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.
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.
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.