The move into the Second World War by the United States brought change for this country’s citizens. The most important was in the lives of the 16 million men and women who served during the war, and the over 400,000 who gave their lives.
Back at home communities coped with rationing of gasoline, sugar, tires, and other products to support the war effort. Other steps that both young and old were asked to take were buying war bonds and collecting scrap metal and rubber.
Only hours after Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked the Philippines and the American forces stationed there. This successful invasion and bombing campaign gave Japan control of the Dutch East Indies’ oil reserves and access to abundant raw materials in the region.
Access to oil was one of the primary causes of Japanese aggression, but another of these resources was kapok, a fiber obtained from the fruit of kapok tree that grows in the rainforests of that area. The fiber, light and very buoyant, was used in life preservers by both the military and civilians.
As a replacement for this critical component of life vests was needed, the American industry began searching for likely alternatives. The most effective substitute was milkweed floss, with tests showing that a pound of this fiber would keep an adult afloat for over 40 hours.
Milkweed was quickly given the status of a wartime strategic material and the government allocated funds for its collection and processing. Soon the call went out to pick milkweed pods, with open mesh bags being distributed to schools in regions where milkweed was prevalent.
In Waterford, Saratoga County, a drive to pick the pods was organized by the local Lions Club, with members of area Scout Troops, 4-H Clubs, and students from the Waterford Schools pitching in. As an incentive to participate the Waterford Lions Club offered prizes of three dollars, two dollars, and one dollar to boys and girls who collected the greatest number of filled bags.
With an estimated half-million pounds needed to make life vests for the military in 1944, every bag picked was considered vitally important. In the spring of 1945, milkweed pods collected around the Saratoga County region were brought to the county fair grounds in Ballston Spa for shipment to the processing plant in Michigan.
The 8,000 bags that had been collected from Saratoga, Warren, and Washington Counties would provide enough floss to fill four thousand life vests. Overall, New York State collected enough pods to exceed its goal of gathering enough milkweed to fill over a quarter-million life jackets.
The milkweed needed to be picked before they broke open and scattered the floss, leaving only a small window of opportunity to collect the pods. Once filled, the mesh collection bags were hung outside to dry, with two bags needed to fill one life vest.
In many counties, it was the 4-H Club agents who oversaw the work of distributing the collection bags. One example was Samuel B. Dorrance, the agent for Rensselaer County, who passed out two thousand of these open mesh bags.
In a newspaper account of his efforts, published in the September 15, 1944, Troy Record, he gave these instructions for collecting the pods:
“When the seeds are brown, the pods are ready for picking but definitely not before, as they will mold,” he said. “Those in the northern part of the county are not yet ready. It isn’t necessary to examine each pod if a test shows that the majority of the seeds are ripe.”
He continued with the necessity of leaving the bags out to dry for at least two weeks, preferably hanging them from a fence at least a foot off the ground, after which they could be brought indoors.
With the slogan of “Don’t Let Our Sailor’s Sink” 4-H boys and girls roamed the countryside collecting milkweed from fence rows and open fields. Lifelong Saratoga County resident Marion Crandall shared this memory of that time while growing up in Bacon Hill, a farming community near Schuylerville:
“In the orchard there were a lot of milkweeds… they needed kapok for the war… for life preservers… it was a 4-H project, so we went to the orchard, picked milkweed pods, and put them in big onion bags, mesh bags.”
The efforts of the young people in Bacon Hill were a success, as by September of 1944 they had collected eleven bags of milkweed pods.
With the close of the war in September of 1945, collection of milkweed floss was no longer necessary, and the program was ended.
While it is impossible to count the number of lives that were saved through this work by the children of America, what they accomplished was vitally important to the war effort and even now we can look back with pride at what they achieved.
Illustrations, from above: Milkweed pods collected in Massachusetts in 1944; Canadian World War Two milkweed collection propaganda; milkweed pod and floss illustration by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol; and U.S. sailors who survived 17 hours after the sinking of their vessel during World War Two with the aid of life vests (Coast Guard photo).