March ’42 Sees War On Two Fronts And Spies In Queens
Get into a conversation with a longtime Queens resident and you’re likely to discover a former subscriber of the Long Island Star Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper’s name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal–The Flushing Journal (1841)
Welcome to March 1942!
It was less than four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II.
In the Pacific, US bombers attacked a huge Japanese armada steaming toward Java to reinforce troops already there. By the middle of the month, the Japanese had captured the capital, Batavia, and also Rangoon in Burma. The Japanese then turned there attention to New Guinea, where they intended to make Port Moresby their chief base for an assault on Australia. A convoy carrying thousands of US troops reached Australia without the loss of a man. On March 17, General MacArthur was named commander of the Australian force and transferred his headquarters there from the Philippines.
In Europe, RAF bombers blasted Paris where 650 were killed and 1,500 injured. War factories were blown up like a “pack of cards,” and the large Renault motor and tank works was hit repeatedly by the largest bombs. The RAF also took advantage of spring weather to start a 24 hour a day bombing campaign against German industries in the Ruhr.
Sister Miriam Carmel, a missionary for the Maryknoll Order of Flushing spent 6 days riding a bicycle over bomb damaged roads in southern China along from Hong Kong to Kwangsi Province with a soldier escort. She was helping refugees fleeing invading Japanese forces.
Closer to home, the US destroyer “Jacob Jones” was sunk by an enemy submarine off Cape May, NJ. Only 11 of the crew of 125 survived. Through draft boards, the federal government began distributing a questionnaire to 47 million men to determine what hidden skills they might have for war work. In California, the first 1,000 Japanese aliens were relocated from Los Angeles to Mazanar in the Owens Valley. Eventually, the relocation was to affect a total of 112,985 Japanese (and Italian and German) aliens.
Idle machines in Queens and the entire metropolitan area were being put to work at an increasing pace. War Production Board Chairman Donald Nelson decided to place contracts by negotiation instead of competitive bidding. The procedure was expected to help small contractors who could not compete with bigger manufacturers to obtain war orders.
The Navy honored a North Queens shipbuilding plant which a year ago was only a blueprint. Now it was producing minesweepers assembly line fashion. The plant, located at 154th Street and the East River, was in Whitestone and was owned by the Wheeler Shipbuilding Corporation. It would receive an “E” pennant and Bureau of Ships flag, and the workers would receive lapel buttons for outstanding production achievement and methods.
Also, in Whitestone, a plant housing the manufacture of medical kits for the Army and the production of bamboo products was leveled by a twelve hour fire that started in the bamboo stock. The Star-Journal pointed out that there was a bright side to this disaster in that a corps of auxiliary firemen and volunteers made it through their first test of warlike activity with flying colors, even though 28 of them were felled by smoke.
Trained battalions of defense workers were ready to swing into action to protect life and property should the blitz come to Queens. More than 5,500 volunteers were in training in Queens for civil defense jobs, 13,500 were enrolled in the auxiliary fire force and there were 37,788 air raid wardens (out of a total of 260,000 in the entire city).
The Borough President announced a plan to provide free sand for fighting incendiary bombs to all Queens residents. The sand was to be placed in sandboxes in the care of civic, church or defense organizations. The move was designed to alleviate a complaints about the prices sand “salesmen” were charging. It was recommended that each home keep three pails of sand: one in the garage, one in the attic and one in the cellar.
Six persons were convicted of espionage on behalf of Nazi Germany, largely as the result of testimony given by 19-year-old Lucy Boehmler of Maspeth, herself a confessed spy for Hitler’s government. Three of the six, including, Kurt Ludwig of Ridgewood, the master-mind behind the brazen sale of shipping and armament data to Berlin, were Queens residents. Ms. Boehmler told of trips with Ludwig through the east with Army camps and defense areas as the main objective of their travels, and the use of invisible ink and codes for sending messages to Germany.
Antonio Ronzitti became the first enemy alien in Queens to be certified for draft induction. Born in Genoa, Mr. Ronzitti had tried several times to qualify for American citizenship, but was stymied by an apparent irregularity in the manner in which he entered the country. His repeated pleas to his local draft board along with a change in the draft law apparently finally did the trick.
Veterans of the Blizzard of 1888 were to hold their annual anniversary luncheon on March 12. Pictures of the storm would be exhibited and a silver cup awarded for the best essay about the blizzard. The Star-Journal reported that the luncheon would be held regardless of weather conditions.
Newtown prepared for its tercentenary. The town was founded in 1642 by a group of English colonists, including the Reverend Francis Doughty, who was also Flushing’s first minister. The celebration, with freedom as the theme, was held in Lost Battalion Hall in Elmhurst and was attended by 1,200 Newtown residents. Because Flushing’s history paralleled Newtown’s, a large delegation from Flushing Historical Society attended also.
Flushing’s senior merchant, John Geddes, 85, still puts in a 13 hour day, for 6 days a week, at his paint store at 40-12 Main Street, just as he had done for 65 years Lately, most of his work was limited to supervising from a wooden armchair in the corner of the store. “Most men rust out rather than wear out, “ he observed around the end of a cigar. Cigars and short-stemmed briar pipes were his almost constant companions.
Playing at the movies were “International Squadron” starring Ronald Reagan and Olympe Branda, “Belle Star- the Bandit Queen” starring Randolph Scott and Gene Tierney, “Son of Fury” starring Tyrone Power and “Babes on Broadway” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
That’s the way it was in March 1942.
For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit their website at www.astorialic.org.
The society’s exhibit “Look Up, Look Down, Look Around” is open to the public Saturdays noon to four in the Quinn Building, 35-20 Broadway, in Long Island City.
Still from Babes on Broadway starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney