Imagine this: It was World War II, and your country had just joined. There were men ready to fight for the country, women willing to take men’s place and be the power that would keep the economy rolling. However, with the volume of soldiers being sent to the military theater of the Western Front, the supplies for metal and other necessary war supplies were falling short. What else is there left to do but turn to the public for help? This was what the United States government did, and the public diligently answered in the patriotic act to help in the war effort.

Resolving the Shortages Through Rationing

The United States was initially apathetic about the ongoing war. There was no solid reason for the country to dive in, at least not until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This unsurprisingly and drastically changed the Americans’ feelings toward World War II. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a released statement just a day after the bombing,

“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

The citizens volunteered to offer their patriotic support by any means that they could. America’s military had grown to almost 2.2 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that very same month. Those were just volunteer “citizen soldiers” from every state of the country and different economic and social statuses.

World War II scrap metal collection at Grafton in Taylor County about 1943. (Vicki Thomas via wvencyclopedia.org)

With the men from the workforce being sent to the battlefield and the production shifting to materials and equipment needed by these soldiers to meet the demands of the battles, items and supplies immediately became scarce. The others tried to alleviate and help make sure that there would be enough food supply by planting in their victory gardens. Meanwhile, the authorities had to implement government-mandated rations to make sure that the supply of food was evenly and fairly distributed, regardless of their buying capabilities. Ration stamps were distributed to the Americans to do this. Staples like butter, sugar, meat, and canned goods could only be purchased in small quantities.

Value of Scrap Metals…

The rationing was not just exclusive to food but also extended to other things like vehicles, office machinery, home appliances, farming equipment, and the like. Basic metal goods were controlled and regulated as well to give way to the much-needed production of military aircraft, ships, land vehicles, weapons, and ammunition.

Metal from scrap drive in Hood River WWII scrap drive photos, Oregon. (OSU Special Collections & Archives: Commons, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

The citizens were also asked to donate their spare metals, which was greatly important. According to an article written by Davies County Historical Society,

It was estimated that 1.5 million tons of scrap lay useless on U.S. farms. Enough to build 139 modern battleships for the navy! If the average farm generated 125 pounds to be mixed with other materials, each farm could possibly make a 500 pound aerial bomb. If the farmers banned their collection and accumulated 36,000 pounds there would be enough scrap iron to build one 27-ton tank.

From pots and metal toys to farming equipment to even more extreme ones like bubble gum wraps, each of the citizens joined in the effort of collecting whatever metal they could give. Iron fences and Civil War cannons were torn down, drives and community events were conducted, and towns, counties, and states competed to produce the most scrap.

…And More

The United States also conducted some other nationwide drives. From June 15 to 30, 1942, for instance, a rubber drive was held, and people brought their old or excess tires, hot water bottles, rubber boots, floor mats, raincoats, and such. In return, they received a penny per pound of their rubber materials. Around 450,000 tons of scrap rubber were collected. Although, it was found out later that the used rubber was of poor quality and not suitable for reuse.  Cut off from rubber supplies in Asia by the advance of the Japanese army and navy, the US developed synthetic rubber from petroleum.  The rationing of gasoline during the war was not really about saving gas at all, but about conserving the rubber on automobile tires.

The same was true of scrap aluminum.  It was much easier to make virgin aircraft-grade aluminum from scratch than to try and make it from scrap material.  Mountains of the stuff sat unused by the end of the war.

In 1944, an acute paper shortage existed, too, so the Boy Scouts and local schools helped by organizing regular paper drives. Soon, the War Production Board started a program called Paper Troopers, intended to sound like “paratroopers,” to encourage schoolchildren in the war effort.

While a great deal of the salvaged materials sat in piles hardly used, a couple of items were actually very useful, like fat, bones, and paper.  All could be recycled for use in explosives and fabric glue for aircraft wings.

In the end, the salvage and conservation drives during the war served the purpose of getting the public involved in the war on a personal level more than it was about meeting the dire needs of the war industry.

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