In the waninig days of World War II, the Honolulu Advertiser published a prescient article by a reporter named Gerry Burtnett about military surplus disposal:
The disposal of surplus property in Hawaii is going to be one of the biggest stories of the last days of the war and the postwar period. It may be a rather unpleasant story, from present indications.1
Disposal of war surplus in Hawai‘i was a big story, judging from the hundreds of newspaper articles about it published between 1945 and 1950. As soldiers, sailors, and marines returned home and life in the Territory began to be shaped by peacetime concerns, surplus disposal became an important industry in the Territory of Hawai‘i and in the nation as a whole. The disposal of surplus property captured the attention not only of the surplus-consuming public, but also of Congressional investigating committees. This paper will examine the effects of surplus disposal, why surplus held people’s attention for so long, and the major events and key people involved with surplus disposal in the Territory of Hawai‘i. [End Page 121]
Long before the end of World War II, officials in Washington, D.C. recognized that disposal of quantities of salvage and surplus government property, primarily by the armed forces, would be required. As a staging area for bases in the Pacific, the Territory of Hawai‘i held millions of tons of building materials, equipment, clothing, food—anything and everything needed to fight the war—at the close of hostilities in September 1945.
To facilitate the orderly disposal of surplus, the U.S. Congress passed the Surplus Property Act in 1944, which established the Surplus Property Board and directed it to issue regulations for the disposition of surplus personal and real property.2 The regulations prioritized recipients for the disposition of surplus property as follows:
1. Federal government
2. State and local governments
3. Veterans (those who were certified as having served in WWII)
4. Certified non-profit institutions
5. Small dealers
7. Large dealers
8. General public3
Congress gave a high priority to veterans, who were anticipated to farm or start small businesses with the help of surplus goods. Veterans could also obtain surplus for their personal use, so they were well-positioned to acquire many of the thousands of vehicles and other items declared surplus.
The Beginning of Surplus Disposal in Hawai‘i
The organization of the mechanics of surplus disposal took a long time, so surplus disposal did not really begin in earnest until late 1945. On the U.S. Mainland, several agencies handled surplus disposal in rapid succession, and eventually the War Assets Administration (WAA) became the principal agency handling disposition of surplus property. However, in Alaska, Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Surplus Property Office (SPO) of the Department of the Interior was initially charged with the disposal of everything except aircraft and vessels. In September 1945, Crawford Sloan, assistant director of SPO, opened an office located at ‘Iolani Palace in [End Page 122] Honolulu. Advertisements were placed for office assistants, engineers, appraisers, inspectors, and investigators to staff the office, which eventually employed at least 228 people.4
Col. William B. Cobb was hired to head the Honolulu office of SPO in December 1945. Like many people who worked in surplus disposal, he had just been discharged from the Army. Formerly a lawyer and Wyoming legislator, he had served as assistant chief of staff for General Delos Emmons (commanding general of the Army’s Hawaiian Department and military governor from 1941–1943) during the war.5 One might wonder how Cobb’s background qualified him to lead surplus disposal in the Territory. Cobb did not have any direct experience with surplus disposal, and this may have contributed to some of the difficulties he encountered, which will be discussed later. It is conceivable that his past experience with the Army in Hawai‘i was seen as an advantage. Furthermore, there may have been a desire to hire an outsider who was not previously associated with surplus disposal and therefore not tainted by complaints that surplus...