Gil Katz spent much of World War II in Atlantic City. Who could ask for anything more, as the jingle goes?
After all, Atlantic City was one of the country's tourism hot spots. Elegant hotels and fine eateries lined the Boardwalk. Top stars played the Steel Pier. And saltwater taffy was king.
But in May 1942, the city fathers turned the keys to the resort over to the Army. The World's Playground became Camp Boardwalk 50 years ago.
"You stepped out of a hotel and you were in a military camp," said Katz, who was stationed here from November 1942 to September 1945.
Atlantic City thus became the only town in the continental United States transformed into a military base. Until January 1946, the resort served first as a basic training center for Army Air Corps and Coast Guard recruits, then as a redistribution center for returning airmen.
"The military needed a place that could accommodate lots of GIs and had ready-made accommodations," said Katz, 70, an insurance agent in Margate.
Atlantic City, with its string of aging, yet gracious, hotels, fit those requirements.
"All the hotels were taken over for barracks," said Herb Krassenstein, then a surgical technician assigned to the Army Medical Corps at Thomas England General Hospital - known before and after the war as the Chalfonte- Haddon Hall Hotel, and now the site of Merv Griffin's Resorts Casino Hotel.
It may have seemed like the cushiest spot in the military: beachfront living in some of the ritziest hotels in the country. But hotels from the Breakers on Virginia Avenue to the President on Albany Avenue were stripped of almost all furnishings. Instead of beautifully decorated suites, soldiers found bare walls and concrete floors. Standard Army cots replaced soft beds.
Each of the major hotels had its own mess hall and PX. Troops bunking in the smaller hotels ate their meals in larger ones such as the Claridge, Katz said.
Still, the accommodations were better than the Quonset huts and pup tents that served as home on other bases, Katz said.
Almost 300,000 soldiers spent time in Atlantic City during the war. Among the more famous were Glenn Miller, Mickey Rooney, Broderick Crawford, Henry Mancini and Donald O'Connor.
In the morning, troops would train on the beach and march on the Boardwalk, said Krassenstein, who was stationed in Atlantic City for the entire four years and was one of the few local residents assigned here. Throughout the day, soldiers - many convalescing from war wounds or undergoing physical therapy for amputations - walked the Boardwalk along with tourists. Troops would go to Brigantine for rifle practice and to Convention Hall for exercise.
At night, the Boardwalk was dark, its towering lights painted black to shield the city from possible German submarine attacks, Katz said.
Military police kept watch at the bus and train stations and along the highways leading from the city. "You couldn't leave the island without a pass," said Jack Haynie, who was stationed at England Hospital from September 1942 to December 1943.
Convention Hall became a central point for the military, both socially and professionally. The ballroom played host to dances, many offering Miss America contestants as partners. The quartermaster had offices in the hall, as did the chaplains and their staffs.
Katz's skills as a clerk and typist landed him a job as a chaplain's assistant. It was his role to cut through the layers of bureaucracy to make life a little easier for soldiers.
"If a soldier was short on funds or needed a lift somewhere, I facilitated that. One soldier - a 30-year-old pianist - got married and for three days he and his wife were unable to consummate the marriage. I arranged a party in his honor at the Ambassador Hotel. The next day, he put his arms around me and
thanked me," Katz said.
It is these kinds of success stories Katz remembers most about the war effort here. And the way the local residents took in the soldiers.
"The city opened its arms and enveloped servicemen," said Katz, whose home town was Ocean City, 10 miles down the road.
Restaurants and movie theaters cut prices for servicemen. And soldiers frequently dined at residents' homes.
"We always had two or three soldiers for meals, even with meat, butter and sugar rationed," said Mary Haynie, a local girl who met - and married - Jack Haynie during the war.
The Haynies met at a USO dance in June 1943. Dances were common up and down the Boardwalk. In addition to the ones at Convention Hall, dances were sponsored by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant social service agencies. More than 2,000 local girls volunteered to be dancing partners.
Tourism, while curtailed during the war years, survived. Despite the use of the Traymore, Dennis and other major hotels by the military, visitors could find rooms at smaller hotels or rooming houses around town.
Steel Pier and Million Dollar Pier still operated. Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra appeared that first summer at Steel Pier, across from what is now Trump's Taj Mahal. Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Frankie Carle, among other bandleaders, also played the pier during the war. Million Dollar Pier featured acts such as Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger. The Hialeah Club on Atlantic Avenue and Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue continued to draw crowds.
Entertainment was as much for the benefit of soldiers sent to England Hospital for war wounds as for tourists.
The Chalfonte-Haddon Hall officially became England Hospital in August 1943. It could accommodate up to 4,000 patients and an equal number of staff, making it one of the largest hospitals of its kind in the country.
Haddon Hall became the hospital proper, with patient rooms and surgical suites. The Chalfonte was used for ambulatory treatment and for offices and living quarters for doctors. A bridge over North Carolina Avenue connected the two buildings.
All types of surgery and medical care were provided at the hospital, but its most prominent role was for amputees, Krassenstein said. Soldiers were fitted for prostheses, and went through physical therapy and recuperation, much of it on the Boardwalk.
In the fall of 1943, Atlantic City shifted from a training base to a redistribution center for returning servicemen. It was one of only three such centers in the country, the others being in Santa Monica, Calif., and Miami. Soldiers spent time in Atlantic City for rest, relaxation and reunions with loved ones.
The hotels were spruced up for their new role, Katz said. To accommodate wives, real beds took the place of cots.
"They weren't palaces, but the soldiers were treated royally," Katz recalls. "It was very poignant to me seeing soldiers coming back from overseas and reuniting with their families."
For Krassenstein, the most poignant moments of the war here came during the Hurricane of 1944, which struck Atlantic City in late summer. It still stands as one of the most destructive ever to rip into New Jersey.
Winds up to 80 m.p.h. tore up sections of the Boardwalk. Heinz Pier - a favorite with servicemen - broke up, never to be rebuilt. Water rushed into the streets and into England Hospital, knocking out the self-generated power supply. Military personnel had to remove all 4,000 patients and send them to a smaller hospital in Staten Island. And they had to do so without the use of elevators.
"We had to carry each patient down the fire escape," said Krassenstein, 72, a retiree from the newspaper business.
The transfer of patients - and their subsequent return to Atlantic City six weeks later - went off without a hitch. For the patients, many disabled for life, returning to Atlantic City was the next best thing to returning home, Krassenstein said.
"I never saw an amputee die here," he said. "It seemed they healed faster here than anywhere else."