It is hard to find a bleaker Christmas Day than Thursday, December 25, 1941, though Valley Forge in 1778, Washington, DC in 1862, New York in 1929, and the country, still in tears, in 1963, all kind of crowd in. Christmas Day of 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese and Manila was declared an open city on Boxing Day. The sweep continued throughout the winter and spring until Japan commanded nearly all the South Pacific and seemed unstoppable and everywhere.
That day, suffering from an undiagnosed dementia, my grandmother took my infant brother from his crib and hid him underneath a hedge in a corner of the yard as a column of Japanese armor clattered by and Japanese officers shouted orders as they turned off Myers Court and on to West Second in Medford, Oregon.
The country was shaken as it realized what it had to do and do very quickly. The Japanese advance in the Pacific made one of the most critical pieces, rubber, unavailable. It was America's number one agricultural import and fundamental to the design and manufacture of a remarkable number of things needed to protect the country.
On that Christmas Day, America was using rubber at a rate of 775,000 tons each year and had a stockpile of just 600,000 tons on hand. The Japanese had 97% of the world’s rubber supply and there was no clear plan for an alternative except to suck rubber from the civilian economy and apply it to the military. The country that would, in three years, build 50,000 bombers, 64,000 fighter aircraft, 15,000 cargo planes and 6,000 ships had not yet quite invented itself as that country.
Sometime that afternoon, in preparation for a hearing on the national rubber emergency, a planner in Washington, DC might have left the dinner table and his family to read over once again the distressing material he was getting ready for the briefing at which his boss would present the following impressive numbers:
It takes 32 pounds of rubber to put one soldier in the field.
It takes a half a ton of rubber to build a fighter aircraft, double that for a larger bomber.
A tank requires more than a ton of rubber, a battleship needs 75 tons.
As a hedge, the government also initiated testing on two natural rubber sources – Guayule, (why yool' e) a sagebrush looking plant that grows wild in the southwest of the US and Mexico, and the Russian Dandelion, another wild plant growing in Soviet Union Province of Kazakstan.
After the new year, with the complete attention of the government and some of its most capable citizens – financier Bernard Baruch, the President of Harvard, James Conant and the President of MIT, Karl Compton – assembled a strategy in just 30 days and announced it in June of 1942. It named a rubber director who had complete authority on the supply and use of the commodity. The country also set out on an immediate construction program to make synthetic rubber out of oil and began the construction or conversion of 51 factories to make the inputs necessary for a successful synthetic rubber product.
|Bob Emerson at the left, Kenzi Nojaki, standing at left|
Library of Congress (Photo by Dorthea Lange)
Guayule had been studied for many years and was a clear choice for the government research project that got underway in Salinas, California. Soon, 1,000 people were growing 32,000 acres of it and perfecting the process of squeezing the latex out of the plant.
At the same time, a Cal Tech professor in plant physiology named Bob Emerson was trying to figure out what he could do to help American citizens who had just been incarcerated at the Manzanar detention center across the state in the eastern California desert. Emerson was aware that there were several scientists behind the fence at Manzanar like Kenji Nozaki, a Chemist from the University of California and Morganlander Nishimura, a CalTech nuclear physicist. Emerson thought they should create their own Guayule project and they agreed and set to work.
The US Department of Agriculture would not give Manzanar seeds from the Salinas project, only discarded cuttings. With a hundred dollars worth of chemicals and the cuttings, the internees were soon growing 5 acres of Guayule and producing a stronger and more flexible product to the one coming out of the big farm at Salinas and, because they chose a different process for extracting the latex, they were getting two and a half times as much of it per acre. The USDA was not amused and cut off the water to the Manzanar Project for a time.
After much coaxing, the US received in 1942 two large sacks of dandelion seeds from the Russians and began to study the best soils and weather conditions for growing the plant. The project was carried out in 42 states and 160 different locations.By the end of 1944, the two alternative searches had produced over 100,000 tons of rubber and a vast knowledge base of each alternative. The products made from home grown rubber performed well. But the incredible success of the synthetic program ended all thought of new natural alternatives.
Toward the end of 1942, the four companies in the synthetic rubber program – Firestone, Goodyear, United States Rubber and Goodrich had produced 2,220 tons of rubber. By 1945, they and other companies were producing over 900,000 tons annually, ending the emergency.
Today, the rubber market is a mix of 60% synthetic and 40% natural rubber. The world mainly relies, once again, on the solitary Hevea rubber trees used by indigenes for ritual games and identified by a French scientific expedition in 1735, were scattered throughout the Brazilian and Peruvian rainforests. The inheritors of those trees are lined up in neat rows in Thailand, Indonesia, Maylasia, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India and harvested in the same way, the latex gathered in small cups below diagonal cuts in the tree bark.
Demand for both the synthetic and natural rubber is up, driven by the growing economies in China – now the largest rubber consumer in the world – as well as India, Brazil, Maylaysia and Indonesia who are now buying passenger and commercial car tires at a furious rate. According to the International Rubber Study Group, passenger tire consumption will double over the next decade from 800,000,000 tires a year to nearly 1.6 billion. At the same time, agricultural strategies in some countries, like Maylasia, divert land to biofuel production at the expense of rubber tree farms.
While the Russian Dandelion research was closed out in 1947 with a lengthy report and the Guayule plant experiment in Salinas plowed under and the results classified for many years, these products still live productive lives in different parts of the country.
Fred Anderson, a retired Boeing engineer, started a company called Delta Plant Technologies that is now associated with Ohio State University. The university is hybridizing new generations of dandelion plants and, using the 1947 report prepared by the Russian Dandelion Project, producing signficant product for the automotive industry. The Ford Motor Company recently announced it will be testing components made with Russian Dandelion natural rubber.
While the government decided to keep its Guayule research under wraps for commercial and political purposes, the professors at Manzanar did what professors do – publish. As a result, the basics of Guayule growth and their successful processing techniques stayed in the public domain.
Considering this story of America at its most muscular, I think of words I would like to substitute for "rubber." "Oil" comes to mind. What's yours?
The March to Dominance in the Pacific
Polling About Imprisoning Japanese Americans
1947 Report on the Russian Dandelion
Memorial to Robert Emerson after his death, in a plane crash, in 1959