This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of
Coin World, and is republished here on the 75th anniversary of the
Dec. 7, 1941, attack:
The surprise Japanese attack shocked the United States along with
the world. The day after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt
would say that the attack represented “a date which will live in
infamy,” before issuing a proclamation of war against Japan. Pearl
Harbor would be the defining event that would bring the United States
into World War II.
For coin collectors today, the attack at Pearl Harbor and World War
II offers many collecting opportunities. From coins that circulated in
Hawaii and across the United States in 1941, to the subsequent
numismatic issues produced in response to World War II like 1943
Lincoln steel cents and paper money overprinted with HAWAII, to modern
commemorative coins marking World War II, the numismatic legacy of
Pearl Harbor is rich and highly collectible.
A surprise attack
The unexpected Japanese attack on U.S. naval and military bases at
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, consisted of two waves, launched from Japanese
aircraft carriers with 353 Japanese bomber, fighter and torpedo
planes. At 7:48 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. military personnel awoke to
alarms, bombs and gunfire. Just 90 minutes later, the attack was over.
When the losses were counted, four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk,
four were damaged and 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. Ultimately,
2,402 Americans lost their lives, with 1,282 wounded because of the
attack. The Japanese also suffered at Pearl Harbor, losing 28 aircraft
and several midget submarines while 65 Japanese servicemen were killed
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The Imperial Japanese Navy orchestrated the attack as a preventative
action to keep the U.S. Pacific naval fleet from interfering with
Japan’s plans to advance into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, which
offered natural resources including oil and rubber. On the day of the
Pearl Harbor attacks and through the evening and following morning,
Japanese forces attacked other places in the Pacific including Malaya,
Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island and Midway Island.
One day after the attack, on Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress, delivering his famous
“Day of Infamy” speech. In the six-and-a-half minute speech, Roosevelt
stated, “America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval
and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” adding, “We will gain the
inevitable triumph, so help us God.” His speech contrasted with
President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, that
brought the United States into World War I. While Wilson presented the
strategic threat posed by Germany, stressing America’s idealistic
goals in entering the war, Roosevelt triggered an emotional response
by framing the nation as the innocent victim of Japanese aggression.
U.S. coinage shaped by war: World
In the depths of World War II, metals used for America’s coinage
reflected the exigencies of battle and wartime prosperity at home,
as the Mint tried new metals to replace those needed for weaponry
The most famous line of Roosevelt’s speech, where he defines the
Japanese attack as “a date which will live in infamy” was originally
written as “a date which will live in world history.” Roosevelt
replaced “world history” with “infamy” as evidenced by an annotated
copy of the original typewritten speech housed in the National Archives.
At 4:10 p.m., Dec. 8, 1941, Roosevelt signed a declaration of war
against Japan. Congress approved this in just 33 minutes, with the
Senate voting 88-0 and the House of Representatives voting 388-1, the
lone vote against the resolution coming from Rep. Jeanette Rankin,
R-Mont., who had also voted against the resolution for war against
Germany in 1917. Just three days later, on Dec. 11, 1941, Roosevelt
would sign separate declarations of war upon Germany and Italy after
both of those nations, in partnership with Japan, declared war on the
The United States had warning signs of Japanese aggression,
including Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Japan’s subsequent
expansion into the Republic of China led to a prolonged conflict
between China and Japan that lasted through the duration of World War
II. In 1940, Japan invaded French Indochina to block supplies that
were reaching China. The United States responded to this by stopping
shipments of airplanes, parts, machine tools and aviation gasoline to
Japan, although the United States stopped short of ceasing all oil
exports to Japan.
Considering Japan’s dependence on U.S. oil, at the time it was
thought that a halt on all oil exports would be extreme. Yet, as Japan
extended into French Indochina, the United States stopped oil exports
to Japan in July 1941, leading Japan to create plans to control the
Dutch East Indies, which Japan termed the “Southern Resource Area.”
In response to Japanese aggression, Roosevelt moved the Pacific
Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii in early 1941, while building a U.S.
military presence in the Philippines. At the same time, Japanese
forces under the command of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and Capt. Minoru
Genda, began planning an attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack plan was
approved by Emperor Hirohito on Nov. 5, 1941, and he gave his final
authorization on Dec. 1, 1941. The attack’s goals were to destroy
American ships, to allow Japan time to meet its goals while the United
States repaired its fleet, and to attack American morale. The shallow
water at Pearl Harbor allowed the targeted ships to be potentially
salvaged, but the attacks inflicted irreparable damage on America’s
sense of safety.
America’s entry into World War II led to a massive draft of men for
military service, a conversion of the economy to a war footing and
rationing of many commodities, including food, gasoline and metals to
ensure the war effort would have sufficient resources for victory over
the Axis Powers. The need for strategic metals would have a
significant effect on the nation’s coinage.
Wartime U.S. coinage
What types of coins were people using in Hawaii and elsewhere across
the United States in 1941? Many of the coins looked similar to the
coins that circulate in the United States today.
The Lincoln cent was first issued in 1909, with its portrait
obverse by Victor David Brenner and a reverse design featuring stalks
of wheat, a reverse that would be used through 1958. In January 1942,
tin was removed from the cent’s standard bronze alloy, which had been
95 percent copper, 4 percent zinc and 1 percent tin. In December 1942,
Congress authorized the Mint to change the composition of the cent
more dramatically. The result was that for just one year, 1943, the
cent was struck in 100 percent steel coated with zinc, to save copper
that was needed for the war effort. The resulting zinc-coated steel
coin rusted easily and could be mistaken for a dime, but perhaps more
problematic was that its magnetic properties rendered it useless for
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four
Freedoms, Victory medal is a 'junk box' find in Ohio:
A medal found in an Ohio dealer "junk box" turns out to
be a so called dollar honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Four
By 1944 the familiar copper-alloy Lincoln cent returned, although
the cents from 1944 to 1946 differ slightly from prior issues in that
some salvaged brass ammunition shell casings were allegedly used along
with copper, to create cent planchets of 95 percent copper and 5
Possibly the best-known but ultimately unintentional numismatic
product of World War II is one of the rarest — 1943 cents accidentally
struck on copper planchets instead of zinc-coated steel. Of the more
than 1 billion 1943 Lincoln cents struck at the Denver, Philadelphia
and San Francisco Mints, fewer than two dozen 1943 copper cents are
known today to collectors. The first verified 1943 copper cent was
discovered in 1947 by a Pittsfield, Mass., 16-year-old, Don Lutes Jr.,
who pulled it from change received in his high school’s cafeteria.
One of these cents is among the most expensive U.S. coins. A unique
1943-D Lincoln bronze cent was discovered in 1996 and sold in a 2010
private transaction for $1.7 million. Yet, for each genuine example,
literally thousands of fakes exist that were made by copper-plating
genuine 1943 zinc-coated steel cents or by altering the last digit of
the date of a 1948 Lincoln cent.
A genuine 1943 copper Lincoln cent will not stick to a magnet,
should weigh approximately 3.11 grams rather than the 2.7 grams that
1943 steel cents weigh, and should have the same long-tailed 3 as seen
on 1943 steel cents.
In 1941, Felix Schlag’s Jefferson 5-cent piece was just 3 years old,
although like the cent, it too would have its composition changed in
response to World War II. In 1942, some 5-cent pieces were produced in
a new composition of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9
percent manganese, and this composition continued to be used for the
“nickel” through 1945. These coins contain .1615 ounce of silver, and
differ visibly from the previous composition, both in a slight
difference in the color and, more notably, by the presence of a
reverse Mint mark — either the P of the Philadelphia Mint, the D of
Denver or the S of the San Francisco Mint — above Monticello. The
Philadelphia Mint wartime 5-cent pieces carry the unique distinction
of being the only U.S. coins before 1979 to utilize a P Mint mark.
Regular issue and Proof examples of the 1942 5-cent piece exist in
both the traditional 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel composition
and the wartime copper-silver-manganese composition.
Another familiar coin circulating in 1941 was the Washington quarter
dollar, which was introduced in 1932 with a design by John Flanagan.
The 90-percent silver coin would use the same obverse and reverse
combination until 1998, when the State quarter dollar series began. In
1965, the composition for dimes and quarter dollars was changed from
90 percent silver to copper nickel, while the silver content was
reduced in the half dollar from 90 percent to 40 percent.
The designs of Adolph A. Weinman could be found on two circulating
coins in 1941 — his Winged Liberty Head dime which was struck from
1916 to 1945 and the Walking Liberty half dollar, which was produced
from 1916 to 1947. Older coinage types such as Barber dimes, quarter
dollars and half dollars, along with Standing Liberty quarters could
also be found in circulation with some frequency. These earlier types
could still be found in circulation until silver was removed from
dimes and quarter dollars beginning in the mid-1960s.
Like 1943 steel Lincoln cents, the Hawaiian overprint notes are
iconic reminders of World War II. While Hawaii did not become the 50th
state until 1959, at the time of Pearl Harbor it was a U.S. territory,
so the U.S. dollar was the circulating currency. In the event of an
invasion of Hawaii — a real fear in the aftermath of the attack on
Pearl Harbor — Series 1935A $1 silver certificates, 1934 $5 and $20
Federal Reserve notes, and 1934A $5, $10 and $20 Federal Reserve notes
were given distinctive brown Treasury seals and serial numbers and
were printed with a small HAWAII overprint on the face and a large
overprint on the back.
Without the identifying HAWAII overprint, any U.S. paper money
seized by Japanese forces could be used around the world. The
overprinting protected Hawaiian residents, as any overprinted currency
that was confiscated would be immediately invalidated, and thus could
not be used to finance a war effort against the United States. The
overprinted notes were released in July 1942, and only these notes
were acceptable in Hawaii after Aug. 15.
Thankfully for collectors, 35,052,000 overprinted $1 notes were
issued. Their distinct appearance led to many being kept as souvenirs,
so they enjoy a high survival rate and are affordable for collectors
today, with well-worn examples trading for less than $20.
Well-circulated examples are frequently found, since these notes saw
widespread circulation once the restriction of their use to Hawaii was
lifted in October 1944.
Even closer to Pearl Harbor are two notes that were salvaged from
the USS Arizona — one of the U.S. Navy battleships sunk during
the attack. The ship was struck by a bomb on the starboard side
approximately 10 minutes after the attack began, and it sank to the
harbor floor, taking 1,177 sailors’ lives in the process. The ship’s
demise represented the greatest loss of life on any U.S. warship in
During the rescue efforts, two pieces of U.S. paper money were
salvaged: a $20 Federal Reserve note currently in the museum exhibit
at Pearl Harbor and a Series 1928 $5 United States note that was
recently sold to an anonymous Ohio collector by paper money dealer
Fred Bart. According to Bart, the note was purchased directly from the
widow of the military diver who brought it to the surface. The diver
wrote an inscription on the note that it was salvaged from the USS
Arizona at Pearl Harbor. While the sale price was not
disclosed, the note had been listed by the dealer for sale at $49,500
prior to the transaction.
Modern U.S. commemorative coins
Although no modern U.S. commemorative coins directly commemorate the
attacks on Pearl Harbor, perhaps the commemorative coins most closely
related to the attacks are the World War II 50th Anniversary gold $5
coin, silver dollar and copper-nickel clad half dollar. The coins,
struck in 1993, carry the dual dates of 1991 to 1995 — but not 1993.
No public hearings were conducted for the legislation, and the absence
of its date of issue was problematic to collectors, if not Congress.
Coin World’s May 3, 1993, Editorial stated, “The date of
issue may not be important to fund raisers, but it has a historic
function and is one that should not be so mindlessly cast aside.”
However, not all U.S. coins carry the date of the year in which they
were struck. For example, the Lafayette dollar is dated 1900, but the
coins were all struck on Dec. 14, 1899, the day of the 100th
anniversary of George Washington’s death. The 1900 date signifies the
year when the Lafayette monument was erected in Paris and the Paris
Exposition of 1900. In more modern times, the Bicentennial Coinage Act
of 1973 authorized new reverse designs for 1776-1976 dual-dated
quarter dollars, half dollars and dollars, and allowed the dual date
to appear on all coins struck between July 4, 1975, and Jan. 1, 1977.
Another commemorative closely related to Pearl Harbor is the 1991
United Service Organizations commemorative dollar. The USO is a
private, nonprofit organization that provides morale, welfare and
recreational services to U.S. military personnel and their families.
It was founded in 1941 and, during World War II, was famed for its
Camp Shows, where prominent performers of the day including Bob Hope,
Judy Garland and Bing Crosby would entertain troops and boost the
morale of servicemen and women. While the topic was well-suited to a
commemorative coin, the ultimate design, featuring a USO pennant and
the words 50TH ANNIVERSARY on the obverse and an eagle on a globe on
the reverse, was nearly universally panned as unimaginative.
The wartime president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was honored with
his own gold $5 commemorative coin in 1997. It features an obverse
profile portrait based on a photograph of Roosevelt. Proceeds from the
$35 surcharge on each coin helped support the FDR memorial, which was
dedicated in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1997. Of course, Roosevelt is
also depicted on a much better known coin — the Roosevelt dime, which
was first struck in 1946.
Other commemorative coins broadly related by their military themes
include the 1994-W Women in the Armed Forces dollar, the American
Prisoners of War dollar of the same year, a 2005-W silver dollar
honoring the 230th Anniversary of the United States Marine Corps, and
the 2010-W American Veterans Disabled for Life silver dollar. The
Marine Corps dollar is notable in being the first coin the United
States has released in honoring a branch of its military. The dollar
depicts Joe Rosenthal’s famed Feb. 23, 1945, image Raising the Flag
on Iwo Jima. It shows five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman
raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo
Jima. Of the six men in the picture, three were killed during the
continuing battle. The powerful image was subsequently used as the
basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
Social welfare paper
ephemera reminder of Germany’s WWII homefront realities:
Germany’s social welfare program known as Winterhilfswerk (Winter
Help Work) issued certificates in an effort to keep the citizens
from starving and freezing.
Both 2011 commemorative coin programs are relevant to Pearl Harbor
and World War II: the United States Army gold $5 coin, silver dollar
and copper-nickel clad half dollar, and the 2011 Medal of Honor gold
$5 coin and silver dollar. Fifteen individuals were awarded the Medal
of Honor based on their conduct at Pearl Harbor. The Medal of Honor is
the highest military declaration awarded by the government for
conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of the honoree’s
life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action
against any enemy of the United States.
Continuing the legacy
The attack on Pearl Harbor continues to fascinate today, popularized
by big Hollywood films and remembered by the 1.5 million visitors who
travel to the USS Arizona Memorial each year at Pearl Harbor.
Sharp-eyed numismatists noted the role money played in the 2001
movie Pearl Harbor. During a boxing scene on the USS West
Virginia — one of the eight battleships damaged in the morning
attack — someone holding the wagers had paper currency featuring the
HAWAII overprint. As overprint notes were not released until July 1942
— more than 18 months after the attack — this was numismatically
erroneous and the mistake did not escape the notice of collectors.
The money of World War II is a fascinating and accessible area to
collect, with affordable options for collectors. While this story is
limited to coins and U.S. paper money, collectors could expand their
outlook to collect U.S. War Bonds and ration coupons, German-issued
prisoner of war and concentration camp money, occupational and
military money, along with Allied and Axis counterfeit money printed
to destroy economies. Medals made by private mints feature a wide
range of designs directly related to Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 7, 2002, the American Numismatic Association presented a
5,000-square-foot display at its Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters
titled “Rendezvous with Destiny: The Money of WWII,” which
demonstrated the many roles that money played during World War II.
Money was used to finance the war, counterfeited in an effort to
destroy economies and adapted to stay in circulation despite metal
shortages. As the generation that experienced World War II passes
away, the numismatic objects of World War II remain to tell stories
that the individuals involved in Pearl Harbor and World War II cannot.