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History's Headlines: Allentown men rode to rescue of Ocean City, NJ as 'Operation Help'

Allentown men rode to rescue of Ocean City, NJ

The old film footage is grainy, blotchy and skips a bit. But as 1962 comes into view, Warren Armstrong, age 27, a long career as an Allentown advertising executive still ahead of him, looks into the camera.

With a "Mad Man" era hat on his head, his fingers wrapped around a shiny silver microphone and a beard that is somewhere between Mitch Miller's goatee and a beatnik's fuzz, Armstrong is telling the story of the ruined houses that are just over his shoulder. It is Ocean City, N.J., which has just suffered a severe storm. Allentown men have come, under the name of Operation Help, to do their part to bring the beachfront community back to life.

Today Armstrong is 77 and as he thinks back over 50 years to that day, time falls away and with enthusiasm in his voice he is that young man again. "Those were among the best days of my life," he says.

To set the scene, Allentown was in a joyous and proud mood in 1962. A bustling community whose stores attracted shoppers from around the region and whose factories offered good jobs and good wages, it was as close to paradise as working class and middle class Americans could get in that day.

And that year, as Allentown got ready to celebrate its 200th birthday and Lehigh County its 150th, it seemed like there was plenty to be proud of. As a sort of throwback to the past, local men had formed a group called "Brothers of the Brush." They had agreed to grow facial hair to celebrate their ancestors' fashions.

Armstrong was relatively new to the community. Growing up in the western part of the state, he was a 1960 graduate of Penn State. Armstrong had just recently joined the public relations firm of Ritter Lieberman Inc. He still retains a piece of its stationary with the old phone number- Hemlock 5-9648.

Armstrong recalls the driving force behind the creation of Operation Help was Charley Zaimes, a local journalist who had been with the Evening Chronicle and at that point was news director of radio station WSAN. "It was March and the Jersey shore had just been hit by a really wild nor'easter," Armstrong recalls.

"It just struck Charley that here was something that could make a difference, if a group of Allentown people could go down there and help," Armstrong says. "He got on the radio and talked about how he wondered if the bicentennial really meant anything to us more than buttons and beards. Was the pioneer spirit of neighbor helping neighbor that created Allentown and Lehigh County still alive?"

It did not take long for Zaimes to get his answer. Hundreds of calls poured into the station from listeners who were asking what had to be done and where could they sign up. Armstrong volunteered to record the event on film with moviemaker Stan Watson, who agreed to put it all on the record. After working things out with the officials at Ocean City, N. J, the date of Sunday, March 25th 1962 was selected for the trip.

By 5:30 am that morning a line of over 90 cars carrying 750 volunteers pulled out of the Allentown Fairgrounds. Later as they moved down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Watson, who was riding in Armstrong's 404 Peugeot, popped his head out of the car's sunroof and began filming the motorcade. With iconic car tailfins high it looked like what today would be called a vintage auto show. Most of the cars bore signs printed by PP&L with the words "Operation Help-Allentown Bicentennial" on them.

Operation Help was not flying blind. Several days before Zaimes had gone to Ocean City to ask municipal officials what sort of things the men might do. Among the tasks recommended were digging ditches and repairing the city's damaged boardwalk. When they arrived the 25 carpenters among the crew began swinging hammers and pounding nails with gusto. Among those who stopped by for a visit to give the men encouragement was New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes.

But what most pleased Armstrong was the attention Operation Help got from the press, both local and national. At a time when most people still got most of their news from the newspaper, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Post and a host of other papers and the Associated Press wire services were there. Fifty years later he still keeps copies of some of those papers, including one whose top headline was about the French Army fighting terrorists in its former colony of Algeria.

Television and radio news was not far behind. The Today Show broadcast a segment on the next day's morning news. "I was later to learn that a broadcast about Operation Help was done by Radio Free Europe to 56 countries, many behind the Iron Curtain," says Armstrong.

The film included comments by local officials- one of whom thanked Allentown for its "neighborliness." Another was a local woman, wearing the then-fashionable "cats eye" sunglasses, who told Armstrong how much everybody in Ocean City appreciated what Operation Help had done.

That evening a tired but happy crew of local people arrived back in Allentown. By the end of the year many of the Brothers of the Brush pulled out their razors and went back to a smooth shave. Operation Help quickly became a footnote in local history, but one those remaining few who were there have not forgotten.

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