It was June 1942 and Henry Doorly, the publisher of The Omaha World-Herald, was driving his wife to Omaha’s train station. All the way there, he criticized the government’s mismanagement of the national rubber salvage drive to support World War II.
“What did you do about it?” his wife asked.
That gentle nudge, recounted in “Prairie Forge: The Extraordinary Story of the Nebraska Scrap Metal Drive of World War II,” by James J. Kimble, kept Mr. Doorly up late that night. He was thinking about the next national home-front campaign. Just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was desperately low on scrap metal, which meant that many steel mills were either slowing or shutting down. That would quickly lead to a steep drop in the number of guns, tanks and other combat essentials. Without enough scrap, the war could be lost.
“So there’s Doorly,” Mr. Kimble, a professor at Seton Hall University, said in an interview. “He says to himself: ‘I’m the publisher of a medium-sized newspaper in the Midwest. I don’t have the ear of the president because I backed his opponent, but I have a voice in Nebraska. Maybe if I can start a campaign here, I can make it an example for the country.’”
The next day, he gathered his staff and explained his idea: a competition, among all 93 of Nebraska’s counties, to scrounge up the most scrap metal per capita. A running tally would be publicized, as if the drive were a live baseball game, in The World-Herald’s sports section.
Soon after the contest was unveiled, every newspaper in the state backed the idea. For three weeks, Nebraskans ransacked their homes for metal, or roamed the countryside in search of abandoned tractors or idle windmills. On some days, The World-Herald ran nothing but scrap metal contest stories on its front page.
The results were such a triumph — the equivalent of 100 pounds of scrap for each resident — that identical, three-week contests were soon staged in every other state. Ultimately, five million pounds of scrap was delivered to the War Production Board using what became known as the Nebraska Plan. The World-Herald was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in public service.
From its inception, Mr. Doorly knew his idea wouldn’t work without winning the trust of Nebraskans. A national aluminum drive the previous year had inspired many in the state to collect kitchenware, which sat in unused heaps because of government inaction. “Aluminum Pots Dot Landscape Weeks After Drive for Metal,” read a Washington Post headline in October 1941.