During World War II, the enormous demand for steel, aluminum, and other metals led the War Production Board to launch a nationwide campaign to salvage scrap. Everyone from state and local Defense Councils to the Boy Scouts combed local communities for sources of scrap metal that could be melted down and re-purposed for ships, guns, vehicles, and other war materiels.
As part of this national effort, Florida’s State Defense Council and Department of Education teamed up to develop the Junior Scrap Army program in 1942. State School Superintendent Colin English challenged every pupil in the Sunshine State to collect as much scrap metal as possible and turn it in at their local schools, where it would be weighed. The program was competitive; the schools and individuals collecting the most scrap would be entitled to a prize.
The enthusiasm exhibited by Florida’s school children in this competition was incredible. One student reportedly was out until nearly midnight on the very last night before the contest deadline with her grandfather’s truck, collecting as much metal as possible to add to her total. In Perry, pupils from a physical education class dug up ice manufacturing equipment that had been discarded and buried nearly twenty years earlier. At least four students collected over a thousand pounds of scrap each, and Polk County reported collecting 375 pounds of old keys alone for re-purposing. The heat of the competition reached even into the highest levels of state government, as Governor Spessard Holland accepted a challenge from California Governor Culbert L. Olson to see which state could collect the most metal on a per capita basis.
When the dust settled after a month of scrapping, Green Acres and Loxahatchee schools of Palm Beach County and Cape Florida School of Dade County emerged as the top collecting schools. Each won the right to send a delegate to participate in the dedication and launching of the Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr., named after the Madison County, Florida airman who was among the first to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The top three individual collectors also earned the right to attend and represent the state. Gwendolyn Willcocks, 15, from Palm Beach High School, personally collected 101,116 pounds of scrap metal. Joining her was Betty Lou Smith, 10, of Coral Gables Elementary School, who collected 156,160 pounds, and Dale Maxwell, 9, of Pahokee, who collected a whopping 202,650 pounds of scrap metal for the drive.
The six met in Jacksonville for a tour that included stops in Lake City, Madison, and Tallahassee before moving on to Mobile for the dedication and launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Gwendolyn Willcocks broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull while Mary Lou Smith used a hatchet to cut the ship loose and allow it to enter the water for service. Dale Maxwell, whose enormous contribution to the drive made him both the state and national scrap collecting champion, said a few words to the crowd. In describing his triumph, he said, “I didn’t set out to be top collector. I wanted to do my part for the war effort. And I haven’t stopped by any means. I shall continue to collect scrap as long as this war lasts.”
This is just one of the many stories of courageous homefront contributions by Floridians during World War II. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the war effort in Florida, and check out our learning unit on the subject.
Most of the photos in this post are from the subject files of the State Defense Council of Florida, an agency charged with preparing Florida and Floridians for the challenges of World War II. The collection (Series 419) is available to researchers at the State Archives in Tallahassee.