It was in the early dawn hours of a sleepy Sunday morning at the far away Territory of Hawaii, when Imperial Japanese forces viciously attacked the U.S. naval fleet stationed there. The United States was unceremoniously thrown into in the growing global conflict of what was to become the Second World War.
America was not prepared for war, and this was a fact on which the Japanese had depended. They had hoped that their surprise attack would deal a crippling blow to the United States’ naval fleet, thereby opening the seas to Japanese conquest of the Pacific islands. Up to this point, America’s “arsenal of democracy” had only begun to function by providing limited equipment and supplies for the British and other forces, even though the United States was still officially a neutral country. Before that fateful December day, many Americans had been opposed to the nation’s entry into what was seen as “someone else’s war.” But that all changed on December 7th. It was America’s own boys who were now hurt and dying at the hands of the enemy.
As Americans rushed to recruiting stations to join the armed forces, the U.S. military scrambled to provide them with the basic needs of clothing, shelter, and fighting equipment. In some cases when real rifles and cannon were unavailable for training, dummy weapons were used until actual weapons became available.
KNIVES WERE NEEDED FOR WWII
A personal fighting knife was both a handy tool in the field and the soldier’s last line of defense — the “all or nothing” play. It was silent, swift and deadly. They could be concealed and easily transported. The effect of having a knife was as much a psychological boost as it was physical. As General Patton once famously remarked about bayonets; “Few men are actually killed by one, but every man fears them…” Having this power, literally in their hands, was recognized for what it represented to the fighting men. But when U.S. troops landed in the Pacific jungle islands, it became apparent that there were not enough combat knives for the men who needed them.
It was in this crucible of the world at war that the fighting knives of the Wisconsin Vocational Schools were born. Seeing the need and wanting to help the troops, the WWI veterans of the Major A.M. Trier American Legion post #75 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, started a “Knives for Servicemen Program.” They began actively collecting hunting and fighting knives to be sent to servicemen.
The call went out to the home front and the people answered. Hunting knives and sturdy knives of all shapes and sizes were collected and distributed to the troops. Elsewhere in America, WWI bayonets and knives were retooled and reissued, even old civil war era swords were cut down and fashioned into fighting knives by enterprising knife makers. In the theatres of war many knives were made in the field or aboard ship, using anything that was available to the men – many time out of scrap metal such as the aluminum and Plexiglas taken from downed enemy aircraft.
Back in the States in late 1943, the supply of available civilian provided knives ran low, and the “Knives for Servicemen” committee (under chairman W.A. Sanders) needed another option.
WISCONSIN VOCATIONAL SCHOOL KNIVES
The American Legion post began working with the teachers and students of the Wisconsin Vocational School in Fond du Lac to provide our fighting men with the fighting knives they needed. The design of the knives was worked out by H.J. Van Valkenburg and approved by O.J. Dorr, Director of the Vocational School.
Students made the knife blades out of donated automotive leaf spring steel. They fashioned the handles from wood donated by local businesses. Becker Leather Goods Co. of Fond du Lac provided the leather sheaths that included a tin lining to protect the scabbard from the blade.
The knives the students produced were impressive to hold. Boasting an approximately 9” hunting style blade with an overall length of around 14 and an S-shaped curved steel cross guard with wooden slab grips affixed by 3 rivets (either brass or steel) to the tang, the knives were striking — just the type of weapon that would give a soldier or Marine that needed boost of confidence in combat.
According to a period article these knives were “Light enough for close contact use, but heavy enough for a soldier to cut his way through the underbrush of a jungle. The design is such that men in the Navy can also use them.”
To obtain a knife, all that was required was a written request by the service member or their family. Once it was verified that the person was serving, Mr. Sanders and the “Knives for Servicemen” committee approved the request. Before sending the knife, students the school “Vibro-tool” hand-engraved the soldier’s name and service number on one side of the blade and the name of the school on the other. During the first week of production, the School made nine knives for service men. Each knife was provided to the service member, free of charge.
American Legionnaires of Post #166 in the nearby town of Fort Atkinson began making knives at the Vocational School in the fall of 1944. Following the same basic design, the Legionnaires worked in the Vocational School on Tuesday and Thursday nights making these knives for the servicemen. The first knife they produced was presented to Pfc. Norman Fleck who was serving in New Guinea.
The Fort Atkinson-made examples are made slightly better than the Fond du Lac-made knives. One factor contributing to their superior quality was that the Fort Atkinson knives sported blades that were professionally polished and engraved by the Creamery Package Company of Fort Atkinson. These blades were engraved with the service person’s name and rank information on one side of the blade and the wording “Presented by the American Legion post 166 and Vocational Schools Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin” on the other. The engraving was done by an acid photo etching technique giving the impression of typed information on the blade.
The exact number of these Vocational School knives that were produced during the war or if any additional Wisconsin Vocational Schools took part in the program making similar knives is unknown. An article published in the Janesville [Wisconsin] Gazette on October 18, 1945 mentioned that, “The knife committee stated that they were at this time working at the vocational school Thursday nights, completing the last 27 knives for servicemen.”
No Janesville-marked examples have yet been encountered by the author.
The research continues! If you know of any extant examples of these Wisconsin Vocational School knives, please contact the author at email@example.com.
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