Tin-Can Colonels, Uncle Sam's Scrappers, Paper Troopers, and Junior Commandos?
"Arf!" says Sandy.

by Joshua Hunter and David Hunter 1

During World War II, the folks back home in the United States undertook a series of conservation measures which included rationing, production of food in home "Victory" gardens for one's own use, and collections of scrap materials to be remanufactured into war materiel.  The first scrap drive was for aluminum in the summer of 1941 (Schoenherr).  Many different kinds of items were eventually collected, including iron, steel, rubber, copper, brass, aluminum, zinc, lead, paper, tin cans, nylon, silk, cooking fats, and rags (Utah 36).  There were a number of drives in 1941 and 1942, many of which involved children, but one of the more significant events occurred in June, 1942 when Harold Gray's popular Little Orphan Annie newspaper comic strip introduced a story line in which his plucky orphan girl decided to help the war effort by organizing children to collect scrap.  For a name for her organization Annie chose "Junior Commandos."  Having had some previous military experience in single-handedly blowing up Nazi submarines(!), Annie assumed the top rank of colonel - Colonel Annie - and organized the children along military lines.  Though Annie's efforts were, of course, only in the funny pages, real groups organized in the same way were launched within a month (Houston).

Annie's fans would have it that, "By the fall of that year, there were 'close to 20,000 JCs enrolled and filed under localities throughout Metropolitan Boston' alone!" (Houston).  While there is little doubt that Annie's example inspired and colored what came later, that assertion ignores the fact that in the Fall of 1942 the United States War Production Board issued a fully-conceived plan to have the schools of America organize their students into a "Junior Army" for that same purpose.  Entitled Get in the Scrap: A Plan for the Organization of the School Children of America in the National Salvage Program, the plan recognized that, "Recent experience in several widely separated districts over the country has proved that school children are the most active and thorough collectors of these needed scrap materials" (Get 5).  Approved by the U.S. Office of Education, it went on to provide for a system of organization for the Junior Army through the public schools in each state.  The ranks above Lieutenant would be held by adults with the state school superintendent being the Commanding General, local superintendents being Colonels (too bad for Annie), school principals being Majors, and teachers being Captains.  The school children would hold the ranks of Lieutenant, Sergeant, Corporal, and Private, but those ranks were to be awards for meritorious service and there was no mention of the children's ranks being hierarchical or organizational in any way (the one exception being that the student charged with receiving and weighing the scrap should be made a Lieutenant) (Get 5-9).  This was quite unlike Colonel Annie's Junior Commandos, at least in its fictional version, in which the children completely controlled the organization and in which rank carried the obligation to lead and direct the efforts of others (Houston).

Nonetheless, the War Production Board's plan was widely adopted.  Since it was entirely voluntary, however, it could be freely modified by both the schools and the participants.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in many if not most instances the adult-organized Junior Army plan provided most of the structure but the Junior Commandos supplied the name.  One account relates:

We were formed into a platoon of "Junior Commandos", sponsored by the U.S. Government, and we were issued armbands designating our rank. I was a Corporal, and to my lasting regret my 12 year-old sister Theresa was my Sergeant. During much of our free time, we scoured our neighborhood collecting metal and rubber for the community scrap drive. ... Our efforts were often rewarded with free movies, comic books and War Stamps. These were the child-size version of War Bonds with denominations of 10 cents and 25 cents.  (Theobald)

All the features described in that account conform with the War Production Board's plan, except for the name and the suggestion (by the use of the term "my sergeant") that rank may have been hierarchical.

There were other organizations of children for the collection of scrap with military names, too.  Some were organized by adults, such as the Utah Minute Women's "Paper Troopers" (Utah).  Other groups, such as "Uncle Sam's Scrappers" and "Tin-Can Colonels," were organized and named by the children themselves (though it would appear that at least some groups with those names in Illinois were adult-organized) (Polenberg 133, Chappell 12, Watters 273).

As it turned out, much of the material which was collected either went unused or made no real contribution to the war.  While many products were produced from recycled rubber, the mixed types of rubber obtained from scrap drives were slow to process and made inferior products.  Very little of the rubber collected was actually recycled.  Recycled paper, which was mainly newspapers, was not useful for anything except packing.  The many aluminum pots and pans which were recycled were generally just made back into more pots and pans, since only pure aluminum could be used for airplane parts. 

The scrap drives were not just a fraud, however, because the drives helped build morale at home and helped to illustrate and encourage conservation.  Some of the scrap collected was, moreover, very useful to the war effort.  Kitchen fats and cooking grease, perhaps one of the sillier-seeming things to collect, were very useful.  They were processed into glycerin, which was in demand both as a component of medicines and to be converted into nitroglycerin for the manufacture of explosives. 

Scrap iron and steel were also highly useful.  Though it was cheaper to make new iron and steel from America's ample supply of iron ore, doing so takes far more time and production capacity than does recycling scrap.  The use of recycled scrap in addition to production from ore resulted in a far higher amount of iron and steel being available to the insatiable war industries.  There were a few problems with even iron and steel, however.  America's enthusiasm for scrap collecting led it to carry off some things which would have, in retrospect, been better left alone, such as Civil War cannon and other monuments, church bells, and objects of historic or artistic value (Adams).

Works Cited

Adams, Cecil. "Were WWII scrap drives just a ploy to boost morale?" The Straight Dope. 31 May 2002. 6 Oct. 2004 <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/020531.html>.

Chappell, John D.  Before the Bomb: How America Approached the End of the Pacific War.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Houston, Susan. "Little Orphan Annie: The War Years, 1939-1945, or Heroism on the Home Front." The Official Little Orphan Annie Home Page. 2003. 6 Oct. 2004 <http://www.liss.olm.net/loahp/loaww2.html>.

Polenberg, Richard.  War and Society : The United States, 1941-1945.  Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1972. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Schoenherr, Steve. "OCD and Civilian Defense." World War II Timeline. 10 Mar. 1999. 1 Apr. 2007 <http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/WW2Timeline/OCD.html>.

Theobald, Pete. World War II. 6 Oct. 2004 <http://www.petetheobald.com/cookie12.html>.

United States. War Production Board. Get in the Scrap: A Plan for the Organization of the School Children of America in the National Salvage Program. 1942. 6 Oct. 2004 <http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/hgp&CISOPTR=524&filename=525.pdf>.

United States. War Production Board, Conservation and Salvage Division. Utah Minute Women: World War II 1942-1945. c. 1945.  6 Oct. 2004 <http://history.utah.gov/historical_society/educational_resources/lesson_plans/documents/Utah_Minute_Women_official_history_rtf.rtf>.  [Note: 40 mb download.]

Watters, Mary.  Vol. 1: Operation Home Front.  In J. Monaghan (Ed.), Illinois in the Second World War.  Springfield: State of Illinois, 1951.  <http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/isl3&CISOPTR=1468&REC=1>.

 

Originally posted 6 Oct. 2004 (original text available here), links updated 21 Apr. 2009.
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    1  At the time this article was originally written, Joshua Hunter was a Sophomore in Pre-AP English II at a Texas high school.  David Hunter, Joshua's father, holds a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Texas and is a practicing attorney.  The name Hunter is a pseudonym.  Click here for our email address.