How the Great War on War Surplus Got Won or Lost

Getting rid of $34 billion worth of old ships, planes and guns, not to mention seven million tubes of toothpaste, was no picnic

The two atom bombs dropped on Japan in the summer of 1945 brought to a sudden close a war everyone figured would last another year at least. But victorious America soon found itself engaged in another war not yet the Cold War but the war on war surplus. All over the world the stuff was piled up. There were tons of it. Not only more than 100,000 planes, 1,164 warships, 21,000 tanks and guns and ammunition almost beyond measure, but 1,800 religious chapels, 24 million folding chairs, legions of G.I. socks, entrenching tools and pup tents. Not to mention a flotilla of captured German and Japanese submarines, 17,000 homing pigeons and seven million tubes of unsquished toothpaste.

How did we get rid of it? James Chiles counts the ways, some of them funny, a few astonishing. Somehow, as he shows, with help from the War Assets Administration and 26 Congressional committees, everything was sold (at amazing prices a used B-29 Bomber for $350, for instance), or turned into scrap metal, or plowed under with bulldozers, or sunk at sea. Hollywood bought planes for future war films. Instant entrepreneurs bought G.I. gear to sell in a new kind of store Army-Navy stores some of which still exist. No swords were beaten into plowshares, but tank periscopes were fitted to children's kiddie-cars, amphibious vessels soldiered on, serving Boy Scout camps, cannon went to American Legion posts. Chiles even found a private citizen who bought 536 Sherman tanks. He still has one, in perfect running order. He and his veteran-neighbors use it for tinkering and a remembrance of things past.

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