Wisconsin Vocational School Fighting Knives of WWII

These scarce knives made on the home front were sent to fighting men during WW2
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 During WWII, students at Wisconsin’s vocational schools made personalized knives as part of the “Knives for Servicemen” program. The knife shown here was made at the vo-tech in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Becker Leather Goods Company of Fond du Lac donated the leather scabbards for the program’s knives.

During WWII, students at Wisconsin’s vocational schools made personalized knives as part of the “Knives for Servicemen” program. The knife shown here was made at the vo-tech in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Becker Leather Goods Company of Fond du Lac donated the leather scabbards for the program’s knives.

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

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.

 A full size display board illustrates the steps in making the vocational school knives from leaf spring steel to finished product. The blades went through the process of cutting, milling, grinding, shaping, heat treating and polishing before final assembly. The discoloration over the words “Fond du Lac” leads to speculation that this board may have been used in other locations with the newlocation affixed over the original wording.

A full size display board illustrates the steps in making the vocational school knives from leaf spring steel to finished product. The blades went through the process of cutting, milling, grinding, shaping, heat treating and polishing before final assembly. The discoloration over the words “Fond du Lac” leads to speculation that this board may have been used in other locations with the newlocation affixed over the original wording.

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.

Listing for a Vibro-Tool from a 1952 catalog. Students used Vibro-tools to hand-engrave the blades they made.

Listing for a Vibro-Tool from a 1952 catalog. Students used Vibro-tools to hand-engrave the blades they made.

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.

 The blades from Fond du Lac were “Vibro-tool” (Electropen) hand-engraved with the wording “Fond du Lac Vocational School.” The other side of the blade was engraved with the service person’s name.

The blades from Fond du Lac were “Vibro-tool” (Electropen) hand-engraved with the wording “Fond du Lac Vocational School.” The other side of the blade was engraved with the service person’s name.

The blades from Fond du Lac were “Vibro-tool” (Electropen) hand engraving of the wording “Fond du Lac Vocational School.” The other side of the blade was engraved with the service person’s name.

The blades from Fond du Lac were “Vibro-tool” (Electropen) hand engraving of the wording “Fond du Lac Vocational School.” The other side of the blade was engraved with the service person’s name.

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.

An old newspaper clipping shows Otto J. Dorr, then Director of the Fond du Lac Vocational School, Sgt. Jeske of the 32nd Division, and Clarence Fenner, Commander of the American Legion post.

An old newspaper clipping shows Otto J. Dorr, then Director of the Fond du Lac Vocational School, Sgt. Jeske of the 32nd Division, and Clarence Fenner, Commander of the American Legion post. The two men hold a captured Japanese flag and look on as Sgt. Jeske inspects one of the vocational school-made knives.

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.

The differences between the knives made at Fond du Lac and Fort Atkinson are most apparent when you compare the shape and finish of the blades.

The differences between the knives made at Fond du Lac and Fort Atkinson are most apparent when you compare the shape and finish of the blades.

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.

 Local businesses donated a wide variety of wood to use for the grips of these knives.

Local businesses donated a wide variety of wood to use for the grips of these knives.

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 holes in the wooden grips were drilled and countersunk with this exact bit. The bit and brass rivets were found by the author from a different source than the blade blanks and cross guards.

The holes in the wooden grips were drilled and countersunk with this exact bit. The bit and brass rivets were found by the author from a different source than the blade blanks and cross guards.

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.

 Cut and drilled steel blade blanks were left to rust in a barn after being discarded in the 1950s from the vocational school. What was seen as scrap by some is a collector’s dream!

Cut and drilled steel blade blanks were left to rust in a barn after being discarded in the 1950s from the vocational school. What was seen as scrap by some is a collector’s dream!

 A metal box of unused cross guards was also found languishing in a barn along with the unfinished blade blanks.

A metal box of unused cross guards was also found languishing in a barn along with the unfinished blade blanks.

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 [Wisc.] 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 militaryshop@yahoo.com.

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