Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 83-99.
Some of the most unusual weapons deployed by the United States in World War II hailed from Phelps County, Nebraska. For over thirty years, two cannons had flanked the entrance to the county courthouse, serving as a memorial to the Civil War. In July 1942, county officials directed that the cannons be removed; they were again to serve as munitions in an American conflict. From Washington, President Roosevelt himself lauded the county's sacrifice and suggested that others might consider making a similar contribution to the war effort.
Not even the president was certain, of course, that the cannons would still function after nearly eighty years on display. It hardly mattered. Phelps County's cannons were valuable not for their functionality but for their content: fourteen tons of iron. These venerable weapons of war would be weighed, transported to a foundry, melted down, and recast into new, more advanced munitions. They might ultimately find their way into American battle lines as bullets, tanks, ships, or planes.
Such munitions, however, were increasingly in short supply in the summer of 1942. The government's war planners had warned as early as January that the nation's provisions of scrap metal were becoming dangerously inadequate. American stores of scrap were "said to be so low that at New Year's only one month's supply was on hand."z With steel plants beginning to slow or even halt their production in both Detroit and Youngstown, the truth was becoming as evident as it was unthinkable: without more scrap iron supplying the nation's factories, U.S. forces would soon begin to run out of munitions with which to fight.
There was, to be sure, no nationwide shortage of scrap on the home front. In backyards, attics, barns, ditches, garages, and factory storage sheds across the country, all sorts of scrap material awaited transport and eventual conversion to arms. Yet the public's awareness of the scrap, and the national willpower necessary to collect it, seemed to be missing.
Among the many people who found themselves obsessed with the scrap problem in the summer of 1942 was Henry Doorly, the publisher of Nebraska's largest daily, the Omaha World-Herald. In early July, Doorly read in his own newspaper about the scrap situation. Discussing the problem with his wife, Margaret Hitchcock Doorly, he realized that "while he could not do the job for the nation, he could at least do it in Nebraska, thereby setting an example for the naticm." He began to draft plans for a statewide scrap drive, one that would eventually be nicknamed "the Nebraska plan."s The newspaper's plan produced an intensive effort that prompted the state's citizens to locate and turn in over 67,000 tons of scrap material in only three weeks. That yield, including Phelps County's cannons, amounted to an unprecedented 102 pounds of scrap for every Nebraskan. By late September, newspapers across the country-with the backing of the Roosevelt administration-had adopted Doorly's plan for a nationwide scrap drive. In May 1943, the World-Herald was informed that its work on both drives had won a Pulitzer Prize for "the most distinguished and meritorious public service" by a newspaper in 1942.