There are many who would say that World War II was won both by the bravery of the American and Allied soldiers and by the industrial might of U.S. factories. When the war ended, the industrial war machine did not stop overnight. Surplus war materiel had to be disposed of somehow, and much of the surplus military equipment found its way onto farms.
In February 1946 – six months after the war officially ended – the War Department announced that there would be some $40 million worth of clothing and other materiel declared surplus. Small surplus shops across the country rushed to buy up the stuff and sell it to their customers. Farmers are always looking for bargains, so they rushed to stock up.
One farmer in Fairfax, Virginia, bought complete uniforms for his hired help so they could work comfortably. But his plan had an unintended consequence. When one of the farm hands was walking down the street in his “work clothes,” the Armed Forces Police arrested him for not being in a proper uniform. It took the worker a few hours to convince the authorities that he wasn’t in the Army and, therefore, couldn’t be “out of uniform.”
Readers of Nebraska Farmer magazine found ads for “Startling War Surplus Bargains!” One company out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, offered field jackets, nylon parachute cord, aviator sunglasses, watches, and 15,000 pairs of O. D. wool serge pants. “Yes, less than the cost of the cheapest overall… Cleaned and pressed by the QM [Quarter Master] Corps.”
Another company advertised a “Modern flame thrower” claiming it “destroys weeds, tree stumps, splits rocks, disinfects, irrigates, 100 practical uses.” All for $22. It is not known whether or not these were surplus units, but the company undoubtedly benefited from the fame that flame throwers gained from wartime newsreels, posters and news stories.
Even before the war ended, a quasi-governmental agency was advertising surplus electric power units in Nebraska Farmer. The gas powered generators would run 10, 60-watt lamps, two pumps for water in the house and barn, a small brooder and a milking machine – all for between $200 and $480.
During the war, the U.S. military used lots of diesel engines. Most pre-war diesel manufacturers saw their entire production output dedicated to military use. They were used in trucks, tanks, ships and submarines. There were so many diesels that the Army had to train a host of mechanics to service them. After the war, some of those engines found their way onto farms as irrigation power units and generators. Others showed up in tractors. And many of the G.I. diesel mechanics became mechanics in their hometowns. The diesel industry took off.
Holly Miller bought his first vehicle from a war surplus dealer, “a rough riding Dodge pickup.” He saw a lot of surplus material including liquid fertilizer tanks made from airplane motor shipping cases.
While the Biblical admonition to beat swords into plowshares did not actually come true after World War II, war materiel did find new peacetime uses on the farms and rural communities.