ATLANTIC CITY — Vicky Gold Levi still remembers selling war bonds on the city’s Boardwalk as a 5-year-old girl.
“I was dressed in my (Women’s Army Corps) uniform and worked with Miss America,” she said.
Seventy-five years later, Gold Levi, a prominent Atlantic City historian, she knows she lived in the resort during one of the most important eras in its history.
In the summer of 1942, Atlantic City transformed from one of the nation’s premiere vacation resorts into a military stronghold as Americans prepared to fight Germany and Japan, which attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941.
The United States had officially entered World War II, and thousands of Americans were sent to Atlantic City for advanced training.
At the time, it was known as Camp Boardwalk.
Many of those service members would come back wounded for treatment at the city’s Thomas England General Hospital.
Decades later, that building would become the first legal casino in Atlantic City — and still stands today as Resorts Hotel and Casino.
Atlantic City went through one of the most dramatic changes of any American community during the war. Summertime parades were replaced by marching soldiers, while the beach was used for training. Hotels were taken over by the military and became barracks at the cost of $1 per room per day.
John Palmentieri, a World War II veteran who was wounded in the European theater, said his family kept pictures and told him stories of what the city was like while he was deployed.
“All you saw up and down the Boardwalk was military uniforms. It was beautiful,” he said. “There were 2,000 guys doing calisthenics in Convention Hall and others on the beach. I really think they enjoyed their stay in Atlantic City.”
There were nightly curfews, with all lights turned off so German submarines lurking off the coast could not see the city.
Bader Field was an important asset for the Army Air Force, which practiced maneuvers and war scenarios over the city while also searching for German submarines.
“The most amazing wartime change among American towns is in Atlantic City,” said a 1943 article in the Saturday Evening Post. “That cluster of plush hotels and salt-water-taffy stores on the Jersey coast, where once horse-betting parlors played to capacity crowds and the biggest Easter parade in the world took place every year. Atlantic City has shucked its perpetual sports-coat and donned the grey-green jacket of the Army Air Forces. The military has taken over the big hotels, and the best accommodations civilians can get are smaller side-street rooming houses.”
Six aircraft crash rescue boats were stationed at what is now called Gardner’s Basin. They also served as rescue boats for seamen who survived torpedo attacks from the German subs.
Dozens of U.S. ships were sunk by German submarines right off New Jersey.
Bess Myerson, then Miss America, visited wounded soldiers in the hospital. The Miss America pageant was still held during the war because it embodied the spirit of America and boosted soldiers’ morale, according to reports at the time.
Palmentieri said a friend of his named George met his wife while being treated at the hospital. She belonged to the United Services Organization and came to visit him in the hospital every day, Palmentieri said.
Life carried on like this in Atlantic City until the war ended in 1945. All that remains is a plaque in Resorts commemorating the hospital and pictures around the city.
In 1992, a major summer celebration marked the 50th anniversary. Nothing has been scheduled so far for the 75th anniversary this year.