When news reached Newport, Vermont, on December 7, 1941 that the United States Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had been bombed by Japanese forces Wayne Wheeler of Newport was only seven years old. He learned of the news on the family’s behive radio when he overheard President Franklin Roosevelt telling the country about the attack that would send this country into an already raging World War II.
Americans rallied around the country. Young men enlisted in the military and people back home of every age did what they could to help out in the war effort in their own way, including collecting scrap metal. Others were trained to watch for enemy aircraft if they should appear over the skies of Vermont.
Wheeler’s oldest brother, Irwin, a member of Company L of Vermont National Guard in Newport at the time of the attack, ended up deploying to the war zone in the Pacific where he saw action of the jungle covered islands of the region. Meanwhile back in Vermont, Wayne Wheeler and his friends, and possibly his classmates at the East School (which was located on Sias Avenue where Newport City Elementary is today), helped in war effort in their own way, picking the pods from the prolific milkweed plant.
“In the fall, I know it was more than one fall, we picked milkweed pods,” Wheeler said. “We went everywhere picking them. We filled brand sack with them.” One of their favorite places to pick pods was in a cornfield that was located where North Country Hospital is located today on Prouty Drive in Newport.
The pods are filled with silky white fibers that if allowed to over ripen will burst open, sending the fibers inside to drift off like mini white parachutes carrying along with them seeds that will allow the plants to propagate themselves. Many of the youngsters collected the pods in large grain bags.
“It seems like there were more milkweeds back then than now,” Wheeler said. “We could find them just about everywhere back then.”
He explained that it is his understanding that the fibers inside the pods were used in the life vests used by servicemen to keep them afloat if they should end up in the water. While there are some accounts of people being paid to pick pods based on the amounts they picked, Wheeler said he doesn’t recall being paid. He suspects that their efforts may have been part of a school project as a way for the children to take part in the war effort.
The following article appears in the July, 1944 issue of the Newport Daily Express
“Locate Milkweed Stands Show for Fall Use
Burlington, VT. July, 13 – Now is the time to locate stands of milkweed and make plans for gathering the pods in the fall, the state milkweed collection committee today reminded boys and girls who are expected to help in the program to collect milkweed floss for life jackets.
The best stands of milkweed are usually found in idle fields, pastures, and orchards and along the roadsides, fence-rows and stream banks. Milkweed plants can easily be located now because they are generally much taller than the grass and other plants. Those growing on waste land which will not be moved offer the surest supply. However, some farmers may be willing to put off cutting fields where milkweed is growing if they are sure that some local boy or girl will pick the pods before the seeds scatter. A representative of the milkweed floss project of the War Food Administration will arrive around July 15 to arrange for buying and shipping milkweed floss gathered in Vermont and New Hampshire according to information received by Robert P. Davison, state 4-H Club leader for the UVM agricultural extension serve, who is chairman. Bags for the pods will be supplied through the count U.S.D.A. war boards. One bag will hold enough floss to fill two lifebelts, and 20 cents per bag will be paid for picking and drying the pods. Estimates show that a total of around 1 ½ million pounds of milkweed floss are needed to take the place of Kapok, the material formerly used in lifebelts. They supply of kapok was imported from Java which is now controlled by the Japanese.
Other members of the state collection committee are Lemeuel J. Peet, state coordinator, U.S. soil conservation service, and J.K. Vessey, state supervisor, U.S. Forest Service. The state department of education is assisting in the program.”