Cold War, Korean Conflict Heat Up In January 1951
Get into a conversation with a longtime Queens resident and you're likely to discover a 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 January 1951!
The Cold War and the very hot Korean War were in full swing. In his state of the union message, President Harry Truman declared “the aggression in Korea is part of an attempt by the Russian Communist dictatorship to take over the world, step by step.” Truman asked for increased military spending, an extension of the Selective Service Law, and military and economic aid “to help build up the strength of the free world,” and authority to stabilize prices, wages and rents, among other requests. Consequently, on January 15, he submitted to Congress a $71.5 billion budget, including a $16.5 billon tax increase, for the fiscal year 1952. In only three World War II years had the budget been larger than this. Truman told Congress this was necessary to “meet the barbaric threat of communism” in hot or cold war and to assure victory “if war is thrust upon us.”
As part of domestic moves to defend the country, it was announced that for the first time since Word War II, 2,000 regular Army anti-aircraft troops would start guarding Queens and New York City from Fort Totten in Bayside and Fort Tilden in Rockaway. The decision was part of a series of moves by which the military and civil defense of the metropolitan area would be coordinated. In December, the Air Force had announced that fighter groups stationed around the city were operating on a 24-hour alert, both for training purposes and to guard against a surprise attack.
On January 2, two patient bandits, one roughly fitting the description of master bank robber Willie (The Actor) Sutton, held up the Woodside Savings and Loan Association at 39-46 61st St. and escaped with $19,400. The robbery followed a pattern similar to a robbery in March 1950, at the Manufacturers Trust Company branch in Sunnyside, which netted a cool $64,000. Authorities called this heist “Willie’s Masterpiece”. The perpetrators entered the bank through a window in the rear and hid in a conference room until bank employees arrived for work. One employee, John Hughes, was forced to open the safe, and the bandits then escaped with the cash after tying Hughes up and locking him in a washroom.
Whether Sutton participated in this job or not, authorities vowed to capture him because he had become the inspiration for every other bank robber in the country. Other bank robberies were showing the planning, attention to detail and daring characteristic of a Sutton job. One of Sutton’s trademarks was also the use of disguises. He had used complete disguises as a postman, Western Union messenger and many more, either to “case” his jobs or to execute them to perfection. There was speculation that Willie might be using the disguise of a policeman to elude capture. As one detective put it, “They don’t call him Willie ‘the Actor’ for nothing.”
The Long Island Rail Road earned the dubious honor of the “disaster champion” of 1950. A wreck February 17 in Rockville Centre killed 33 people, and a second on Thanksgiving Eve in Richmond Hill killed 79, placing the railroad at the top of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s annual disaster list. The line was operating in bankruptcy, and many claimed its operations were a danger to passengers and that it wasn’t adequately preparing for its role in evacuations caused by bombing attacks.
Between 600 and 700 damage suits relating to the LIRR wrecks were filed. The second largest damage suit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court on January 12. In the suit, Mrs. George Robert Cohen sought $1,000,000 in compensation for her husband’s death in the Thanksgiving Eve Richmond Hill disaster. Her husband was traveling home to Merrick with a $150,000 settlement of a suit relating to the earlier Rockville Center wreck in his pocket when the Babylon express on which he was riding smashed into a Hempstead local, injuring more than 400 people in addition to causing the 79 deaths of which Cohen’s was one.
After a trial of several months in Manhattan, it was announced that “oneside of-the-street” (now known as “alternate-side-of-the-street”) parking would be introduced in Flushing for the first time in March. When this was implemented, Queens would begin to get new garbage trucks for the first time in 12 years. The new machines cost $9,159 and were capable of clearing 15 curb miles of street daily.
According to Judge William B. Groat Jr., the Long Island City Courthouse was “unsanitary, an archaic remnant, unsafe and a firetrap.” The courthouse’s rather lavish exterior belied the fact that the interior was so badly appointed that Judge Groat said he would hesitate to expose juries to dangerous health and fire conditions found in jury rooms. A $250,000 facelift was proposed.
Marjorie Barton of Flushing was arrested on charges of accepting horse bets on her job as a court clerk in the complaint room of East New York Magistrates Court. Two plainclothes detectives alleged that three men had entered the complaint room, scanned and scratched a sheet given them by Miss Barton and then handed the sheet along with some money back to her. They further alleged that she then went to a phone to deliver the bets. Barton denied the accusation, but was taken to the stationhouse and booked on bookmaking charges.
On January 28, Queens’ oldest resident, Krikor Arabian of Sunnyside died at the age of 118. Interviewed by the Star on his 112th birthday, Arabian attributed his long life to “taking it easy.” At that time, he was in fine health and took brisk morning walks. His pet aversion was “jive dancing.” He took a serious view of modern dancing. “Anything that fast is ruinous,” he said. Arabian was born in Armenia and did not move to the United States until 1910. He had only one regret: he never became an American citizen.
In his annual budget message to the legislature, Governor Thomas Dewey expected New Yorkers to drink more liquor, smoke more cigarettes, bet more on horses and drive their automobiles farther in 1951 than the previous year. He predicted increases of $2,100,000 in the alcoholic beverage tax, $500,000 in the cigarette tax, $2,400,000 in the parimutuel tax and $4,500,000 in the motor fuel tax.
Television viewers, who had watched low-necklined actresses for months, had expected it to happen, and it finally did. On January 30, Gracie Fields was performing on Milton Berle’s NBC television show, when she threw out her arms exuberantly during a song. The bodice of her dress ripped open almost to the waist. “Miss Fields retired in confusion from camera range,” the paper reported.
Playing at the movies were “Rio Grande”, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; “Let’s Dance”, starring Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire and “Unconquered”, starring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard.
That’s the way it was in January 1951!
For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.