Home Front – A Weed Went to War

Late in World War II, the common milkweed was often the only thing that kept a downed aviator or soaking-wet sailor from slipping beneath the waves. The plant’s floss was used as the all-important filler for flotation devices.

The northwest part of the Lower Peninsula, particularly the area around Petoskey, became the country’s picking and processing center for milkweed floss. By the time the war ended, an army of citizens—including schoolchildren—led by a visionary doctor had helped keep America’s servicemen safe from harm.

In the early 20th century, the typical filler for life preservers was a material called “kapok.” A cottony fiber extracted from the pods of the ceiba tree, kapok was cultivated in the rainforests of Asia. America’s primary source for this material was the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia).

Then, in 1937, came Japan’s invasion of China, which initiated World War II in the Pacific.

Enter Dr. Boris Berkman, a Chicago physician and inventor who was a champion of the milkweed, long considered a noxious weed to farmers. Berkman envisioned this plant as a new crop rivaling the soybean in usefulness. He suggested more than 20 uses for the plant’s stems, leaves, and pods: among them insulation, pressed board, oil, animal food, rayon, cellophane, dynamite, surgical dressing, and textile fibers. In his 1939 patent application for a milkweed gin to process the plant, he asserted that “milkweed is an American crop capable of producing untold benefits to the American farmer, and not subject to the uncertainties attending the importation of foreign raw materials.”

This October 1944 scene shows Six Mile School students pointing upwards to some of the 109 sacks of milkweed pods they gathered for the war effort. The bags are hanging in a corn crib near the school so the pods could dry out. Teacher Louise Behrend (left) looks on proudly.

This would be the first factory of its kind in the world. The Navy contract initially called for 200,000 pounds of milkweed floss production in 1942, then increased its request by 100,000 pounds for other experimental uses. Such an endeavor would require harvesting over 2 million pounds of ripe milkweed pods. The spot chosen to host this ambitious project was in the milkweed-rich hills along the Lake Michigan shore.

Picking was a low-tech, labor-intensive task, requiring some knowledge of the plant and the seasonal variations that affected it. It was crucial for processing that the pods be picked while they were ripe but not yet fully open. Too early, and the crop would be spoiled by moisture. Too late, and there would be no crop at all.

Pickers entered their fields knowing that it took approximately two full bags, or about 20 pounds of ripe pods, to produce enough floss for one life jacket; “Two Bags Save One Life” was the government slogan. This fact provided a simple message to all involved: that they were doing their part for the war effort.

Berkman continued to champion the milkweed cause, registering various patents including the use of the plant’s floss as an “ear defender” (ear plug) and clothing liner. But he was never able to raise interest in developing another processing facility.

Still, his achievements as the head of the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America did stand on their own. Under his leadership, it is estimated that enough material was collected and processed over the life of the Petoskey facility to fill 1.2 million life preservers.

Click on images to enlarge.

############################################################################################

Home Front Political Cartoons –

Sioiux City Times

Rochester Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chattanooga Times, the overburdened railroads

############################################################################################

Farewell Salutes – 

Kenneth Clark – Millport, NY; US Army Air Corps, WWII, Korea & Vietnam, pilot

Keith Cole – Grand Rapids, MI; US Army Air Corps, WWII, 492nd

Richard Johnson – Rockport, MA; US Air Force, Vietnam, Major, Academy graduate (Ret.)

John Karr – Washington D.C.; US Army, WWII, ETO

George Lynn – Gastonia, NC; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 11th Airborne Division / Korea, 2 Purple Hearts

Frank McPhillips – Burlington, VT; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, B-24 pilot, 8th Air Force

Harold Roberts Jr. – Melbourne, FL; US Air Force, Korea

Edward Smith – Broad Channel, NY; US Navy, WWII, Captain

Raymond Stucky – Newton, KS; US Army, WWII, Medical Corps

Brent Taylor – North Ogden, UT; US National Guard, Afghanistan, Major, KIA

############################################################################################

 

Advertisements

About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on November 8, 2018, in Home Front, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 145 Comments.

  1. That is too cool! What a great change of pace post, GP. And still perfectly within your blog category. I never knew this. It’s a fun thing to learn. Happy weekend hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! That was interesting and inspiring, I especially love to hear stories about how even the children contributed to the war effort. Those were definitely the days of loyalty, sacrifice, and patriotism. I don’t know if anything like that would occur in today’s self-absorbed society,

    Thanks again for another enlightening post.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    A very interesting but little known fact that should be better known.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderfully informative post about the high importance of the lowly Milkweed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved watching the Veteans’ Day movies. I will have to say that the following were shown to be, each of them, “a man’s man.” Randolph Scott, Jack Webb, Clint Eastwood.” None of them could ever be described as being any less of a man. Please keep up your good work.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: