2013-10-23 / Star Journal

Queens Returns To Normalcy After World War II

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal.

Welcome to October, 1946!

The mechanical whir of the elevator was the only sound as the prisoners were led one by one from their basement cells to the courtroom. Footsteps echoed down the hall as the war criminals and their guards entered the court of justice, the air electric with anticipation of the all but certain fates that awaited. Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine during World War II, accepted his sentence of life imprisonment with a stiff military salute to the Allied judges. As a guard fumbled unsuccessfully with interpreter headphones for Hermann Goering, the former Luftwaffe chief and architect of early plans to persecute European Jews listened to his judgment delivered by a judge in Russian. Sentenced to hang on October 16, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill the day before. He considered death at the gallows not befitting a man of his social station. Nazi Party Deputy Rudolph Hess refused earphones when the time came for his sentencing. He was the last inmate of West Berlin’s Spandau Prison, residing there until he took his own life in 1987 at age 93.

The Nuremberg Trials could only begin to heal the scars wrought by six years of global war, a conflict that claimed tens of millions of lives and witnessed atrocities that exposed the dark evil and malice in the souls of men. In a world rebuilding and attempting to learn the moral lessons of the tragedy, the United Nations emerged as a beacon of hope and a place for world leaders to resolve their disputes through dialogue. Queens played a pivotal role in the early history of the UN, offering 350 acres of its land in Flushing Meadows as the seat of world government. Extending the generous offer to the fledgling organization, City Council President Vincent Impellitteri proclaimed, “I urge that those officials of the United Nations charged with the final responsibility for selecting the permanent site of the UN give full and serious consideration to Flushing Meadows Park. If they do, they will find nothing else comparable to it.”

By 1950, this center of global debate had moved into its present headquarters in Turtle Bay, Manhattan, on land purchased with a generous gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr.

As the world began to settle into an uneasy peace, large numbers of U.S. troops remained behind in Europe to guard against a new menace, as Soviet troops amassed behind an Iron Curtain thrown up across the Communist satellite nations. On October 3, an American Overseas Airlines DC-4 took off from LaGuardia Field with eight crewmembers and 31 passengers, all family and dependents of military personnel stationed in Germany. After stopping in Newfoundland to refuel, the flight slammed into a mountainside shortly after takeoff, the fiery inferno claiming the lives of all 39 on board. It was the deadliest crash in the history of commercial aviation, surpassing the loss of life in the Hindenburg disaster nine years before. Four of the crew were Queens residents, veterans recently returned home from fighting overseas.

For many Americans, peace did mean a return home, a chance to escape the horrors of war and begin anew, a chance to trade in a military uniform for a suit and tie, a new job, a house and a family. For some, however, the military was trimming its ranks too quickly and neglecting the emerging Communist global menace. In a speech to the National Exchange Club, Brigadier General Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell, formerly of Jamaica Estates, decried the hasty demobilization of our men and women in uniform, proclaiming it “sheer lunacy to stand for a moment in this chaotic world without the protection of a modern and adequately armed force”. O’Donnell led the earliest B-29 bombing raids against Japan in the war, and the previous year he piloted one of the silvery bombers from the “Land of the Rising Sun” in the first nonstop Japan-U.S. flight.

Demobilization, Nuremberg Trials, air disasters and the Iron Curtain. Perhaps it was just a little too much for some locals to take in. The many movie theaters in Queens offered a welcome diversion, with the likes of Bogart and Bacall and local favorite Patti Brady gracing the movie house screens. Patrons of RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing enjoyed the crime story The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the Strand at Broadway and Crescent in Astoria was showing the wartime espionage thriller, O.S.S., starring Alan Ladd and Ireland native Geraldine Fitzgerald.

That October, Woodside native Brady became a local sensation when the comedy Two Guys from Milwaukee was screened at Century’s 43rd Street Theater near her home on 47th Street. It was the first time the nine-year-old child star appeared on the silver screen, and she would go on to act in some 10 other films until retiring from the movie industry in the early 1950s.

Another Woodside resident, Max Rudjer, had recently come to the country in search of freedom from tyranny, a peaceful life and a new beginning. Rudjer owned a hat factory in Berlin before his native Germany was swept up in the fever of war and eventually consumed by its flames. The industrialist lost all of his possessions and was sent to a concentration camp in Italy, only to survive and immigrate to America to begin his life anew and restart his business. One day that October, the Holocaust survivor received a court summons for accidentally dropping a box of cough drops onto the elevated train tracks in Queensboro Plaza. Unable to speak English, court Magistrate Henry Soffer served as both trial judge and interpreter for the terrified and confused Rudjer. Speaking in German, Soffer pardoned the war refugee, stating, “You are one of the lucky few who escaped death and I want to congratulate you. You are in America now and not a concentration camp.”

That’s the way it was in October 1946!

We are 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 Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718- 278-0700 or visit our Web site at www.astorialic.org.

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