The Quonset Hut They Called Home
by John Delach
One Sunday afternoon when I was about nine years old my mother took me on one of our many outings to Canarsie to spend the afternoon on the pier overlooking Jamacia Bay. The pier was one of our regular Sunday destinations but this trip had a different twist. Leaving to go home, we walked under the Belt Parkway overpass, but Mom didn’t head for the bus stop on Rockaway Parkway. Instead, she led me toward one of Quonset Huts lined up in rows and rows that were a fixture for as long as I could remember visiting Canarsie.
As we walked toward one of the huts I realized that they were deserted. Mom made sure no one was around then pushed open the door at the end of the hut. I followed her inside this curved structure where the walls and the roof were one. It was empty. No furniture, no rugs, no remnants or reminders of who lived there. I don’t even remember seeing a sink or a toilet. We only saw one half as each hut was divided into two homes by a corrugated metal wall in the middle. But I do remember what my mother said out loud as we left: “I don’t know how a woman could make that her home and live there.”
When next we visited the pier, the Quonset Huts were gone and pretty soon construction began on a public housing project that the City would deem the Bayview Houses.
But the image of those cylindrical huts sheathed in corrugated steel lined up like an army of gigantic half-buried cans of soda or beer remained in my memory. There was another colony of Quonset Huts that I recall being located on vacant land in Maspeth, Queens, a short distance from where my Uncle Bill, Aunt Helen and my Christman cousins lived. This development was arranged on the slope of a hill that led up from 69th Street to Mount Olivet Cemetery along Eliot Avenue. Curiously, I can picture these tin cans vividly, but, like Canarsie, I can’t remember any images of the folks who lived there.
Quonset Hut housing: the why and how:
Our deliberate detonation of two Atom Bombs on Japan suddenly and dramatically ended the Second World War. Overnight, the incredible number of young American men who had and were still being assembled for the most massive of any seaborne invasion ever envisioned; the assault on the Home Island of Honshu became instantly superfluous.
Millions of GIs, swabies, Marines and coasties some still in Europe waiting to sail to the Pacific to meet their fate each said, thought or prayed in their own way the same thought: I’m free, free, thank God Almighty; I’m free at last!
And what does a young man want once he felt finally free enough so that he is able to look himself in a mirror, smile and reflect, “Damn I’m not going die alone out here.” What does he want? The girl back home!
The official date for the birth of the first Baby Boomers is January 1, 1946. That’s reasonable. The boys in Europe who did the heaviest fighting there could have been home in May, a good number had already married their sweethearts before going overseas so they had a quick staring point. Nature’s course was inevitable but hard core reality quickly hit; a significant number of these new families had no place to live!
“The housing industry, still reeling from the Great Depression, had been further diminished by a wartime shortage of materials and labor…As a result; an estimated one million families were forced to double up with other families…Before the end of 1946, that number would triple.”
Fortunately, our Nation remained on a war-footing and the right organizations existed on a local, state and national levels to implement emergency housing. They used what was available, military housing on bases made instantly surplus, other makeshift facilities like trailers, but for the most part, they relied on a ubiquitous and readily available alternative, the Quonset Hut.
Conceived by the US Navy before we entered the war, the original huts were built on their new base at Quonset Point, RI to equip a remote post on Greenland. The design was based on a British expedient building, the Nissan Hut. But His / Her Majesty’s government in its infinite wisdom had given the copyrights to Peter Norman Nissan, who designed this beauty when serving with the 29th Company Royal Engineers during World War I in recognition of his service. Some legal eagle in the Pentagon saw the patent implications of deeming these structures to be Nissan Huts and, as if by magic, they became Quonset Huts.
The emergency housing units went up quickly once construction began and most opened in 1946. One of the largest developments was in Los Angeles, the Rodger Young Village, built on a surplus aerodrome; it housed over 1,500 families. The press reported that eager husbands camped out two to three days before registration began.
413 were thrown up in Canarsie, each hut accommodating two families. The New York Times reported on October 16, 1946 that the first 75 units in a development in Jackson Heights, Queens were accepted just ten days after construction has begun. Ultimately, over 1,800 Quonset Huts went up on the former site of Holmes Airport.
By 1951 these humble dwelling had fulfilled their reason to exist but it took another two years for their hosts including the City of New York to evict the slackers, schemers, grifters and deadwood forcing them to move on down the road. By then, most vets and their families had moved on to the new suburban developments and the beat went on.
The huts were erased, there mission completed; here today, gone tomorrow. But I think I know the answer to Mom’s lament: “I don’t know how a woman could make that her home and live there?”
“Ma, she didn’t have a choice.”