2012-09-05 / Star Journal

World War II Comes Home To Queens

Welcome to September 1944!

It had been three months since Allied troops set foot on mainland Europe, the first waves of men wading ashore at Normandy under murderous Nazi gunfire. Slowly but relentlessly, they gained a beachhead and pushed inland at a heavy price. By September, American and British troops had crossed into Luxembourg and Belgium as German resistance began to crumble. With Soviet troops advancing westward into Poland, the days of the Third Reich and World War II were numbered.

In the Pacific, U.S. Marines landed on the Japanese-held island of Peleliu, beginning a bloody, two and one half month struggle for the heavily fortified coral outpost on the way to Japan. Nearly 1,800 Americans fell before the island was secured, among them U.S. Marine First Lieutenant Philip P. Bayer of Flushing, who played football at Columbia.

15 September 1944: The first wave of LVTs approach the beaches during the American assault on Peleliu. 15 September 1944: The first wave of LVTs approach the beaches during the American assault on Peleliu. On the home front, the 1944 Presidential election entered the home stretch with two New Yorkers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republican contender Governor Thomas Dewey slugging it out on the road to the White House. The Roosevelt – Truman ticket would soon pull away, winning the presidency in a landslide, the course set toward a new world order and an uneasy peace.

Queens had been at war since October 16, 1940, when government officials in Washington drew the first draft numbers from a fish bowl. The borough had sent 142,096 of her sons off to fight by September of 1944, out of a citywide total of 803,611.

In her 97th year, Rose Gilberti sent her 10th and 11th grandsons off to war that September when twins Charles and William left for basic training. The proud mother of 13 came to America from Italy in 1877, settling with her husband in the farming community of Ravenswood. Meanwhile, Private Thomas Barnes of 126th Street in Richmond Hill caught a fleeting glimpse of Old World history as the Allies advanced through Europe. When his unit liberated the city of Maastricht in Holland, the Queens native came across a trove of priceless artwork hidden in an air-conditioned cave safe from the Nazis: paintings by the Dutch masters Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, including the work Night Watch.

Not only did Queens march off to war, but the war came home to many in Queens. One afternoon in early September, retiree Michael Keating returned to his apartment in Astoria to find his sofa on fire, bluish, super-hot flames setting the apartment alight. While he was out for a stroll, a Navy plane accidentally dropped a signal flare while passing over the neighborhood, the foot-long projectile poking a hole through the roof in the building at 31-75 29th St. and landing in the living room of the unsuspecting widower.

Residents of the Rockaways awoke to a surprise later that month when the Liberty Ship Arthur L. Perry ran aground in the waters off of Beach 95th Street in a heavy fog. The Coast Guard was soon able to refloat the cargo vessel and send her to dry dock for repairs. Launched a year earlier, she went on to serve the rest of the conflict before succumbing to the scrapyard torch in 1957.

Many returned with lasting memories of war, of friends made and lost too soon, of sheer terror, days on end of interminable boredom, longing for home and loved ones. Some memories were cherished for a lifetime, some were so horrible that survivors simply could not forget. One native of Queens brought home a guest to meet his family one afternoon. Charles Sternberg, a soldier from 31-68 47th St., first met Marlene Dietrich on an Army base near Naples, where they exchanged pleasantries in German. The young soldier soon found himself back home in Queens after being gravely wounded in a friendly-fire strafing incident by American planes. When the German-born actress found herself in New York, she decided to pay her friend a visit as he was convalescing. She followed up with a letter to the wounded Sternberg, writing “You’ll probably hear from me around Christmas when I expect to write you from Berlin while visiting my mother and sister.”

Stars like Marlene Dietrich provided an escape for a war-weary Queens. Locals flocked to the Triboro Theatre on Steinway Street, its palatial interior awing moviegoers. Gracing the silver screen that month were films like Bathing Beauty, a romantic comedy starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams and Xavier Cugat. Others preferred the Valencia on Jamaica Avenue, or the Strand on Broadway and Crescent, where The Boogie Man Will Get You was playing. The comedy-horror starred Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.

Movies weren’t the only show in town back then. At the Boulevard dinner theater on Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road, Bill Henry and his Orchestra provided the music as Delores Ziegfeld and her Pageant wowed New York with “the only ice show on Long Island”. Boxing drew large crowds as well, with the Queensboro Arena, the stage for a September 5 bout between local Maxie Shapiro and 6-5 favorite “Larrupin” Lew Maxwell of Newark. The underdog Shapiro won on points and went on to face greats Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong in later matches, losing to both.

Life went on in Queens that September against the distant thunder of war. We eagerly awaited the return of loved ones, of joyous reunions with fathers, sons, brothers and schoolmates. Most of all, we wanted what we once knew; a return to peace, to holidays with family gathered around us and at least a decent shot at a good living. While serving in Italy that summer, Private First Class Harold Schiffer wrote to his family in Astoria, the September 16 Long Island Star Journal sharing his intimate thoughts with readers. “From what I’ve seen over here, I’m willing to give a few years of my life so that these people can have a chance to live as we do at home.” Private Schiffer never returned to the home and the family he left behind. A few weeks later he fell to German machine gun fire just four days before his 28th birthday.

That’s the way it was in September 1944.

The Greater Astoria Historical Society is open to the public, Saturdays, noon until five at “Quinn’s Gallery,” 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City. Additional hours Monday and Wednesday two to five! Visit our gift shop on line. For further information, call the society at 718-278- 0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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