US Coins

Remembering Pearl Harbor 75 years later

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 or wounded. 

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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. 

Wold War II numismaticsU.S. coinage shaped by war: World War II:
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 abroad.

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 United States.

Warning signs

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 vending machines.

FDR medal in junk boxFranklin 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 Freedoms speech.

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 percent zinc.

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. 

Hawaii notes

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 American history.

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.

German World War II welfare paperSocial 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. 

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