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Authors: Maggie Davis

Stage Door Canteen

Stage Door Canteen

Maggie Davis

 

I want to express my thanks to my editor, Michael Gaudet, for his patience and skill, it’s been greatly appreciated, and his co-partner, Amy Meo, and all the people at E-Reads, especially Richard Curtis.

 

 

Dedication

 

The author wishes to thank all who contributed their help and expertise to the writing of Stage Door Canteen: Lt. General James V. Edmundson USAF, who flew a B-17 Flying Fortress at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942, “Kriegie” former prisoner of war in Germany like so many B-17 crewmen, the legendary tail gunner “Wing Ding” Lt. Col, Eugene Carson ret’d., and all the immortal B-17 ball turret gunners, especially Charles G. Lehman of Bradenton, Fl.

Special thanks goes to World War Two British Merchant Navy Officer Leslie Howard Russell, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who volunteered a voice too seldom heard, that of the merchant seamen, and also to the kind staffers of The American Theater Wing.

Some of you have left us since the book was started. Your loss is irreparable. You are sorely missed.

Most particularly this book is dedicated to the men and women of the Greatest Generation who heroically fought and endured what they hoped would be the last Great War.

 

 

ONE

 

The crowd coming up the stairs, from the black and gritty tubes of the subway and onto Times Square, blinked in surprise. A few stopped short. In the eerie dimness, everything on Broadway was there, and yet not there. This was not new, certainly not unknown, but it was still a surprise.

“Jeez,” one of the sailors murmured, impressed.

Before their eyes Times Square and New York’s theater district, the Horn and Hardart’s Automat, the giant illuminated Camel cigarette sign that blew six-feet high smoke rings, the RKO, Paramount and other movie palaces that ordinarily lit the night with miles of neon tubing and thousands of light bulbs—even the band of the latest news that ran around the top of the New York Times building—was dark. Skyscrapers had suddenly become looming shadows. At ground level Times Square was shuttered tightly to muffle any stray spark of light. Even the streetlights had blinders in the form of metal hoods, and the top half of the headlights of taxis and buses were painted black.

At first, New York City had had no total blackout like the West Coast, which now, a year later, still feared a Japanese invasion. Or London, where after three years of war the inhabitants still groped through the pitch dark, except when there was light from fires set by German bombs. Eventually, though, there had been concern over New York’s “sky glow,” which, it was realized, could be seen for miles out to sea. When Manhattan’s skyscrapers were lit, enemy submarines could target Allied ships silhouetted against them, and launch their torpedoes. There were plenty of submarines out there: newspapers and the radio networks reported that Hitler’s wolf packs lurked as fearfully close as Lower New York Bay and extended as far south as Atlantic City.

The East Coast of the United States, the War Department decided, would initiate a “brown-out.” A dimming, rather than a complete dousing of the lights. On the island of Manhattan there were suddenly darkened office towers, a lightless theater district. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s went black. Blackout curtains appeared at every window. Civilian Defense air raid wardens, looking for leaks, patrolled the night. There was a war on.

New York City did its part.

 

 

“The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one’s best to the nation, when the nation is fighting for its existence and future life.”

 

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

First Fireside Chat after Pearl Harbor, Dec.9th, 1941

 

 

TWO

 

A tall woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing an expensively tailored beige wool overcoat, broke away from the crowd that had come up from the subway, and crossed the street in front of the Times Square movie theaters. In spite of the brownout’s gloom the sidewalks were packed with people. In this, the second year of the war, New York was a magnet for the armed forces on leave: men and women in the uniforms of the Allied nations thronged the bars and restaurants of midtown Manhattan, and stood in line for the movie houses that offered not only Hollywood films, but also elaborate stage shows with celebrated big bands like those of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.

At the corner of 44th Street and Broadway, Genevieve Rose stopped at the newsstand for a copy of the daily paper devoted to news of show business, Variety. The newsie, Jake, held a flashlight for her while she hunted across the newspaper stacks for a copy. “You’re running late, Miss Rose,” he told her. “I seen bunches of our guys going down the street toward the Canteen. Give a look, you’ll see there’s already a crowd outside.”

Jenny turned. From the corner on Broadway she could view 44th Street as far as the sidewalk in front of the Canteen. The line of soldiers stretched from the front door in the basement of the 44th Street Theater Building, and up the stairs, even though the service club wasn’t due to open for nearly two more hours. She recognized the stubby figure of a Canteen regular, Sgt. Struhbeck, and sighed.

At that distance it was difficult to make out details, but she could pick out the sergeant because he was so much shorter than the rest. Little pain in the neck, she found herself thinking. Uncharitable, but true. Even with the war hero bit.

“We have a fire limit, Jake,” she said. “The fire department tells us we have to close the Canteen doors when we’re at capacity. So word’s gotten around. The servicemen start coming early to make sure they get in. Even in this cold weather.”

She didn’t have to see Master Sergeant Struhbeck clearly to know he was wearing his usual Army Air Force garrison cap with the wires removed and the crown jauntily flattened. This was strictly in violation of uniform, but now more-or-less tolerated, especially with those who had seen overseas combat duty. His uniform displayed rows of decoration ribbons. The sergeant was a ball turret gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, and BTGs already had a reputation as a breed apart. In combat with the enemy they hung upside down in a Plexiglass bubble on the belly of the bomber while firing twin fifty caliber machine guns. To qualify, they had to be small men to fit into what was an exceedingly cramped and dangerous space.

Their little war hero lived up to the cocky image. There were nights when Jenny wished the Canteen could simply turn him over to the MPs, something that was rarely, if ever done. Unfortunately, one of America’s most decorated war heroes chose to spend the majority of his evenings in the Canteen, usually in the company of his buddies, the rest of the crew of the B-17 the “Cincy Gal.” Who had been living in considerable splendor at the Waldorf Astoria for several weeks while they were on a tour selling War Bonds, smiling endlessly in front of newsreel cameras at department stores and street corners all through the five boroughs of metropolitan New York.

Jake went off to take care of a pair of Marines looking for girlie magazines. When he came back to Jenny’s end of the newsstand he handed her a copy of Variety. “How’s your husband doing down there in Washington, Miss Rose?”

They always exchanged inquiries about families. There was a sudden roaring of the subway under the pavement at their feet. “Brad’s fine,” she shouted. “My husband just got a promotion. He’s so pleased. He’s a major now.”

“That’s really nice, Miss Rose.” Jake turned to make change for the marines, waiting until they left.

“How are your boys?” Jenny asked him. Jake had two sons in the army, one in paratroop training, the other, from what information he could glean from his son’s letters, apparently waiting to be shipped overseas.

He shrugged. “Okay as far as I know, Miss Rose. Vinnie says he’s still jumping out of airplanes down south, and I’m still getting mail from Anthony. You know, that’s good, so far. They say it’s when the mail stops and you don’t hear nothing, that’s the time to worry.”

Jenny had heard that, too. “Let’s hope the letters keep on coming, then,” she murmured, sympathetically.

They smiled at each other. The conversation was the same with everyone. About the war, the welfare of loved ones. A naval officer escorting a woman in a fur coat came up, looking for a New York City guide book. Jake took the flashlight to rummage around in the back of the kiosk. “Hey, I forgot to ask you, Miss Rose,” he called, “how’s the new show doing?”

Jenny made a wry face that he couldn’t see. Most of Broadway wanted to know the same thing. “They’re still working on my part, Jake. And adding new songs.” She lifted the top newspaper from a stack of Herald Tribunes. Without the flashlight all that could be made out in the gloom were headlines, the war contained in a few words. RUSSIANS HOLD GERMANS AT LENINGRAD. CASUALTIES AT GUADALCANAL. NAVY STRIKES BACK AT U-BOATS.

In the center of the front page was an item newspaper editors liked to use to liven the grimness of war: a photo of the newest show business idol, a skinny young man from Hoboken, New Jersey with the face of a dissipated faun whose local draft board had just declared him 4-F.

According to the Herald-Tribune, classifying the popular crooner as 4-F had precipitated an enraged outcry of major proportions. Another photograph showed a group of GIs in front of the Paramount Theater throwing tomatoes at the marquee that said: NOW FEATURING SINGING SENSATION FRANK SINATRA.

Jake came back. “I’m sorry about the issue of Variety, Miss Rose. I had it put away for you special, and then I forgot it. That was dumb of me but look, they don’t print enough papers, now, even the big dailies are rationed, like the Times and the News. I don’t get any more newspapers than what they got on the truck, what they throw off on the curb here. That’s my allotment. Everybody gripes about shortages,” he went on, taking her money, “but they don’t think about we got even a shortage of paper for newspapers. When I don’t have the paper they want some customers think I’m holding out on them.”

She said, “I know you wouldn’t hold out on anybody, Jake. That’silly.”

“Well, these are crazy times, Miss Rose. You ask me, I wouldn’t be surprised there’s even a black market in newspapers. The whole thing, black markets, stink, you know? On the other hand, who am I to complain when I got my own kids in this war? I pray to God every day, black markets and all the rest of it, all I want is to see them get back in one piece.”

They were both embarrassed at the sudden emotion in his voice. Jenny waved the Herald-Tribune at him. “Good luck, Jake. I’ll pray for all of you.”

“And you and the major, too, Miss Rose,” he called after her. “God bless and tell him I said congratulations on getting promoted.”

The GIs spotted her coming down Forty Fourth Street. The doors didn’t open until five thirty, but there was already quite a crowd. Wolf whistles greeted her as Jenny turned in at the old-fashioned hanging globe stage door light that said Stage Door Canteen.

There was a chorus of “Hey, look sharp, guys, she’s coming here!” More whistles, and, “Are there more like you inside, beautiful?”

They good-naturedly scrambled to get out of her way. “Miss, are you somebody famous?” A voice in the back called, “Somebody like you has to be a movie star, right?”

They pressed around her, young, but less fresh-faced than she remembered, less innocent-looking than even six months ago. “I’m a stage actress, boys.” She looked around for Sgt. Struhbeck but he had disappeared. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m in the theater, not the movies.”

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