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.


| December 2015



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

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.

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11/7/2017 10:35:13 AM

Nice and thorough article. I wish there weren't all the pop up ads in the articles. They are a nuisance. At the MIRACLE OF AMERICA MUSEUM, Polson, Montana, we display many of the scrap drive posters and recycling related memorabilia.