimacy that would never have occurred in calmer times.

And my planned series of World War II novels all include New York City and the environs as the jumping off point for the various characters: Female pilots, nurses, journalists, spies, USO performers, scientists, and a “Rosie the Riveter” – the plot of whose story revolves around the actual events that took place on Long Island. The various aircraft plants, including Grumman, were targets of spies, and a German American Bund group based in Yaphank received money from Berlin to plot a major sabotage of the Grumman plant there. My heroine will – of course – thwart that plan. Along with the help of an undercover infiltrator from the US OSS.

There is so much inspiration in our City – past and present. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this wonderful town than to take advantage of its people, its history and its courage!

Happy Fourth of July Ladies & Gentlemen.


  1. Great blog, Lise. I love the romantic history of our country and WWII is a favorite time of mine, when idealism ran high. Your series sounds awesome and I'm already putting aside money to buy it. Woody Allen referenced the u-boats off Long Island briefly in his movie "Radio Days". Yes, I agree, our city provides a great history and background for stories. I have set many of mine here.

  2. Thanks for reading, Jean. While I have read widely on WW II, it was only in recent years I began to discover more about the New York experience during the war, and have found it fascinating. Knowing my aunt shipped out from NYC as an army nurse makes it that much more personal.

  3. Fascinating post. Never knew. Learn something every day.

  4. Thanks, Daryl - I really love the exploration and discovery that is part of the research project, and learning new details never fails to foster new ideas!