After Stan Lee enlisted in November 1942, his basic training took place at Fort Monmouth, a large base in New Jersey that housed the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps played a significant military role. Research played a prominent role in the division and on the base. Several years earlier, researchers had developed radar there and the all-important handheld walkie-talkie. In the ensuing years, they would learn to bounce radio waves off the moon.[i]
At Fort Monmouth, Lee learned how to string communications lines and also repair them, which he thought would lead to active combat duty overseas. Army strategists realized that wars were often determined by infrastructure, so the Signal Corps played an important role in modern warfare keeping communications flowing. Even drawing in numerous talented, intelligent candidates, the Signal Corps could barely keep up with war demands, which led to additional training centers opening at Camp Crowder, Missouri, and on the West Coast at Camp Kohler, near Sacramento, California.
On base, Lee also performed the everyday tasks that all soldiers carried out, like patrolling the perimeter and watching for enemy ships or planes mounting a surprise attack during the cold New Jersey winter. Lee claimed that the frigid wind whipping off the Atlantic nearly froze him to the core.
The oceanfront duty ended, however, when Lee’s superior officers realized that he worked as a writer and comic book editor. They assigned him to the Training Film Division, coincidentally based in Astoria, Queens. He joined eight other artists, filmmakers, and writers to create a range of public relations pieces, propaganda tools, and information-sharing documents. His ability to write scripts earned him the transfer. Like countless military men, Lee played a supporting role. By mid-1943, the Corps’ consisted of 27,000 officers and 287,000 enlisted men, backed by another 50,000 civilians who worked alongside them.
The converted space that the Army purchased at 35th Avenue and 35th Street in Astoria housed the Signal Corps Photographic Center, the home of the official photographers and filmmakers to support the war effort. Col. Melvin E. Gillette commanded the unit, also his role at Fort Monmouth Film Production Laboratory before the Army bought the Queens facility in February 1942, some nine months before Lee enlisted. Under Gillette’s watchful eye, the old movie studio, originally built in 1919, underwent extensive renovation and updating, essentially having equipment that was the equivalent of any major film production company in Hollywood.
Gillette and Army officials realized that the military needed unprecedented numbers of training films and aids to prepare recruits from all over the country and with varying education levels. There would also be highly-sensitive and classified material that required full Army control over the film process, from scripting through filming and then later in storage. The facility opened in May 1942 and quickly became an operational headquarters for the entire film and photography effort supporting the war.
The Photographic Center at Astoria, Long Island, was a large, imposing building from the outside. A line of grand columns protected its front entrance, flanked by rows of tall, narrow windows. Inside the Army built the largest soundstage on the East Coast, enabling the filmmakers to recreate or model just about any type of military setting.
Lee found an avenue into the small group of scribes. “I wrote training films, I wrote film scripts, I did posters, I wrote instructional manuals,” Lee recalled. “I was one of the great teachers of our time!”[ii] The illustrious division included many famous or soon-to-be-famous individuals, from three-time Academy-award winning director Frank Capra and New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams to a children’s book writer and illustrator named Theodor Geisel. The world already knew Geisel by his famous penname “Dr. Seuss.”
Although Lee often jokes about his World War II service, even a passing examination of the work he and the other creative professionals performed for the nation reveals the significance of the division across multiple areas. According to the official history of the Signal Corps effort during World War II:
Even before Pearl Harbor the demand for training films was paralleling the growth of the armed forces. After war came the rate of demand rose faster than the rate of growth of the Army, because mass training of large numbers of men could be accomplished most effectively through the medium of films. For fiscal year 1942 the sum of $4,928,810 was appropriated for Army Pictorial Service, of which $1,784,894 was for motion picture production and $1,304,710 for motion picture distribution, chiefly of training films. More than four times that sum, $20,382,210, was appropriated for the next fiscal year, 1943, and half went for training films and for training of officer and enlisted personnel in photographic specialist courses.[iii]
The stories that must have floated around that room during downtime or breaks!
[i] During the time Lee was stationed at Fort Monmouth, Julius Rosenberg carried out a clandestine mission spying for Russia. He also recruited scientists and engineers from the base into the spy ring he led in New Jersey and funneled thousands of pages of top-secret documents to his Russian handlers. In 1953, Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were arrested, convicted, and executed.
[ii] Stan Lee, interview by Steven Mackenzie, “Stan Lee Interview: ‘The World Always Needs Heroes,’” The Big Issue, January 18, 2016, http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/6153/stan-lee-interview-the-world-always-needs-heroes.
[iii] Thompson, George Raynor, Dixie R. Harris, et al. The Signal Corps: The Test (December 1941 to July 1943). (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1957), 419.