Surplus History, Part 2: Arsenal of Democracy

There’s lot’s of talk about a “golden age” of military surplus stores: a period of overflowing surplus, everything dirt cheap, a store on every corner and more. $50 Jeeps packed in a crate!

This period is romanticized sometimes by the old timers. But there’s some truth.

World War II produced quantities of military surplus on a scale never seen before.

Starting in about 1946 and moving onward into the 80’s and early 90’s, World War II surplus was available in first overwhelming quantities, then smaller quantities, then finally teeny-tiny quantities…before finally being limited to serious (mostly expensive) collector items.

How was there enough surplus from one single conflict to keep a nation-wide swath of surplus stores stocked for four decades of shopping?


Full Throttle War Manufacturing

Back in the 1930’s, fresh from the pain of World War I and seeing a new World War building in Europe, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts to try to keep the United States out of the escalating new conflict.

But as the German Third Reich expanded and grew, chewing up its former neighbors and committing atrocity after atrocity, many in the U.S. government looked for ways to get around these Acts and get necessary war supplies into the hands of Allied nations.

This effort began with a “cash-and-carry” provision in the Neutrality Act of 1937. But as the situation in Great Britain and France continued to worsen, it became obvious the mighty economy of the United States needed to begin manufacturing war-related supplies on a grand scale.


Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt


In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the airwaves to deliver a speech titled “The Arsenal of Democracy” to the American people.

The short version: America would be building the tools to make Democracy in Europe flourish. It didn’t matter if a nation could pay, they would get what they needed.

In effect, years before America joined the War they were already fighting the war with factories. And when the United States formally declared war in 1941 and started sending its troops around the world, the economic engine only exploded further.

It’s very difficult to say exactly how much surplus ended up on the market. But looking at the raw numbers of America’s contribution, it’s easy to make a generalized guess.

Over 16 million human beings served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II, with a fully mobilized war economy churning out uniforms, weapons, helmets, food and other supplies for those 16 million plus many more just in case. Over 74% of the total United States GDP was spent on the war effort, and in today’s dollars, that translates to $4.5 trillion.

By the time of Germany’s surrender in 1945, over 18 million German troops had served in its armed forces. When the Allied nations split up seized war material, they were faced with warehouses upon warehouses filled with German supplies. Over 6 million people had served in the Japanese armed forces, and some small amounts of this material came into Allied possession as well.


Piles of captured German war surplus
Piles of captured German war surplus


The Military Surplus Boom

Much of this windfall of military surplus was sunk, buried or destroyed in other ways.

Some was donated back to former Axis nations to help them rebuild their ruined infrastructure. In post-war West Germany, an entire government apparatus (“Staatliche Erfassungsgesellschaft fuer oeffentliches Gut” or STEG) was created to dole out American and German war surplus for the purpose of reconstruction.

Surplus was donated to other Allied countries such as France and the U.K.

But after all that, a massive amount of material ended up coming home to America. By the end of 1946, U.S. military bases and storehouses were overflowing with the remaining stock of World War II surplus.



In the economic boom of the 1950’s the “government auction” became such a part of America that mainstream radio sitcoms were covering the action. The next government auction around the corner might have life rafts, flare guns, weather balloons or gallons of house paint. All for pennies on the dollar.

Tales are told of entire convention centers being opened up to massive surplus auctions, with the walls stacked high with U.S. G.I. rifles, bayonets, uniforms, canteens, belts, helmets, as well as plenty of all the same of their German counterparts

At government auction, a lucky future entrepreneur could win a single auction of mixed military surplus goods to stock their entire store.

Much like Francis Bannerman experienced with his Civil War auctions, winning one or two government auctions in the 1950’s gave the blossoming neighborhood Army surplus store all it needed to continue satisfying customers for years.

But what happens when the auctions start to dry up?

Dwindling Supply Catches Up to Demand

This military surplus “Golden Age” was on borrowed time the moment it started.

As supplies finally began to get scarce, the corner mom n’ pop Army Surplus store faced competition from other, more well-run stores, larger companies and ever collectors from overseas.

Prices started rising, and if a store owner didn’t raise prices fast enough an entire store could find its most valuable merchandise bought out overnight by fast-moving speculators trying to build a new market on World War II “Militaria”, aka collectibles.

There’s still plenty of military surplus, but it goes to those who are able to move quickest on the auctions, or locate the other limited supplies as they appear.

One of the biggest events to hit the world of military surplus happened in 1991, when Global Communism unexpectedly found itself on life support.

Legions of former Soviet satellite states declared independence and found their warehouses stocked with state-sponsored war surplus, manufactured for a global military confrontation that would never happen.

But the rise of Cold War surplus is a whole different story, and you’ll have to wait for Part 3.


Further Reading

The Rise and Fall of the Military Surplus Store

Vehicle Auctions after World War II

Surplus Vehicle Boneyards

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8 Responses to “Surplus History, Part 2: Arsenal of Democracy”

  1. Charlie

    Interesting article. I remember buying an M8A1scabbard and canvas compass pouches for 89 cents at a surplus store in the late 70s. There were bins and crates full of stuff like that. The great thing about it is that the stuff lasts forever. Now of course 89 cents won’t cover the sales tax on those things. Look forward to the next article.

    • john pope

      when I was a sophomore in h.s. worked at a store similar to todays target. they sold surplus .303 lee-enfield for $11.50 for infantree mdl. $14.00 for jungle carbine. packed in waxpaper and cosmoline in original wooden packing crates. that was around 1964. at the time I was making .85 cents per hr.

  2. Eugene Phillips

    I have a restored M38A1 Korean War Jeep, and I follow military jeep publications. I believe that the $50 WWII Jeeps in a crate is a myth. These vehicles were not sold as surplus in massive numbers due to the influence of Willys, according to numerous publications. Willys produced CJ’s that were identical to the military jeeps for sale on the open market, that became popular with returning GI’s. The Willys Jeepsters were also popular. However, my father in law did buy a surplus Steerman Biplane in a crate for a minimum price.

  3. Wm F Fulcher

    In 1955 I submitted a bid through a Marine Brother-In-Law at Cherry Point Air Base for $350; the bid was won by Camp LeJourne who nodded higher. They were created requiring assembly. (Wished CP had had won that bid!

  4. Peter P. Angelou Jr.

    I remember in early 1947 being at Ft Dix, NJ where jeeps were stacked 4 wide and 2 or 3 high in long rows, These jeeps had a skeleton wood frame around them for shipping purposes.

    Put in a battery, some gas, give it a push and you drove off with it.

    Sale price was $50.00 per jeep.

    Ahhh The good old days!

  5. Harry

    During the late ’60’s, the Army’s jeep (M38A?) was found to have a defect. If you turned too fast (over 25 mph) it would roll over. We used them but when turned in for disposal, they were cut into four pieces so they could not be reused. This is what I was told at the time, since I was driving one a lot. Oh yes, guard duty was always so much fun, especially around the ammo dumps.

    • Ed

      I had a mechanic friend of mine who bought one of those cut-up vehicles.He welded it back together and restored it to driveable condition.He also drove a used police black and white painted Crown Vic with the police department markings crudely overpainted and did not repaint it, which the local police department did not like.