Notes That Went to War
BY PAUL GREEN
World War II was the greatest conflict in history. But today, we sometimes forget that it wasn’t just those who fought that were involved. The war effort involved virtually everyone. While men went to war, women worked in the factories. To help supply the troops, people went days without meat, and children organized scrap drives. And in case the bad situation grew worse, even our paper money was prepared for battle.
Also overlooked is that the bombing of Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into a war it wasn’t ready to fight. In Europe, armed forces considered superior to ours had quickly fallen to the Axis powers. In the early 1940s, the American military wasn’t even ranked in the world’s top ten. And that was before Japanese bombs sent 20 ships to the bottom of the ocean or into dry dock for desperate repairs.
Our Pacific Fleet was all but crippled, and the situation was grim. It was clear that Japan would capture and occupy a number of Pacific islands. But Hawaii was no small prize. The island state was all that stood in the way of a Japanese invasion. The situation was so gloomy during America’s first days of the war that planners made projections on how far the Japanese could get before being stopped if they invaded California.
Hawaii’s strategic value wasn’t the only concern. A significant amount of money was in Hawaii, and that was no small consideration. If captured, those U.S. dollars could buy war materials for the Japanese to use against us. One of the very few advantages the United States had was its industrial might. But if the enemy could simply buy what it needed with captured currency, that critical advantage might be lost. And so the decision was made to issue Hawaii its own bank notes. If Hawaii fell to Japan, the notes would simply not be honored.
Speed and ease of production were paramount in designing the special notes. Printing them would be useless if Hawaii was captured before they could be circulated. To solve the dilemma, existing designs were printed with brown seals and serial numbers – and featured large "hawaii" overprints on the face and back. Needless to say, they were easily discernable from other U.S. currency. Released in July of 1942, the new notes remained in place until late October of 1944, at which time the crisis was past – although some were carried to other Pacific islands by U.S. troops and saw further use.
Produced with these special features were Series 1934A $1 Silver Certificates and $5, $10, and $20 San Francisco district Federal Reserve Notes. While the $5 and $20 notes were both Series 1934 and 1934A, the $10 notes were Series 1934 only. In all cases, the notes have a Julian-Morgenthau signature combination. Although examples of all six Hawaii notes are available, Star replacements can be difficult (and costly) to come by – especially in top grades.
A similar problem was faced during the planning of Operation Torch. If successful, this invasion of North Africa would open the way for Allied troops to advance into Axis-held Europe from the south. But it wouldn’t be easy. Allied forces would face the crack troops led by German field marshal Erwin Rommel – whose exploits earned him the nickname the Desert Fox. The U.S. government feared that large numbers of American troops might be captured. Because those troops would be carrying American money, the United States was once more faced with the possibility that its own currency could be used against it.
What worked in the Pacific seemed like a good idea for the Atlantic as well. American troops would ship out carrying special notes that, if captured, would not be honored. Once again, speed and ease of printing were critical. So the North Africa Invasion Notes were Silver Certificates printed with distinctive yellow seals (instead of the normal blue seals, or the brown used for the Hawaii Notes). Issued were Series 1935A $1 notes, Series 1934A $5 notes, and Series 1934 and 1934A $10 notes. The Series 1934 $10 is quite scarce, but the others are generally available. Production of North Africa Invasion Notes lasted until 1944, making them – like their Hawaii counterparts – a very short-lived issue.
Technically, the Hawaii and North Africa Invasion Notes are the notes that the "Greatest Generation" carried to war. Each served for a time on the front lines in the greatest conflict ever known. This makes them unique and fascinating from both historical and numismatic viewpoints.
The fear of United States currency falling into enemy hands led to the Hawaii and North Africa Invasion Notes. But did you know there were two other types of special notes printed during World War II?
Also created were "S" and "R" experimental notes. However, these notes did not see use at either front. That’s because they were designed to solve an entirely different problem.
During the war, concerns arose about the special security paper in paper notes. Any threat to this supply would also threaten our ability to print currency. It seemed a very real possibility, and something had to be done to prevent it. And so a possible replacement was found and tested.
Exactly 2,368,000 experimental Silver Certificates from the 1935A series were produced. A large red "S" in the lower right corner distinguished notes printed using the test paper. Those printed using the regular security paper bore the letter "R." Like the Hawaii and North Africa Invasion notes, both experimental types had the Julian-Morgenthau signature combination. Printed in equal quantities of 1,184,000, the two groups were released into circulation and observed.
Apparently, the test results were inconclusive. And our supply of security paper never became a problem. But the "R" and "S" experimentals reflect some of the many concerns of the day. These notes never made it to the front lines, but they are a classic reflection of the troubled times at home during World War II. Like the women who worked in factories while men served overseas, the "S" and "R" experimentals were as much a part of the war effort as their Hawaii and North Africa counterparts.
Their very small printing makes "S" and "R" notes tough, but possible, to obtain today. And it’s worth trying. In every case, the special notes of World War II make for important additions to any type of collection. They also make a unique and interesting collection by themselves. And for a friend or family member who actually remembers the sometimes-dark days of the World War II era, these notes can be a great gift – one that brings back the images and memories of the days when America’s Greatest Generation rushed across the world to protect their way of life.
The possibilities for the collector are many, and that is why the notes of World War II are in such demand. Because they truly are the notes that went to war.