War at the Shore

Photo courtesy of the heston collection, atlantic city free public library.

THE NOTICE-TO-VACATE was not unexpected, but Dr. and Mrs. Albert Jenkins of Philadelphia nonetheless were not quite prepared to cut short their vacation in Atlantic City. They were a bit tardy in packing, and when the workmen entered to haul away the chiffonier, the Philly guests scrambled to empty the drawers. As they retrieved their belongings, they watched mirrors disappear from walls, and damask draperies from windows. Divans and vanities beat a hasty retreat and, elsewhere in the hotel, crystal chandeliers were an endangered species. Dining rooms would soon become mess halls, and suites crowded bedrooms with cots instead of a four-poster bed.

Atlantic City's hotels were in the army now.

Forty-seven of them in all — on the Boardwalk and the side streets — had been drafted by Army Air Force Basic Training Center No. 7. It was the summer of 1942, a half-year after Pearl Harbor, and the Yanks were comin'. With its broad beach and huge hotels, the seashore's Queen of Resorts was a ready-made encampment. The Ambassador was the first hotel to sign up, followed in quick succession by the hotels Traymore, Dennis, Madison, Claridge, Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, Ritz-Carlton, Lafayette, Knickerbocker, Senator, Brighton, Chelsea, President, Breakers, and so on. The Army leased the properties and, at a time when gasoline was rationed and rail travel restricted, the city stood to benefit from guaranteed rentals. BTC No. 7, dubbed Camp Boardwalk, was the Army Air Force's largest training site in the country.

Recruits engaged in battle exercises on the beach and calisthenics on the floor of cavernous Convention Hall, where the army maintained its seashore headquarters. The facility offered a 400-car garage, a basement power plant, hundreds of meeting rooms, and copious storage. With bookings reduced at the hall and bond payments due, it had been in the city's interest to install the army there.

Everywhere you turned, soldiers were on the march: the Boardwalk, Bader Field, Atlantic Avenue. The President Hotel, the first on the Boardwalk downbeach, sported artillery on its roof, and the great "dim-out" kept the city in shadows by night. Trainees were schooled in chemical warfare in Quonset huts on Albany Avenue, and bivouacked on Brigantine beach, where they manned a rifle range and fired on ocean targets. Their submachine gun fire popped the air miles away.

Meanwhile, the city cracked down on undesirables and illicit activities. Mayor Tommy "Two-Guns" Taggart, engaged in his own power struggle with the commissioners, kept the police morals squad on high alert. Under military "rule," Atlantic City's bottom line strengthened. Uncle Sam's hotel rental fee of a dollar a day per room was meager, but the army guaranteed all rooms every day and paid separate fees for the use of dining halls and other spaces. Said Taggart: "The army has been the greatest convention that Atlantic City ever knew."

The training base completed its mission in a year's time, then shifted gears to rehabilitate vets returning from action overseas. Their ranks included the "operationally fatigued," and soldiers who had been maimed or taken sick. The new operation was named AAF Redistribution Station No. 1, and its focal point became Thomas M. England General Hospital, which had been wrought from Haddon Hall and treated patients from all of the armed services. Back they came from Europe and Asia and the South Pacific to this instant hospital whose namesake had fought yellow fever in Cuba early in the century.

The Traymore functioned as a convalescent center offering rehab equipment and, on its outdoor deck, generous doses of sunshine and salt air. Amputees exercised on special pulleys, while luckier patients swam, played pool and Ping-Pong, and learned trades. The medical detachment stayed largely at the Dennis, while the army refurbished most of the other major hotels and returned them to civilian hands. Thanks to some heroic rescues and the army's rugged vehicles, England General survived the Hurricane of '44.

Germany surrendered in May 1945; Japan three months later. The hospital stayed at full capacity but the city was returning to normal. Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America. Barracks turned back into suites. The last patient left England General in June 1946.

The hospital complex had treated 150,000 in three years. Thousands of WAACs, "Sewing Moms," local merchants, and ordinary citizens had backed the boys before they were shipped overseas and when they returned. It had been an emotional period, a time like no other at the seashore.

And it was time, finally, for Dr. and Mrs. Jenkins to resume their Atlantic City vacation.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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