Greatest Generation Nickels
BY PAUL GREEN
It is not often that you can assemble a set of coins that truly reflect a specific time in history. World War II and members of the so-called "Greatest Generation" – who, after surviving the Great Depression, had to fight in the war – are reflected in the special nickels produced from 1942-45, known as the "wartime" nickels.
Quite frankly, it’s amazing how rarely the troubles of the United States have been reflected in our coins. The Civil War was marked by a composition change in the cent, the approval of the two cent piece, and the addition of copper-nickel three and five cent coins. The next time coins would see changes was when the United States went to war in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The changes made to our coinage were actually part of a national strategy designed to win the war. But back in those dark days of December 1941, winning the war had to seem like a very distant hope.
Thrust into a global conflict, planners began determining what steps to take to ensure the United States could fight a war all around the world – potentially for a long period of time. Optimism was probably in short supply, as much of the nation’s Pacific Fleet had been damaged or destroyed – and that was after the American military had been rated outside of the top ten in the world. For the United States and its allies to win World War II, it was going to take an enormous effort, backed by large amounts of the various metals needed to produce bullets, tanks, planes and other supplies.
There were several items deemed important to the war effort, including metals – especially copper and nickel. As it turned out, one of the largest uses of the two was for coins. The cent, which used copper, and the nickel, which used both, were seen as especially troublesome. The decision to try and find a different alloy for the two denominations came quickly. A zinc-coated steel alloy was tried on the cents in 1943. Since it was not terribly popular, it lasted just one year.
However, the new alloy for the nickel was more successful. It was a combination of 56% copper, which significantly reduced the use of the metal, along with 35% silver and 9% manganese. Ironically, it was an alloy for the nickel that contained no nickel, yet it still appeared similar to the traditional copper-nickel alloy.
The new nickels would have other changes as well, as officials decided to follow the old tradition of making slight design changes when the composition of a coin changed. Back in 1834, when the amount of gold was reduced slightly for the quarter and half eagle series, the design was changed. In 1853, arrows at the date and rays on the reverse were added when the amount of silver was reduced for the quarter and half dollar. Then, when silver was increased in these coins in 1873, arrows were once again added at the date. Placing arrows at the date of these new nickels would not work, so other ideas had to be used.
The focus of the design changes would be the mint mark, which was moved from the side of Monticello to a spot just above the building. In addition, the size of the mint mark was enlarged, and for the first time on a coin of the United States, a "P" was used to indicate coins made at Philadelphia. With those modifications, the new wartime nickels were released in the fall of 1942.
These wartime nickels would be produced from 1942-45. Generally speaking, they are available in virtually all grades thanks to mintages ranging from a low of 15,294,000 for the 1943-D, to a high of 271,165,000 for the 1943-P. With reasonable prices in Mint State, few attempt a set in circulated grades. However, circulated grade sets may be harder to assemble than many think. With a 35% silver composition, large numbers of circulated examples were melted over the years – especially around 1980, when the price of silver briefly reached $50 an ounce.
While the basic set is available, there are a couple of better coins; the first being a proof 1942-P. Since the wartime nickels were released late in the year, proof sets included a regular copper-nickel 1942 proof. A small number of special six-coin sets were offered that included both the regular and special composition 1942 nickels. As proof set production was suspended the following year, the 1942-P is the only available proof example of the special wartime nickels.
The strains of the war were seen not just in the suspension of proof sets, but quite possibly in the one major error to be found in wartime nickels as well – the 1943/2-P. The suspicion is that officials were trying to cut corners in terms of time and cost, and that they actually knew they were creating an overdate. Normally, such errors are not encouraged and are destroyed before they’re allowed to reach circulation, but in this instance the nation was at war. The 1943/2-P reached circulation in some numbers, making it harder to find than regular dates, but still available.
With a reasonable price tag in every grade, the wartime nickels make a great present, especially for members of the "Greatest Generation" who actually carried them off to war, or who used them while supporting the war effort at home. They also make a fascinating set for anyone interested in World War II and American history. Collectors, too, find a special set of wartime nickels a great addition to any collection, or an important part of a regular Jefferson nickel collection. Whatever the reason for wanting a set, the wartime nickels are appreciated by virtually everyone, as they are real souvenirs of World War II and the special steps taken to win the conflict.