My relatives who lived during World War II insist that all the scrap-metal and rubber drives, supposedly done to preserve resources for the war effort, were only for propaganda. None of the metal and rubber collected was ever used for anything. Is this true? --Anthony Allen, Los Angeles
We live in a cynical age, Anthony. World War II scrap drives were a lot like the federal government, Dennis Rodman, and the Oscars: they partook of a considerable measure of hot air and bullshit. But not 100 percent.
In 1942, when the first scrap drives were organized, the war was far from won, and frightened civilians at all levels were anxious to do something, anything, to help. So campaigns were organized to collect not just metal and rubber but kitchen fat, newspapers, rags, and so on. These drives were extremely successful--millions of tons of material were collected. It was only afterward, contemplating the assembled mounds of junk, that those in charge of the war effort asked themselves: What are we going to do with all this crap?
World War II shortages weren't just home-front propaganda. Japanese conquests in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies cut off access to natural rubber supplies. President Roosevelt urged Americans to turn in "old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hose, rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves," and so on at their local service stations. Just one problem: there wasn't (and still isn't) an efficient way of recycling rubber products. Rubber's complex chemistry and the variety of formulations in use made recycling slow and expensive and the resultant material inferior to virgin rubber. The real solutions were development of synthetic rubber and conservation (gas rationing was primarily meant to save tires, not gas).
Many of the other materials collected couldn't readily be recycled either. Many people who lived through the war may remember collecting old newspapers, but apart from using them as packing material and such there was little to be done with them. A 1941 aluminum-scrap drive to help the plucky Brits pulled in 70,000 tons of aluminum pots and pans, but only virgin aluminum could be used to manufacture aircraft.
Iron and steel were a different story, up to a point. These metals could be easily melted down and used for munitions. But it's not like the U.S. lacked domestic sources of iron ore. The real challenge was gearing up American industry for war production. That meant everything from increasing steel-making capacity to building more factories and designing better weapons. Recycling of steel and iron unquestionably helped, though. One campaign netted five million tons of steel in just three weeks, and scrap-metal drives continued for most of the war.
Useful though recycled steel and iron were, some scrap drives went overboard. In addition to old streetcar tracks, wrought iron fences, church bells, and the like, people carted off relics of previous wars, including cannons, park statues, and other memorials. When memorials were being rebuilt after the war, many people wished they hadn't been so hasty.
There's no denying scrap drives and other World War II home-defense efforts were meant in part as morale builders. Some seem pretty loopy in retrospect--air-raid blackouts in Nebraska, for example. But a few were surprisingly effective. In 1943 victory gardens produced 40 percent of the country's fresh vegetables. Salvaged kitchen fat was used to produce glycerin, an ingredient in drugs and explosives. Then there's the Civil Air Patrol, organized in 1941 to watch the coasts and assist in search and rescue operations. Less help than hindrance, right? Not so. In the 18 months before the navy took over patrol duty, the CAP spotted 173 U-boats, located 363 survivors of sunken ships and downed aircraft, and reported 91 ships in distress. Lest you think all home-front volunteers were paunchy air-raid wardens in tin hats.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.