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Steel pennies and Hawaii dollars: US-issued currency came in all shapes and colors during World War II--and it was made of the darnedest things.

Money is always in demand. WWII Americans knew that better than anyone; after all, they had lived through the Great Depression. Then it was wartime, and the economy boomed overnight. Most Americans had jobs, jobs that paid well. Suddenly it was currency itself that was in demand--more bills and coins to keep up with the explosion of earning, paying, buying, and selling.

More money than ever was circulating through the country. A US Treasury report found that Americans exchanged $11 billion in cash and coin in 1942--$87 per person. As the demand for currency spiked, so did the demand for metals that were used, not only in certain coins, but also in war materiel. Hoping to stretch resources, authorities urged Americans to keep coins in circulation rather than hoard them. Citizens from all corners of the nation chimed in with well-meaning suggestions ranging from having vending machine operators empty their coin boxes more often to breaking open children's piggy banks. But these ideas were not enough. Eventually nickels were minted without any nickel in them and pennies were made of zinc-coated steel and, later, from recycled brass rifle and artillery shells.


The Money of 1941

Some of the coins of 1941 are still around today. The familiar Abraham Lincoln penny dates back to 1909, though the reverse side was different then. The image of the Lincoln Memorial replaced wheat stalks in 1959. The Thomas Jefferson nickel debuted in 1938, nudging aside the 25-yearold coin known as the Indian Head nickel or buffalo nickel. The George Washington quarter first appeared in 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth.

Other coins of 1941 are long gone. The 1916 Mercury dime, bearing the head and winged helmet of the ancient Roman messenger god, was replaced in 1945 by the Franklin Roosevelt dime. The 1916 Walking Liberty half-dollar, depicting a graceful Lady Liberty, gave way to the Benjamin Franklin half-dollar in 1947. Old coins such as the Indian Head cent (1858-1909); the V nickel (1883-1913), featuring a large Roman numeral V on its reverse side to delineate the denomination; and the Standing Liberty quarter (1916-1930), with its stationary Lady Liberty, still turned up during the war in handfuls of change.

Paper notes bore portraits of the same historical figures as today's bills: Washington on the $1, Jefferson on the $2, Lincoln on the $5, Alexander Hamilton on the $10, Andrew Jackson on the $20, Ulysses S. Grant on the $50, and Franklin on the $100. High-denomination notes existed, but these $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 notes were rarely seen outside finance circles. $2 bills circulated more than they do today, but were still relatively rare. There was no slot for them in cash drawers, and they had a vague reputation for being unlucky. Many people tore a corner off a $2 before spending it, to ward off any bad luck.

America's enemies seemed to think the $2 was unlucky, too. Newspapers reported that while enemy intelligence services stockpiled US currency to finance their activities in the States, spies didn't bother with $2s. They may have figured that spending them would draw unwanted attention.

Steel Pennies and Silver Nickels

All Americans had to cope with shortages and rationing. That included the staff of the US Mint. The 4,600 tons of copper that went into pennies in 1942 would have filled the copper requirements of two navy cruisers, 120 field guns, 12,454 B-17 Flying Fortresses, or 1.25 million artillery shells. So, the mint was forced to cut back on copper use. Some suggested making pennies from plastic, but plastic coins would not work in vending machines. Casting pennies from a metal other than copper was the only feasible solution. In January 1943 a new penny made of steel with a thin coating of zinc replaced the traditional mostly copper penny.



Newspapers across the country grumbled about the steel pennies. Shiny new ones looked silvery and were mistaken for dimes by harried bartenders, bus and streetcar conductors, and clerks in shops and restaurants. After the coins suffered a hit of handling, the zinc turned to a dull, dark gray that made them look dirty. Soon after that they began to rust. The steel also caused problems in vending machines, clashing with the magnets used to detect steel slugs.

A billion of what the Associated Press called "unlovely and unloved dime-like pennies" were minted during 1943. The mint finally gave up on steel pennies after 1943 and began casting one-cent coins of brass from spent rifle cartridges and artillery shell casings recovered from firing ranges. The brass-casing pennies were minted in 1944 and 1945.

Nickel was also a vital war metal, so in the middle of 1942, the mint changed the makeup of its five-cent coin. The resulting nickel-less nickel was made of an alloy of 9 percent manganese, 56 percent copper, and 35 percent silver. The value of the silver alone in these coins is more than 50 cents today. War nickels were easy to recognize when they turned up in the change pile. Fresh from the mint, they had a bright silver tone, but like the zinc-coated steel pennies, they tarnished in no time and then looked notably darker than regular nickels. Another difference was the large initial floating in the sky over Jefferson's home, Monticello, on the coin's reverse side. P stood for Philadelphia, D for Denver, and S for San Francisco. Before and after the nickels of 1942-1945, Philadelphia coins had no mint mark at all, and the D and S marks were tiny and tucked away near Monticello's right edge.


Hawaii and North Africa Bills

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US military and civilian personnel flowed into Hawaii, followed by an increased supply of money to pay them and otherwise fund their efforts. The government feared that if the Japanese attacked again and managed to capture the islands, they would gain millions of dollars in cash from banks and military posts. To prevent such a potential financial windfall for the enemy, all notes released to circulate in the Hawaiian Islands were overprinted with the word "Hawaii" on the front and back. That way, if the islands fell, all currency inscribed with "Hawaii" would simply be declared worthless. The Hawaii bills were the only bills authorized for use in the islands between August 1942 and October 21, 1944.

The mint followed a similar plan when the invasion of North Africa began in November 1942. Notes for the North Africa theater of operations were specially minted silver certificates (silver certificates entitled the bearer to present them to the US Treasury and receive the face value in silver.). The certificates minted for North Africa were printed with a yellow seal on the front instead of the blue seal used on normal silver certificates. If the Germans captured large amounts of cash, the yellow-seal notes could be declared invalid, like the Hawaii bills. These same bills were used in Sicily in 1943.

Short Snorters

When I was in the sixth grade, a classmate brought in an impressive WWII collectible for show-and-tell. In front of the class, he unfurled a three-foot-long roll of foreign bills of various sizes and colors taped and stapled together. Each bill was covered with autographs, dates, and names of places where the kid's father had been during World War II. Many Americans put similar souvenir rolls together. They called them "short snorters." Gin Sandefer, a Red Cross director with General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell's US troops in Burma, told the Associated Press in 1944 that he had compiled a short snorter that was more than 1,000 feet long.

The name was surely an odd one. Some newspaper writers took stabs at its origin. It seemed to date back to the 1920s, when airplane pilots ordered small drinks at the bar that they called "short snorts." A rookie pilot had to pay for the drinks unless he could prove he had been around a little while--that he was a "short snorter"--by producing a dollar bill signed by fellow pilots.

Fortunately for World War IPs short snorter set, and for WWII Americans in general, there was money to spare. It may have looked a little different from what they had grown up with, but it still bought groceries at the store, smokes at the canteen, gas at the pump, or a round at the bar.

David A. Norris of 'Wilmington, North Carolina, contributed an article on V-Mail to our December 2008 issue.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stashing your WWII cash.

A lot of kids and grandkids of Americans who lived through the 1940s, as well as frequent patrons of yard sales and flea markets, are lucky enough to own coins and notes from the WWII era. These artifacts from a bygone age are old and delicate. They need to be treated properly and stored to keep them in top condition for future generations to appreciate.

Coins and notes should be protected in plastic archival holders, which you can buy in hobby shops, from online coin dealers, or through ads in coin magazines. Whatever you do, never laminate paper money. It destroys the collector value and can damage a bill if it happens to crumple during the lamination process.

If a coin or bill has family significance, enclose a note with it in its holder (but use acid-free paper for your note, and make sure no ink or inked surfaces touch the bill). Be sure to write where the item came from and tell any story associated with it. One day in an antique shop, I found a miniature short snorter, a single 10-cent military note with "Okinawa May 17, 1945" written on it in blue fountain pen ink. But what about who was on Okinawa in 1945? What did this person see and experience in the Pacific? How did this bill end up in his pocket? Those questions remain unanswered. The personal details that could make that artifact truly compelling are probably lost forever.


--David A. Norris
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Author:Norris, David A.
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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