When Plowshares Built Swords: Scrap Drives During World War II

Scrap drives during the early 1940s emptied barns and fields across the country, for better or for worse.

Back em up more metal

Posters published by the U.S. government during World War II urged participation in scrap drives.

Image courtesy the U.S. government

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Scrap drives were a crucial part of the war effort during World War II. Collectors today understand the importance of that sacrifice – but those who didn’t live through the war years might be surprised by the enormity of it.

Collectible farm equipment predating 1940 can be as rare as hen’s teeth. But it isn’t just the passage of time that makes quality pieces hard to find. During World War II, organized scrap drives swept barnyards, tree lines and gullies clean of old iron. The war machine’s demand for metals of all type consumed sheer tonnage of old steam engines, tractors, engines and implements.

Remembering mistakes of the past

By the beginning of World War II, an estimated 1.5 million tons of scrap metal lay useless on U.S. farms – enough to build 139 battleships weighing 900 tons each; 750,000 tanks of 18-27 tons each; or countless airplanes, weapons and other war materiel. If that scrap could be gathered and recycled, it would have a major impact on the war effort.

But more than a few Americans still had a bad taste in their mouth over similar programs launched during World War I. Many remained troubled by the memory of propaganda techniques used by U.S. government officials during the First World War “as a means of increasing home-front morale,” writes James J. Kimble in Prairie Forge: The Extraordinary Story of the Nebraska Scrap Metal Drive of World War II.

Nor did a nationwide aluminum drive in 1941 inspire confidence. That effort, Kimble says, “motivated millions of citizens to act urgently in gathering old pots and pans at central depots, only to see the aluminum heaps remain in place while the government dithered over their fate.” This latest war-driven scrap drive had to be conducted in a new and flawless way in order to achieve success.

Nebraskans chart a new course

In the summer of 1942, Henry Doorly, publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, devised a three-week scrap salvage plan for the state of Nebraska, pooling newspaper resources with local government entities, service groups and other media outlets. Doorly’s plan legitimized the scrap drive and set an unheard-of goal: 100 pounds per Nebraskan. One pessimist grumbled that 3 pounds per person had already been collected, and that was about all there was in the state.

The plan required creation of a central location for scrap deliveries and finding people to donate trucks, loaders and drivers. But more significant, as Kimble says, Doorly had to answer these questions: “Who would participate in the drives, and what would motivate them to do so? What would capture their attention, and what would keep them going after the novelty was gone? Perhaps most important, what could the campaign do to help create an enthusiastic population of willing scrappers, one whose citizens would not only heed the drives call themselves, but who would try to persuade their families and neighbors and friends to participate as well?”

Plan based on broad appeal

Doorly developed three themes to create a successful salvage drive in Nebraska. The first centered on “competition and camaraderie,” appealing to competitive natures. A daily scoreboard was printed in the World-Herald, comparing each county’s salvage records (based on population) as if they were baseball standings.

The World-Herald offered $1,000 and $500 bonds for the top two counties with the biggest haul at the end of a three-week competition, and $500 split among the top business firm, the top individual and top junior organization. Other businesses and service groups also donated prize monies.

The second theme focused on “tractors and tricycles.” Every contribution, no matter how small, was regarded as important. Otherwise, countless forms of scrap metal might be turned away. Household items didn’t weigh much individually, but together they formed huge piles, and they were apt to generate enthusiasm among children and adults alike. More important, by noting the importance of small contributions, the campaign’s unifying emphasis remained strong.

The third theme made use of “fact and fancy,” stressing the “direct (if imaginative) links between the scrap collected in Nebraska,” Kimble says, “and the steel helmets, bullets, ship hulls and tanks that it would become in short order.”

In the end, the Nebraska plan was a rousing success. At the end of three weeks, the drive amassed a total of 67,000 tons – 103.64 pounds per person, exceeding Doorly’s goal.

National effort gains momentum

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt heard about the success in Nebraska, Doorly and his chief assistant were whisked to Washington to educate publishers from across the nation on the “Nebraska Plan,” which became the model for a national campaign in the autumn of 1942.

As the campaign sprung into high gear, farmers all over the U.S. pitched in. Every piece of old machinery was fair game: rakes, plows, combines and threshers. “No old tractor was safe,” Kimble notes. The World-Herald reported that a working Nebraska City steam traction engine, on its way to an Otoe County scrap drive, “blew its flue, keeping it out of the pile for an extra day.”

Implement companies were quick to get on the bandwagon. Proclaiming farm scrap a vital war resource, International Harvester established collection centers at its dealerships. The company sent every dealer detailed campaign manuals, posters and press kits. “The local results were often notable,” Kimble writes, “including the experience of a North Dakota dealer who collected three train carloads of scrap in a few days, and that of an Illinois dealer whose parking lot heap grew to 100 tons.”

At collection points, the scrap was sorted and graded for loading onto railroad freight cars. Neighboring communities combined scrap to fill a carload. The collected metal was sent to smelters and blast furnaces to be melted down and remade into necessary war materials.

Children played key role

Though farmers played a huge role in generating scrap metal, people in every sector were quick to join the effort. Every state had a monthly quota. Ranks of people teamed up to gather scrap materials, urged on by posters and advertisements: “Your being lazy may cost a life! Have you turned in your 100 pounds of scrap metal … or are you shirking your duty?”

School districts sponsored scrap metal drives with competitions among high school and grade school students. The Boy Scouts and other groups – nicknamed the “paper troopers,” recognizing their efforts in gathering paper products – played a major role. “Nationwide,” says the Oregon History Project, “approximately 30 million children collected 1.5 million tons of metal for the scrap drive.”

Wayne E. Kinzie, Alva, Oklahoma, remembers the drives. “In our grade school, each class competed for the most scrap,” he says. “A large pile would develop on the school ground and was then hauled off. I remember pulling my little red wagon the three blocks to school with whatever I could scrounge from my father’s automotive shop. Each month the winning class received recognition.”

Before the war, kapok – a plant material found in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Mexico – was used to make life preservers buoyant. Charles R. Strom, White City, Kansas, remembers a call for a replacement material when kapok became unavailable during the war years. “The seed pods from large milkweeds fit the bill,” he says. “They were full of silky white fibers that were water-resistant.” He was among the small army of American school children who gathered milkweed pods for the war effort. “We scoured the fence lines and fields for milkweed pods,” adds James Koltes, DeForest, Wisconsin.

Metal was only the beginning

Metals were extremely important to the war effort. Scrap drives collected iron, steel, aluminum, tin, bronze, nickel, silver and copper. In 1943, when America’s copper output was diverted to military use, U.S. pennies were produced from zinc-coated steel. The drives even took in old keys, which in that era were produced from nickel and silver.

Use of tin for canned goods was heavily restricted during the war years. The tin from two salvaged cans was enough to produce one syrette, a battlefield device used to inject sedatives as a shock preventive. Even foil wrappers from chewing gum and cigarette packs were salvaged and recycled (though it was a painstaking process, as the wrappers had to be pressed together into a ball of specified size).

But metals weren’t the only commodities gathered. The war effort also depended on plentiful stocks of rubber, paper, kitchen fats and grease, silk and nylon stockings, clothing and furs. When Japan occupied Southeast Asia rubber plantations in early 1942, for instance, the U.S. scrambled to offset sudden shortages. During a two-week, nationwide rubber drive in June 1942, the War Production Board paid a penny a pound for used rubber goods. Old tires, raincoats, gloves, garden hoses, rubber shoes and boots, hot water bottles and floor mats all became fair game.

Rubber from one old tire was said to be enough to make 12 gas masks or boots for 20 paratroopers; 1,000 overshoes provided enough rubber to make a medium-sized bomber. A light tank’s treads required 317 pounds of rubber; for a battleship, 165,000 pounds was needed. Back at home, where new tires were no longer available, people lined their tires with newspaper in an effort to extend their useful life.

Paper, grease and fats

Recycled paper was used as packaging for civilian goods formerly packaged in tin and to package weapons and military equipment. In Salvaging Victory: Scrap Drives for the War Effort, paper was identified as a critical component. “The versatile product found its way into several hundred thousand items used by the armed forces, such as blood plasma containers, K-ration cartons, shell casings, vaccine boxes and bullet cartons.”

On the home front, newsprint inventories available for commercial use were cut by 75 percent. Newspapers, books and magazines had fewer pages. Lighter grades of paper produced thinner sheets. Even typesetters pitched in, narrowing margins to squeeze more words onto the printed page. By 1942, so much paper had been salvaged that paper mills asked for a temporary halt to scrap drives.

Kitchen fats and grease were used to produce explosives, artificial rubber and ammunition. Glycerin made from waste fats and grease was important to the war effort: 3 pounds of fat provided enough glycerin to make a pound of gunpowder. It took 350 pounds of fat to fire a single shell from a 12-inch U.S. Navy gun. Glycerin was also used in antiseptics, medicinal solvents and cellophane and glassine packaging.

Government brochures gave clear instructions. “You can help attain this quota, Mrs. Housewife, by saving your pan drippings, lard and vegetable shortening and all waste kitchen greases. Be sure to strain your fats, pour them into a wide-mouthed can, keep in a cool or refrigerated space and then, after you have one to two pounds of the materials, take them to your meat market. The butcher will pay you for them and start them on their way toward war industries.”

Endless military needs

In the early 1940s, silk was used to produce the bags used to hold heavy artillery gunpowder. Facing shortages, the War Production Board turned to the nation’s ladies. Silk stockings were repurposed for powder bags, and nylon stockings were recycled for use in producing parachutes (each parachute consumed 36 pairs) and tow ropes for gliders. By the end of September 1943, 46 million pairs of hosiery had been collected in the U.S. 

The needs went on and on and on. Old clothing was collected to make rags used to clean machinery and ship decks. Old coats were collected for refugees. Even furs were recycled. In 1942, the War Emergency Board of the Fur Industry organized the Fur Vest Project. Furs were converted into fur-lined vests for Allied Merchant seamen who convoyed vital supplies across the ocean.

In 1942, the Biltmore Hotel in Dayton, Ohio, held a “fur ball.” The price of admission was a fur garment; more than 2,000 were donated. Nearly 50,000 fur-lined vests were made from donations nationwide.

 Everything that could prove useful to the war effort in any way was collected through scrap drives. According to Edwin C. Barringer in The Story of Scrap, salvage drives in 1942-’43 yielded about 4 million tons of scrap. “During the entire war,” he says, “perhaps about 9 million tons was brought out that would not have been available to dealers under normal conditions.” FC


Scrap Drives Represented an Opportunity

World War II scrap drives appealed to the patriotic and the entrepreneurial alike. In October 1942, the clerk of the Dayton, Ohio, Municipal Court conducted his own scrap drive, raiding the court’s evidence room. He produced countless items that had been offered as evidence in old criminal court cases, including “slot machines, hammers, knives, keys, razors, daggers and a varying assortment of revolvers,” says James J. Kimble in Prairie Forge: The Extraordinary Story of the Nebraska Scrap Metal Drive of World War II.

During the war years, automotive bumpers and fenders were regular scrap targets, as were antique wrought iron fences. Cities and towns stripped old cannons – some dating to the Civil War – from park memorials. In Asheville, North Carolina, trolley tracks beneath the streets were ripped up and hauled away.

 It was not a time to leave anything of value unattended, says Bill Gage, now of Illinois City, Illinois. He recalls a day during the war years when, as a boy, he was discing one of his dad’s fields. At the end of the day, he left the disc on the edge of the field, along Illinois Route 6, and headed home. The next morning, the disc was gone.

 “And this was during the war,” he says. “You couldn’t get another one.” His dad headed straight to the local junkyard and found his disc, already cut in sections. The proprietor would not reveal who’d brought it in, but he did return the pieces. “Then we went to the hardware store,” Bill says, “got bolts and put it back together.”

–Bill Vossler


Not Everyone Was on Board with Scrap Drives

Human nature being what it is, the black market is an unfortunate but natural outgrowth of commodity shortages caused by war or natural disaster. The years of World War II were no exception. In the U.S., farm equipment, gasoline, beef, pork and other items were routinely offered on the black market. The government, however, took a dim view of such transactions, threatening lawbreakers with fines and imprisonment. Violators were castigated as being unpatriotic.

Some simply thought themselves above the law. In March 1942, federal agents seized a small mountain of scrapped refrigerators on an Ohio farm.

The seizure was made after the owners refused to sell the metal to scrap dealers. The scrap metal had been placed in a deep ravine in order to prevent corrosion of the farm’s soil. “We’ll just have to let the farm wash away now,” one of the farm’s owners said.

Dale Gengenbach, Eustis, Nebraska, remembers a similar event. “As a young boy, I remember my dad talking about the World War II scrap drives,” he says, “and how unpatriotic it was to withhold iron that could be used in the war effort.”

He recalls a neighbor hiding a Mogul tractor in a ravine to avoid the salvage drive. “The story goes that, under the cover of darkness, our neighbor pulled the tractor to its resting spot of about 40 years,” he says.

Some 30 years later, Dale purchased the land where the tractor was hidden. “The tractor was in a secluded area where I needed to build a dam,” he says. “I cut the trees that had grown through the back wheels and pulled it up on top, and it sat there for the next 30 years.”

The tractor’s engine, though, was long gone. “I can only guess it was out of the tractor frame for repairs at the time of the original move,” he muses, “and later it was taken in the scrap drive. Regrettably, it will probably never be a complete tractor again.” –Bill Vossler


Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email.