Americans at times went too far in their nearly unstoppable drive to collect scrap metal for the war effort.

Every store, farm, and business in Comanche County shut down for the day on Friday, August 28, 1942. This was no traditional holiday for the people in this southwestern Kansas county. This was Scrap Harvest Day. All over the county people were scouring yards, farm fields, basements, and attics for every scrap of unused iron and steel that could be recycled into tanks, guns, shells, and other armaments. The local weekly newspaper, the Western Star, called it “the greatest demonstration of the people of this county uniting in a common cause that has ever been witnessed.”

In Coldwater, the county seat, the old veterans at the American Legion post contributed a souvenir from the first war—a 37mm howitzer captured from the Germans. Out at Jack Helton’s farm, volunteers armed with cutting torches, wrenches, and sledgehammers ripped apart a tractor, a combine, an old Ford truck, and other machinery. Then they loaded all the scrap onto trucks and hauled it to junkyards, where it would be paid for, sorted, and shipped off by rail to be melted down in open-hearth furnaces and eventually forged into instruments of war.

During that single week the people of Comanche County (population 4,700) collected more than 400 tons of iron— “enough,” reported the Western Star, “to build a big battleship or 80 large tanks.” The paper concluded proudly, “Uncle Sam, if you want to see how to get a difficult job done, send some of your easterners to Comanche County to show them that the mid-west is 100% behind the war-effort.”

Such hard work, competitive zeal, and patriotic pride were typical of the American home front during the war years. At the behest of Washington, the folks at home conducted periodic drives to collect not only metals but paper, old rubber, silk and nylon stockings, and even used kitchen fat to help make up for shortages in strategic raw materials. For those too young or too old or otherwise unable to serve in the armed forces, it was a way to do their part in the war against the Axis. “Get into the scrap!” exhorted a slogan popular on the radio and on posters. “Junk,” crooned Bing Crosby reassuringly, “will win the war.”

The most pressing need from the beginning of the war was scrap metal. Salvaged iron and steel were essential to the open-hearth method of steel production. Only a five- or six-week supply was on hand when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor— largely because the United States had sold to Japan a total of 200 million tons of scrap between 1935 and 1940. Furthermore, it was a need Americans could readily perceive. Unlike paper and waste fat, for example, the relationship of metal to armaments seemed dramatically clear. They believed it when the government said 30,000 razor blades contained enough steel to make fifty .30-caliber machine guns, or that the iron in a shovel was sufficient to manufacture four hand grenades. The opportunity to make a measurable contribution to the war effort appealed deeply to Americans, and they plunged into the search for scrap with such enthusiasm that they sometimes sacrificed objects of historical or artistic value—and later regretted their haste.

The first nationwide scrap metal drive was launched by the War Production Board in the summer of 1942. The state of Nebraska set the pace under the leadership of the Omaha World-Herald, the state’s largest newspaper, which won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. The drive exploited the American love of competition by offering financial incentives, such as the $2,000 in war bonds the newspaper awarded to the individuals and organizations that turned in the most scrap. Out in the countryside, used bridges and abandoned railroad track were among the bounty, and ranchers had to keep a careful eye on their windmills. High school football players in Norfolk heard on the radio that residents of a nearby town were leaving scrap on their curbs for morning pickup. They swooped down that night for unsanctioned pickups that helped them win a prize. Nebraska netted 135 million tons—103 pounds for every resident—and its campaign was widely copied.

Unfortunately, in their patriotic fervor, Nebraskans sent to the scrap heap cannons, monuments, and other historical objects that would later be missed. James Denney, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald who later served in the Army Air Forces, zealously joined the campaign in Fairbury, a town in the southern part of the state, where he was based. “The state editor…called me and said, ‘We’re really looking for pictures, any kind of feature you can come up with, that deals with scrap that could be converted into metal so they can make bombs. We’ll do it because the paper is really getting all behind this.’”

So Denney scoured the town. “Unfortunately—I’ve always kicked myself a little bit about this—one of the things that I proposed as part of our scrap was a cannon we had in the city park that had been used in the Spanish-American War, and sure enough Fairbury gave it up for scrap after I did my story. After the war was over, and I came back, I always had a feeling in my heart, ‘What a dumb thing it was for me to do.’”

Indeed, everything was fair game. People started with the obvious—old license plates, bicycles, and junked cars—and then got more imaginative. In Dayton, Ohio, the municipal court yielded articles used in evidence in criminal cases over the years, including slot machines, hammers, daggers, and a varying assortment of revolvers. In Maryville, Missouri, the Nodaway Valley Bank offered up the armor steel-plate and the six-inch-thick door that had lined the safe-deposit vault. In rural Wyoming, citizens took apart an old 20-ton steam engine, and then constructed several miles of new road to get this scrap to the collection center. In Hollywood, actress Rita Hayworth, one of the GIs’ favorite pinups, donated the bumpers of her automobile and then posed fetchingly on the back of it with her famous legs showing.

Schemes for getting scrap proliferated. Movie theaters held special matinees at which the price of admission was a few pounds of metal. A black-tie benefit in Boston brought in a Civil War Gatling gun and the governor’s rowing exercise machine. San Francisco courts agreed to take a traffic violator’s car bumper in lieu of a cash fine.

On a farm near West Carrollton, Ohio, federal agents acting on a tip confiscated hundreds of scrap refrigerator cabinets, weighing more than 10,000 tons—said to be enough for “a medium-sized battleship or ten tanks.” The owners had refused to sell the lot to scrap dealers because the refrigerators had been placed in a deep ravine to prevent soil erosion. “We’ll just have to let the farm wash away now,” said one of the owners. “I don’t know why the big shots in Washington didn’t think of this five years ago instead of selling our scrap metal to the Japs to kill those poor Chinese.”

In most instances, zeal to contribute to the war effort overshadowed the historical or ornamental value of objects consigned to the scrap heap. In Belleville, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, old cemetery lots lost their wrought iron fences. In New York City, 100-pound metal cornices were removed from atop the Ansonia Hotel, which was renowned for its ornamentation. The men and women of Easton, Pennsylvania, sacrificed the town’s cast-iron “Horse Fountain,” modeled in the 19th century after the Hippocrene fountain of Greek mythology, whose waters were supposed to summon forth poetic inspiration when imbibed.

Artifacts such as the autogiro employed by Adm. Richard Byrd on his trip to Antarctica in 1936 and a pair of horseshoes said to be from Robert E. Lee’s Civil War mount were donated. A similar fate befell a massive typesetting machine called the Paige Compositor once owned by Mark Twain, who had nearly gone bankrupt investing in this commercial failure. Hikers and climbers in Montana’s Glacier National Park could no longer look forward to hearing the clear ringing of locomotive bells atop four mountain passes; they were removed in 1943 and melted down.

Appropriately enough, guns that had been fired in previous wars attracted the attention of scrap metal drives. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point donated a dozen cannons. The American Legion post in Savannah, Georgia, contributed 7 cannons and 10 machine guns captured from the Germans in World War I. Two 10-inch mortars from the Civil War gave up their posts as guardians of the main entrance to Madison, Connecticut. From Wheeling, West Virginia, Devils Lake, North Dakota, and Marshalltown, Iowa, came Civil War cannons that had long graced these communities. Out west, even a little iron cannonball—fired from the USS Decatur when Native Americans attacked Seattle in 1856—went to the war effort.

To collect cannons, someone had the bright idea to reenact Gen. Henry Knox’s legendary march hauling big guns from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston during the American Revolution. “A lot of the towns donated cannons, scrap iron that had been in front of town halls and places like that for years, practically back to the Civil War,” recalled Ted Giddings, who was city editor of the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at the time of the reenactment. “Those were all lugged off to Boston and shipped out to be used for scrap iron, to some ordinance factory somewhere.”

Stripping communities of long-standing artifacts and memorials typically occurred with the full consent of elected officials and the citizenry in general. After all, as the exhortation went, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” In addition to patriotism and the desire to keep up with neighboring communities, there was also pressure from Washington. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered state and federal departments to scrap monuments and other ornamental metal not absolutely indispensable to the public well-being.

Occasionally, the pressure to give up a beloved memorial provoked controversy. The largest old weapon singled out by the federal authorities was the battleship Oregon, a relic of the Spanish-American War. The Oregon, more than a football field in length, was moored at Portland in its namesake state, where it served as a monument and museum. In the fall of 1942, despite widespread protests, Roosevelt authorized its salvage while preserving for history another survivor of the Spanish-American War, the battleship Olympia.

Formal protests to the U.S. Navy were filed by the Battleship Oregon Commission and a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. There were also letters to the editor. Marjorie W. Hennessey of Hillsboro wrote the editor of the Oregonian, “If we in future years must contemplate a yawning vacancy where now the grand old Oregon lies in her carefully prepared moorage basin, let us be extremely sure that we can say ‘It had to go, so we gritted our teeth and gave it’ rather than ‘The Oregon went for nothing and need not have gone at all.’”

Resentment grew when the latter turned out to be true. At a parade commemorating the ship’s departure, a 15-stanza ode to the Oregon was read and a young congressman and U.S. Navy reservist named Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered the keynote speech. The ship was towed on the Columbia River to Kalama, Washington, where the superstructure was dismantled. But as the months wore on, the need for scrap metal lessened. The navy ordered the scrapping to stop and then, embarrassed by public criticism of the entire process, reinstated the vessel and sent it to the Pacific for use as a munitions barge during the battle of Guam. Many years later, the hulk of the Oregon was towed to Japan, where former enemies of the United States finally reduced it to scrap.

Unlike the citizens of Oregon, some Americans proved to be successful in their attempts to retain relics of previous wars. The capital city of North Carolina, Raleigh, even tore up their old streetcar rails. “However,” wrote Jo Ann Willford, a local historian, “when someone suggested that the state should melt down the Revolutionary War cannons standing at the Capitol, there was an outcry of protest. There were limits to the sacrifices the public felt willing to make.” The cannons stayed on Capitol Square, where they remain to this day.

In Dayton, Ohio, some 22 tons of cannons and other artillery pieces were scrapped, but the members of the local Earnshaw Camp of the Sons of the Union Veterans stood fast. Members voted unanimously to hold on to their eight cannons scattered as memorials around the city, as a spokesman put it, “until the country is invaded.”

But in Pocatello, at the college that eventually became Idaho State University, protests failed to prevent the scrapping of a revered old locomotive that stood on campus. A number of individuals and groups concerned about preserving the history of the city of Pocatello complained loudly about losing the landmark. One of the protesters was a faculty member named Abe Lincoln Lillibridge, whose father had been a locomotive engineer. Before the old locomotive was taken away, Lillibridge, a professional engineer who later helped assemble the university’s circular particle accelerator, was able at least to detach and save the locomotive’s whistle. He hid it away until the controversy over the old engine died down. The whistle was later installed atop the college’s heating plant, to be blown whenever the football team, the Bengals, scored a touchdown in the nearby stadium.

The people of Fort Missoula, Montana, gave up their prized Civil War gun in 1942—and got it back more than six decades later. A muzzle loader during that war, the cannon had been converted afterward to a breechloader. The resulting reduced bore size made it suitable to shoot only blank rounds. Every day since 1883, when it arrived via the newly built Northern Pacific Railway, the cannon had sounded at reveille in the morning and retreat in the evening. Then it was hauled away to the scrap yard.

There, before it could be scrapped, a history buff named Walter Custer bought the gun for his trading post. The gun stood outside the trading post until 1964 when Hayes Otoupalik, only 16 years old but already a collector of military artifacts, offered to buy it for the asking price of $600. He put down $60 and earned the rest by salvaging bottles and junk metal for a year. He kept the gun at the family home until 2008. Then, having reached the age of 60, he hauled it to its old post, and donated it to stand guard at the Fort Missoula Historical Museum.

Many years after the war, communities sought to replace monuments, statues, and other artifacts sacrificed in the name of victory. The pedestal in Ossining, New York’s Nelson Park had remained empty for more than four decades after the World War I cannon that stood atop it was sent off for salvage. Part of a memorial to Ossining servicemen, it had been the largest prize in the 800 tons of scrap gathered by local Boy Scouts back in 1942. Then, in 1986, a 15-year-old Scout named Peter Carpenter began looking around for a community service project to help him achieve Star rank.

Searching for ideas, he consulted the director of the Ossining Historical Society, Roberta Arminio. Arminio pointed to the problem of the missing cannon, an artifact she had a personal interest in replacing. Her father, Austin J. Yerks, was a patriotic veteran who had served in the U.S. Army during World War I and sired two sons who would attend West Point and attain high rank in the army. Yerks had been instrumental in acquiring the old cannon back in 1925; he also had persuaded village officials to contribute it to the Scout scrap drive 17 years later— an action, Arminio remembered, that made some residents “want to run him out of town.”

Following through on her suggestion, Carpenter wrote letters to his congressman, state officials, veterans’ organizations, and even West Point, without success. The West Point Museum wrote back sympathizing with Ossining’s problem: the museum had been unable to find replacements for the dozen cannons it had donated to the war effort. Finally, when the youth was about to write to president Ronald Reagan for help, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation offered to lend the village a Civil War Parrott rifle. Now owned by Ossining, this imposing weapon stands in Nelson Park as a monument not only to those who served, but also to Roberta Arminio’s family pride and Peter Carpenter’s persistence.

Efforts to replace what was collected for the drives continue today. In 2009, the Vicksburg National Park in Mississippi, which contains more than 1,330 monuments, tablets, and plaques, began replacing 144 historical markers removed in 1942 for scrap. In Hartford, at a cost of more than $300,000, an 18-foot-tall bronze statue of a winged female, The Genius of Connecticut, was recast for the state capitol to replace the original, which had been melted down and made into bullet casings. And the Kansas state legislature, as part of a restoration of their statehouse in Topeka, hopes by 2012 to recreate an elaborate chandelier that, when removed from its rotunda dome in 1942, netted between 300 and 800 pounds of steel and bronze for the war effort.

After the war, the issue of just how vital a role scrap drives had played in wartime production became a subject of academic debate. A 2000 study by Hugh Rockoff, an economist at Rutgers University, questioned the extent of their impact on the economy. “At most,” he concluded, “the drives increased scrap collections by relatively small margins above what would have been collected during a prosperous peacetime period. The amount of iron and steel salvaged in 1942 was only 9 percent above the amount salvaged in 1937, the prewar peak.” The total salvaged in 1942 was more than 24 million tons, and though the need for scrap waxed and waned as the war continued, scrap tonnage declined only slightly.

But no one questioned the impact on civilian morale. Scrap collection gave Americans on the home front the sense that they were an important part of the national effort, which strengthened morale and support for the war. For young people who might have felt isolated at home, with their fathers fighting overseas and their mothers working in defense industries, participation in the scrap drives kept them out of trouble and encouraged a sense of common purpose.

James Covert was nine years old when the war started. His father was in the navy and his brother in the Army Air Forces. But he recalled how the discipline on the home front kept him preoccupied. “Saturdays and after school were always taken up with activities for the war effort—like scrap drives and collecting tin and tinfoil,” he said. “The whole idea of saving and rationing was drilled into us, that our doing without was saving lives overseas.” What Americans gained by that spirit of sacrifice and patriotism far outweighed the objects they lost.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.