Last month’s story about Nebraska’s scrap metal drive in World War II is a reminder of how our state’s residents can work together to accomplish something good.
It happened 80 years ago. That makes it old news to some Nebraskans who lived through it, and forgotten history to many others. The fascinating story told by World-Herald staff writer Steve Liewer surely opened the eyes of some readers.
In the summer of 1942, seven months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some aspects of the American home front war effort were struggling. A drive to gather scrap rubber to make tires and tank treads had fizzled, and steel factories were in danger of having to shut down production because of a shortage of scrap metal.
Omaha World-Herald president Henry Doorly decided to take action, launching a statewide scrap metal drive designed to, as Liewer wrote, “harness the competitive spirit of men, women and children in every corner of Nebraska.”
It sure did. In just three weeks, Nebraskans had gathered 67,000 tons of scrap metal from attics, basements, farm fields and businesses. It worked out to 104 pounds of scrap metal for every person in the state.
Manufacturing companies brought in surplus equipment. Farmers gave up tractors. Children scoured alleys for tin cans and even tossed their toys onto the scrap piles.
Families whose sons were going off to war were particularly motivated. One Omaha woman, a widow, donated an iron stove, cooking pans and some iron pipes and bars. She told a reporter that her son was leaving for the Army in three days.
“I saw the housewives of Omaha go to war,” wrote World-Herald reporter Bill Billotte, “just as surely as if they were embarking for the front lines with a tommygun under each arm.”
But it wasn’t just Omahans. The genius of Doorly’s scrap metal drive was that it set up a competition in which Nebraska’s 93 counties tried to collect the most material, in pounds per capita.
The statewide winner was Grant County in the Sandhills, which collected 638 pounds for each of its 1,327 residents. Douglas County had the most scrap metal, amassing a 12,500-ton mountain of the stuff, but finished in the middle of the pack on a per capita basis.
Through it all, the Omaha World-Herald and Nebraska’s other newspapers drummed up support for the drive with extensive coverage. It’s a reminder of how local journalism can play an important role in not only informing readers but also helping our communities come together to take action on the important issues of the day.
In fact, the World-Herald won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for public service for spearheading the drive.
The Nebraska effort became the model for a nationwide drive later that year. In that fall campaign, a competition among states, Nebraska added another 80,000 tons of scrap metal, or 123 pounds per person. That was good enough for sixth best in the nation — although Nebraskans were proud to point out that their combined 227 pounds per person in the two drives was far more than any other state.
There’s no question that Nebraskans made a difference in the war effort. In the Nebraska campaign alone, the statewide haul was enough to build 1 million anti-aircraft shells, 130 Navy PT boats or 200 57-ton tanks. Beyond that, Henry Doorly’s idea energized the home front’s commitment to victory, both here and across the nation.
In today’s polarized world, it might be hard to imagine Nebraskans rallying behind a single goal like the 1942 scrap metal drive. But that’s an overly pessimistic view, filtered through the divisions we saw recently over how to respond to the pandemic.
When the chips are down, Nebraskans have a long track record of working hard, getting the job done, and doing things that strengthen their families, communities and even the nation. It’s useful for all of us to remember that as we face today’s challenges.
Our best Omaha staff photos & videos of September 2022