By Bob Podurgiel
Common Milkweed seed pods are about 4 inches long, inflated looking and covered in little bumpy projections. They are green initially, turning brown as they mature. They split open revealing 50-100 seeds each with a white, fluffy coma (“parachute”) that allows wind dispersal (National Park Service)
On warm summer days, grade school student John Oyler liked to pick blackberries growing profusely on the hillsides along Washington Pike in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, but throughout World War II he searched for another plant on those same hillsides, this time as part of his contribution to the war effort.
“We collected milkweed seed pods in onion sacks, then hung them along fences to dry. Later they would be washed and the military would collect the pods. The entire grade school would collect milkweed. We were scared stiff. Everybody wanted to do what we could to help the war effort,” he said.
Bridgeville wasn’t the only town where young people searched for milkweed during the war.
Third-grade-student, Clyde Seigler, along with his younger brother Ralph, in first grade at the time, scoured the countryside of Brooke County, in the Northern West Virginia Panhandle, looking for milkweed during the late summer and early fall when the seed pods ripened.
They knew exactly where to look.
“Milkweed grew all through the hayfields. Farmers didn’t like it because the cows couldn’t eat it,” Clyde Seigler said.
Not only did the farmers not like milkweed, the US Department of Agriculture had classified the plant as a “noxious weed.” Farmers burned it, yanked it out of the ground, or plowed it under in the spring.
All of that was about to change.
Soon after the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, they unleashed a lightning offensive to capture the resources of the Dutch East Indies, present day Indonesia. The Japanese Imperial Army and Navy quickly overwhelmed a hastily gathered defense force of Dutch, English, and Australian troops, supported by an artillery regiment from Texas.
The Japanese were after the abundant resources on the islands of the Dutch East Indies, many of them rich in oil, rubber, and kapok. While most people are familiar with the strategic importance of rubber and oil, kapok in 1941 was just as vital.
Harvested from the seed pods of the ceiba tree growing on the island of Java, kapok was a buoyant, cotton-like fiber used by almost every nation to fill the life jackets of airmen and sailors.
American Servicemen Are Drowning
With the supply of kapok cut off by the Japanese, the U.S. War Department desperately needed a substitute. Much of the war would be fought over and in the waters of the Pacific, ranging from the icy waters off the coast of Alaska, where Americans fought the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands, to the tropical waters of the Coral Sea in the South Pacific.
Americans fighting in the European Theatre of Operations in the early part of the war faced a similar, perhaps even more drastic problem.
German U-boat commanders called 1942 the “happy time.” Lurking off the Atlantic coast of the United States, U-boats sank 232 ships, killing 5,000 seamen and passengers in their relentless assault on American shipping.
Armed with deadly torpedoes that could break the keel of a ship and send a freighter or oil tanker to the bottom of the sea in a matter of minutes, the U-boats threatened to strangle the flow of supplies from America to England, vital to keeping the British in the war.
Newspaper clipping of Pittsburgh children protecting milkweed plants (Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center)
Things weren’t much better for the air crews of the American 8th Air Force, flying bomber missions in B-17s over Nazi-occupied Europe. Often they had to fly from England over the icy waters of the North Sea on missions to Europe then return over those same waters after the bombing mission, often in planes heavily damaged by German flak and fighter attacks. Many planes didn’t make it back to England, ditching in the frigid water.
Casualties in those early days of the war among our bomber crews from drowning were severely hampering our ability to wage the air war over Europe.
The chances of an American flier surviving a crash into the waters of the North Sea or North Atlantic were only about six percent in 1942 through the first half of 1943, a U.S. Air Force Air/Sea Rescue study released after the war found.
The answer to America’s pressing need to save our sailors and airmen from drowning came from an enterprising physician and inventor from Chicago named Boris Berkman, and he would rely on school-age children in the United States and Canada to make his plan work.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Dr. Berkman advocated for the many products to be made from milkweed, ranging from pressboard and insulation to surgical dressing. In 1939, he filed a patent application for a milkweed gin to process the plant.
When the call went out from the War Department in 1942 for a kapok substitute, Dr. Berkman believed the floss from inside the milkweed seed pods could not only replace kapok, but would work even better as a filler for life preservers and flight jackets.
After contacting the Navy, he launched a series of tests with Navy personnel on milkweed floss to prove his theory.
Common milkweed seeds form in pods that look like little green bananas. When the seed pods crack open in the fall or late summer, depending on weather conditions, the seeds drift on the wind attached to silky white threads called floss. The floss acted like a tiny parachute to keep the seeds aloft drifting on the breeze. If the seeds landed on soil exposed to full sun, a new plant would emerge the next year.
Never grown as a commercial crop, common milkweed flourished in ditches, along roads and railways, and in farmer’s fields, anywhere where there was a bare patch of soil and plenty of sunlight.
Dr. Berkman contacted the Navy, and with the cooperation of Navy personnel, he conducted a series of tests on milkweed to prove his theory that it could work as fill for life preservers and flight vests.
The tests found one pound of milkweed floss was as warm as wool, but six times as light, and it was six times as buoyant as cork. A life jacket filled with floss could keep a 150-pound man afloat for more than 40 hours. Twenty pounds of floss was required to make one life jacket to save a sailor or aviator from drowning.
He presented his findings to a congressional agriculture committee in March 942. Soon afterward, the government removed milkweed’s classification as a “noxious weed” and changed it to a “strategic wartime material.” The race was now on to collect as much milkweed as possible when the seed pods matured in the late summer and early fall of 1942.
The Harvest Begins
Dr. Berkman set up a processing plant for milkweed in the tiny town of Petroskey, Michigan, using the design for the milkweed gin he had received a patent for in 1939 to separate the floss from seeds in the milkweed pods.
Milkweed seed pod and floss.
How to collect the seed pods, however, containing the precious silky floss presented a challenge. While milkweed grew throughout the Appalachian Mountains region and into Ohio, Michigan, and Southern Canada, it couldn’t be harvested with traditional agricultural methods using tractors. The plant seemed to grow at random, like blackberries, a patch and there.
Dr. Berkman huddled with military officials, and they decided to reach out to American school children, Boy and Girls Scout troops, and community groups throughout the country, but American school children would make up the bulk of the collection force.
Rear Admiral E.L. Cochrane, chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ships, urged citizens “who want to contribute directly to victory and save the lives of American fighting men” to collect milkweed.
The government came up with the slogan, “Two bags (of milkweed pods) save one life.”
Newspapers like the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph publicized the need for milkweed, and even launched a “milkweed drive,” offering $500 in prizes. An ad in the paper asked young people to become members of the Sun-Telegraph Junior Victory Army, who when they signed the pledge, would promise “that all of the precious milkweed in my neighborhood is not destroyed and that it is harvested at the proper time. I do this as my help in keeping the production of life jackets for our fighting men at top peak.”
Mature Monarch butterfly feeding on milkweed nectar (Jennifer Prince CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Hundreds of children signed the pledge. They were joined by a veritable army of young people searching for milkweed East of the Mississippi River and by children in Canada’s Ontario and Quebec. During the war, children such as Clyde Seigler collected enough floss to fill more than 1.2 million life vests for America’s fighting men and women, saving thousands of lives.
Western Pennsylvania, like West Virginia, proved a good region for harvesting milkweed. Not only was the city of Pittsburgh surrounded by farm fields and sunny hillsides where milkweed thrived, but the hardy plant also grew in vacant lots and along roadsides in the industrial heart of the city and the Monongahela River Valley.
The Navy initially requested 200,000 pounds of milkweed floss in 1942, then ordered another 100,000 pounds. Demand for floss would increase exponentially. In 1943, the Navy alone ordered 1.5 million pounds of floss, meaning the children and volunteers faced the difficult task of collecting 30 million pounds of milkweed pods.
They Were Just Glad to Help
Thanks to the efforts of youngsters like John Oyler and Clyde and Ralph Seigler, the country was able to meet the growing demand for milkweed by the military throughout the war. After the war, synthetic fibers were developed that would replace the need for milkweed floss.
There was so much need for the milkweed floss the government during the war began to pay a bounty for the pods. The going rate was twenty-cents a bag.
Clyde Seigler said he didn’t take any money for the seed pods he and his brother Ralph collected.
“It was just a good thing to do. Everyone wanted to help the war effort. It was a serious time,” he said.
Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph clipping (Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center)
He remembers farmers contributing to scrap metal drives by pulling rusty tractors out of fields – the same fields where milkweed flourished.
Today Clyde still has a connection to milkweed. Upon learning last year that the monarch butterfly, the beautiful orange and black butterfly he would often see on his walks in the countryside of West Virginia, was endangered he decided to plant the former “noxious weed” on property he owns in Clinton, Pennsylvania. His brother Ralph does the same thing on his property in nearby Oakdale.
Turns out the plant they once harvested to save the lives of American flyers and sailors also is vital to the lives of monarch butterflies. They lay their eggs on the plant, and its leaves are the caterpillars’ only source of nourishment before they build a chrysalis and emerge as new butterflies.
Milkweed flowers also supply nectar to fuel the mature monarchs on their yearly migration from the mountains of Central Mexico through the United States into Canada in the summer, then back again to Mexico in the late summer and early fall.
Each year, monarchs fly upwards of 3,000 miles in the longest yearly migration of an insect species in the world. It takes five generations of monarchs to complete the full cycle of the migration from Mexico to Canada and back again.
Both Clyde and Ralph Seigler, now in their 80s, saw collecting milkweed pods as part of their patriotic duty to help the country and save the lives of airmen and sailors during a time of war. Today they are still saving flyers, but of a different sort – the monarch butterfly.
Bob Podurgiel is a free-lance writer who lives in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. His father Walter Podurgiel served with the 30th Infantry Division in World War II, fighting in France, Belgium and Germany. Parts of this story appeared previously in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette goodness section in October, 2022.