The Great Knife Drive of 1943

History Columnist

The stories in the 1943 Miles City Star are fascinating. I knew some things about the collection drives of World War II but I never knew about the knife drive. 

There was a shortage of steel. Making knives was not at the top of the list of priorities. So the government called on patriotic citizens to donate fixed blade hunting knives that could be used specifically in the jungles of the South Pacific and the citizenry responded.

For every knife that was donated, there was a story in the Star. 

“When Dr. L. C. Bruning was practicing his profession in Miles City from 45 to 50 years ago, he had occasion to enter the armed services during the rebellion — Aguinaldo — in the Philippine Islands shortly after the beginning of the present century. When he came back, he brought along ‘a regular fellow’ in the form of a Filipino machete which has been kept as a relic, and is now released by Mrs. M.G. Polk, who received it from Dr. Bruning, for the boys in the service.”

In the same column was this knife story: “‘This knife, the blade made from a file, attached to a brass pipe,’ said Davy O’Connor this morning, ‘may not be classic like some of the fine types of knives you have in your collection, yet when put to the test, will stand up with the best of them.’ Davy brought the knife in this morning with the laconic expression: ‘Give this weapon to the boys in the South Seas, and I wish them all the luck in the world.’

“Speaking of the knife he donated to the collection, Fred Bitle said that his father bought it for him when he was 10 years of age, which, Fred admits, ‘Ought to make this knife about 50 years of age. At least, it is old enough with the sharp edge it carries so well to go to work for Uncle Sam through the medium of one of his nephews in the service over in the South Pacific.’ “

Another knife story I liked was this. “A knife, a sort of a combination between a bolo and a machete, was brought in today by Ben Toennis. ‘I have had this knife for about 20 years,’ said Toenis. ‘I got it from another fellow, whom I presume had use for it use in the first World War. You will notice the blade is marked. On one side, at the bottom appears: U.S.A. 1916 with an insignia. On the other side, U.S.A. 32662.’ It weighs better than a pound.”

I could fill up pages with those stories but I am also interested in what happened to those knives.

Now I know that some of the collection drives during World War II were very useful but there were others, such as aluminum drives, which turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. I was curious to know if any of these knives made itto the South Seas.

The Star noted it was collecting the knives to send to San Francisco, where the military would further distribute them. 

With assistance from my older brother, Bill Freese, who is also interested in history and better at web searching than I am, I found out the knives, at least some of them, got where they were supposed to go.

On a site called “The Hanneman Archive,” created, obviously, by the Hanneman family, there is a story of knife. “When the United States was drawn into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the war effort was put forth by everyone from soldiers at the front to school children at home. Young Edward J. Mulqueen of Cudahy, Wisconsin, wanted to do his part, so he donated his prized hunting knife to the U.S. military.

“An 11-year-old student at St. Frederick’s Catholic School, Mulqueen read about the shortages of materials for the war effort. Newspapers carried pleas for donation of quality knives, since the hardened steel used in the blades was scarce. Eddie didn’t hesitate. In late 1942, he carefully packaged up his knife and mailed it to the address published in the newspaper. He was proud to do his part. After all, with two brothers headed for the Pacific Theater (and later a third) he had a personal stake in the fight.”

The boy received a letter from the man who received his knife. The website explains “Stationed in the Fiji Islands, Cpl. Lucas R. Boyson was glad to receive the knife sent all the way from Wisconsin. Boyson, 29, was even more impressed that an elementary school student was behind the donation. “I was fortunate to receive your knife and to say it was a treat would be to put it mildly,” Boyson wrote in a letter to Mulqueen on Feb. 14, 1943. “It is grand to cut stalks of sugar cane or bamboo sticks and for that matter general miscellaneous uses. I shall carry it with me always and each time I use it, I’ll whisper a ‘thanks to Eddie.’ ”

Another knife story comes from a book called “World War II Arroyo Grande” by Jim Gregory. The book notes “A local businessman, Clayton Conrow,  donated a knife to one of the periodic war drives and the knife ended up in the hands of a crew member of the hospital ship Samaritan. The sailor showed the knife, with Clayton’s name carved into the handle, to his best friend, Pharmacist’s Mate Kenyon Conrow, Clayton’s son.”

Perhaps a few years down the line, I will be doing a Stardust and there will be a story about one of those knives and we will know what happened to it. For now, I just love reading the stories of the sacrifices we made 75 years ago.

(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)