New York City throbbed with a war-time rhythm. Its harbor bustled with ships, barges, and tug boats coming and going, its docks crowded day and night, rain or shine, with cranes lifting, hoisted cargo swinging, gangplanks teeming. Whistle blasts and cries from the stevedores competed with the banging and squealing and clanking of chains and machinery.
Overcrowded trains shrieked into Grand Central and Penn Station, bringing thousands upon thousands of young men from all over the country, many of them their first time ever leaving home. They poured off the trains with their gear confidently slung over their shoulders, faces eager and resolute. Most sported a cheerful camaraderie, though others appeared disoriented from the whirlwind months of boot camp, training, orders to deploy, and hasty goodbyes. The trains unloaded their goods, sounded their whistles, and headed out to pick up more readied men.
A steady stream of young people threaded the city at all hours – soldiers and sailors on leave, girls rushing to jobs that needed to be filled, many of them in trades that had been closed to them a short year ago. Traffic was thicker, subways more crowded, restaurants and bars fuller, and lines longer for Broadway shows and the latest movies.
The war involved everyone. People saved their grease and metal and rubber, adjusted to the shortages and rationing, rented out spare rooms to help ease the housing shortage, and bought twenty-five dollar War Bonds and twenty-five cent War Stamps.
Volunteer spotters scanned the skies for enemy planes, and air raid wardens took charge of shelters and made sure lights were out during drills. Coast Guard Sand Pounders patrolled the beaches, and Navy binoculars swept the waters for the dreaded German U-boats.
Bolstering the city’s war efforts was the ever-vigilant citizen – ear cocked to detect a foreign accent, a sidelong glance at someone asking too many questions or plying a GI with too many drinks. Tension and suspicion walked step in step with excitement and determination.
The very air of the city crackled with urgency, exhilaration, and daring. Swing and boogie-woogie music spilled out of cafes and nightclubs, dance floors vibrated with the jitterbug and lindy. Life was heightened, charged with the sense that time was short. Affairs and passions must be played out on leave, or before shipping out.
No one knew who would win the war, when and if bombs would drop on their city, what horrors lay ahead. All they knew was that they had today, this minute, now – to live. And live, they did. There was money to be made and hearts to be won, ships to be built and love to be found. Promises were made, hasty marriages performed, and “Uncle Sam honeymoons” enjoyed to the full – all forays into the future, for to plan for the future was to believe that there would be one.
Wartime and Christmastime linked hands, their presence coloring the city. Military white, olive drab, and navy mixed with holiday red and green. Beneath streetlights festooned with garlands of holly and pine, gathered groups of sailors and marines. Booths selling War Bonds stood next to rows of Christmas trees for sale. Soldiers purchased hot dogs and pretzels alongside holiday shoppers buying roasted chestnuts.
Women made the most of their ration books, saving and trading stamps, in order to buy ingredients for a memorable Christmas meal – perhaps the last with their sons or husbands for a long time.
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