Army Service in New York City, 1942-1944

From the unpublished autobiograpy of James McNitt, 1992

Click on images to view larger versions

James McNitt's text Bill McNitt's annotations
In September, 1942, I joined with many others to board a train at the Union Depot in downtown Grand Rapids. Our destination was Fort Custer. There we were mustered in and given our uniforms; woolens, as it was September, although temperatures in the nineties led men to faint while standing in formation. Each morning we would fall out and a list would be read to us of those to be shipped out. Those not going that day were assigned duties. I managed to wangle a job as messenger, so never had K.P.

James McNitt at Fort Custer Fort Custer reception center Fort Custer Service Club Aerial view of Fort Custer

  • James at Fort Custer, 1942

  • Fort Custer reception center, 1942

  • Fort Custer service club, 1942

  • Fort Custer aerial view

He entered active duty on September 5, 1942.

Camp Custer, near Battlr Creek, Michigan, was built in 1917 for military training during World War I. On August 17, 1940, Camp Custer was designated Fort Custer and became a permanent military training base.

On the sixteenth day my number came up. A small group of us boarded a train and ended up at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. This was a pretty camp as camps go, with well-kept lawns. After a short stay there six of us were transferred to the Brooklyn Army Base. I don't recall all of them, but I remember Ernie Pacheco, Abe Haddad and Tom Lincoln.
Brooklyn Army Base was more like a warehouse than a military installation. We were given two weeks' training in close order drill on the flat roof of the building. I volunteered for a course in troop transport work, taking care of details on board the troop ships, putting out a daily news bulletin, etc. I ended up fourth in the class, but after the top man was sent out, it was decided that limited service personnel could not be used aboard troop transports, which might be going into combat areas. One document reports that his basic training took about one and a half months.
A call came from the New York Army Post Office for personnel, and several of us were sent there. It was situated in an annex to the regular main branch of the U. S. Post Office, next to Grand Central Railroad Station, and was charged with the handling of all mail for troops overseas in the European Theater of Operations as well as those in the Caribbean and later, Africa.

New York Post Office James McNitt in uniform

  • New York Post Office
  • Dad in uniform, December 9, 1943
I was put to work filing, but after a week of this, I pointed out that my rating of 213 (Stenographer) fitted me for something better. I was then assigned to an officer who inspected outfits destined for overseas to see that their postal setup was in order. This was easy work. The reports were dictated to me and I typed them up. One report varied little from another.
Eventually I was transferred to the Correspondence Section, and it became my duty to answer the heavy volume of mail directed to the APO. Most of it involved queries as to why their sons or daughters in the forces weren't getting their mail. The stock answer was to the effect that troops overseas were moved around a lot, and we were sure the mail would eventually catch up with them. Since we were generally thirty days behind, the problem usually had resolved itself. At my judgment, some few of the letters received daily were held out for more immediate handling. One of the commanding officers got hold of one letter which he thought should have been answered more quickly. Since I had made the decision, the criticism should have fallen on me. With typical Army logic, a WAAC in charge of filing was transferred to the V-Mail Section. The WAAC was the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.  The name was later shortened to Women's Army Corps (WAC).
Sometimes a request was made to return a package sent to a service­ man who had been killed, and an actual physical check would be made. Surprisingly enough, it was found possible to do this in some cases. Some requests weren't handled, as in the case of a wife who thought her husband was receiving mail from another woman, and wanted such mail held up. One lieutenant, in a fit of temper at not receiving his mail, described us as sitting in our plush-bottomed chairs while he suffered. Unfortunately, he sent it to the Postmaster of the New York Post Office, who had nothing to do with the handling of his mail.
Most of the officers in the APO had been with the civilian post office. Some had been postal inspectors. When complaints were received that watches and other valuables were missing from some of the packages, a careful surveillance was set up of the section handling such packages, and one of the soldiers was caught red-handed.
When things got too busy in the V-Mail Section, we were called upon to drop everything and assist in opening the single-page messages in preparation for photographing. While we were warned not to read the letters, it was difficult not to do so in every case. Letters with jokes or salacious material in them received closer attention.
I had been promoted to T/4 along. the line, the equivalent to Sergeant. The job I was doing merited a T/3 (Staff Sergeant), but when the rating came open, it was given to a WAAC named MacElhaney, one of my typists. The reasoning behind it was that I would soon be leaving for overseas. A few months later Miss MacElhaney was in Europe and I was still in New York.
We were quartered in the Hotel Breslin at 29th and Broadway, an old place the Army had taken over. We were supposed to march in formation from the hotel to the APO. While the soldiers from the actual mail-handling sections did this, we in the office usually found ways to avoid this. Sometimes we were confined to the hotel at night, as happened when there were riots in Harlem. Once Lena Horne came to perform for us, another time the Andrews Sisters.

Breslin Hotel, New York City

Breslin Hotel

The Breslin Hotel was completed in 1904.  In 2010, after extensive renovations and upgrades, it reopened as the Ace Hotel.
Our rations were supplied on a civilian contract. Someone must have been making plenty on the side. The food was the worst we had anywhere, chicken tinged with green, kidneys nobody would eat. Fortunately we sometimes received passes to eat at better restaurants. At the Pepsi-Cola Canteen on Times Square the Pepsi was free, hamburgers 5˘ or 10˘. There was coffee and doughnuts at the Stage Door Canteen.
At 99 Park Avenue, within walking distance, anyone in uniform could pick up tickets for movies and plays. While some were hard to get, there was always something available.
There were many friends, some of whom I mentioned as being at Fort Hamilton with me. An Italian fellow named Colisimo, a native New Yorker, took me to a sleazy bar on the Bowery where they served delicious spaghetti, and taught me to eat it the Italian way, twirling the fork against a spoon to entwine the strands. A Jewish fellow we called Jigger Startz took me to his home in New Rochelle one Sunday for a home-cooked meal, supplemented with slivovitz, a plum brandy.
Working closely with members of the WAAC (later to become the WAC), it was inevitable that some of these would befriend me. Chief among these were Dorothy LeGrand and Daphne Tarlton, better known as Dotty and Daffy, both from South Carolina. The friendship was never allowed to go beyond strict barriers, as both had boyfriends in the service. Once Dotty and I walked hand in hand for a few minutes while traversing Central Park in the company of other WAACs.
At another time the two of them decided they wanted to buy me a Zombie, a potent mixed drink, and said they would pick me up in my hotel lobby. They were a half hour late, and came in giggling happily. A couple of officers, one of whom they knew slightly, had run into them and bought them a few drinks. We went to one of the many bars on Broadway, and had a Zombie apiece. It had little effect on me, but later, when we went to a movie, both of the girls fell asleep, one on each of my shoulders.
The WAACs were quartered at the Rochester, a smaller hotel about five blocks from mine. The Breslin was just a block from the Marble Collegiate Church, where the famous Norman Vincent Peale was minister. We sometimes went on Sunday, and stayed after the services to see the entertainment for military personnel. On one such occasion Eugene List, a well known concert pianist and a member of our outfit, played for us. He would later entertain for President Truman at Potsdam.
For a while Peggy came to stay with me. I received permission to stay off the base, and we took a small room in one of the innumerable small hotels around the area. Somehow she learned of the hand-holding incident I described above, and magnified it into an assignation, telling me in gutter language what she believed happened. It was with great difficulty I was able to talk her out of confronting Dotty. The vituperation went on for most of one night.
We went to Chinatown one night and had dinner at one of the restaurants there. After our return to our room I became deathly sick. An Army doctor was called. He diagnosed it as possible appendicitis, and sent me to an Army hospital on Riker's Island. It turned out to be nothing more serious than gastritis, and I was up running around the hospital the next day. I was kept there for a week to make sure.
The situation was not working out, and she went back to Grand Rapids to stay with her parents again. Later she received my grudging consent to sell the house. The proceeds disappeared; when I finally learned of it there was $7 left in the bank. This struck me hard, as I had worked to keep up the payments. She was working, receiving by allotment the lion's share of my wages, and living with her parents.
Since I had access to Secret files at the post office, I was able to learn that L. F. Castleman, better known as Cass, was in a unit in one of the staging areas around New York. You may recall I listed him as a salesman in the Battle Creek area at the time I was hired. He was now a Lieutenant. 1 dropped him a note and he came into New York to meet me, going to Toots Shor's restaurant. I had already eaten, so settled for a drink while he ate. At one of the nearby tables we saw Guy Kibbee, a well-known character in the movies of the time.
At one time I was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia for a six weeks' postal course. It was midsummer, and the wooden structure in which classes were held was not air-conditioned. It was stifling. One of the students regularly fell asleep in class. He had a medical certificate which stated he was subject to a form of sleeping sickness, so he couldn't be disciplined. One time some of us went into Richmond, staying overnight at a servicemen's club run by a Jewish organization. For breakfast we had, among other things, lox and bagels, and interestingly enough, a glass of schnapps.
I recall the trip back to New York. The coach was an all wooden affair which had been resurrected from the scrap heap for the emergency. Dust had infiltrated into the fabric seats to a depth where it would have defied removal had it been tried, which it obviously hadn't. We had a lengthy stopover in Washington, and I was able to take advantage of it to visit Ford's Theater. On the latter part of the journey the lights failed, and we rode the rest of the way in complete darkness.
After two years in New York, I was finally designated to go overseas. It was back to Fort Hamilton for a more thorough basic training than we had gone through at Brooklyn Army Base. We received instructions in the use of firearms, and I was able to qualify for a marksman's badge with an .03 Springfield. I was assigned a carbine, a light weight rifle. It jammed while I was practicing with it, and I was to carry it the rest of the war in that condition.
There were hikes, calisthenics, training films, hand grenade practice, and crawling through a field with machine guns shooting live ammunition over our heads. This didn't bother me particularly; the fire was at least four feet above our heads, and only if we panicked was there any danger.
I made a little extra money filling in on K.P. for fellows from the New York area anxious for a final visit home before leaving. Some GIs who spoke a little Italian hired out as escorts for Italian P.O.W.s who worked around the camp, and who were allowed to leave the base only when accompanied by an American. There is a large Italian population around New York, many of whom were happy to entertain the P.O.W.s and their escorts. There seemed to be little worry about security. The Italians had never been enthusiastic about the war, and they were being well treated where they were.