Currency on the World War II Home Front

People on the home front were reminded every day of the effects of World War II when they used cash to purchase items. Both paper money and coins saw changes because of the war. Some changes, like what metals were used to make US coins, were due to material shortages. Other changes, like money in Hawai'i, the Philippines, and Guam and the money used in incarceration camps were strategic. There were also changes to US money based on World War II that happened after the war – even decades later.

Money in the Continental United States

Front and back of a 1943 “steelie” US one cent piece. Front: bust of President Lincoln facing right. Text: “In God We Trust / Liberty / 1943”. Back: 2 wheat sheaves framing the text, “E Pluribus Unum / One Cent / United States / Of America.”
1943 “Steelie” Cent. Zinc-coated steel. Photo by Jaclyn Nash. 

Collection of the National Museum of American History, National Numismatic Collection.

When the United States officially entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other home front areas part of the Greater United States, wartime production increased dramatically. And so did the need for certain strategic materials. Among these were copper, tin, zinc, and nickel. Pennies at the time were made of 95% copper, 4% zinc, and 1% tin, and the government looked for an alternative. They tried glass and plastic replacements, but finally decided on a low-grade steel coin covered with a thin coating of zinc to prevent rust.[1] Nearly 1.1 billion 1943 steel cents were minted in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. This saved more than 40,000 pounds of tin and enough copper to manufacture 1.25 million artillery shells.[2]

The public did not like the “steelies.” They didn’t like that they weren’t copper-colored. They didn’t like that they didn’t work in vending machines. They didn’t like when they mistook them for dimes. And they didn’t like when the zinc oxidized and turned black or wore off and the steel rusted.[3] From 1944 to 1946, the US Mint replaced the steelies with pennies that used brass salvaged from spent shell casings as a source of copper and zinc.[4]

A sepia-toned black and white photo looking down a slope towards Pearl Harbor. Sugar cane in the foreground. In the middle ground is a large complex with a tall smokestack with smoke coming out of it. Collection Hawai'i State Archives.
Honolulu Sugar Plantation at ‘Aiea, Oahu with Pearl Harbor in the distance. Ford Island is in the distance to the right. Photo by J.J. Williams, ca. 1915.

Collections of Hawai'i State Archives, Photograph Collection, PPWD-18-2-013.

American nickels also saw a wartime change. In spring 1942, Congress ordered the US Mint to remove all nickel from the five cent coin (originally 75% copper and 25% nickel). Nickel was used to harden steel for uses like tank armor and anti-aircraft guns. The Mint produced wartime nickels made from 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese from 1942 to 1945.[5] Unlike the steelies, these nickels didn’t look much different from their pre-war incarnations. Overall, this change saved the US government about 800,000 pounds of nickel and 1.8 million pounds of copper for the war effort.[6]

Money in Hawai’i.

Even though the US repelled Japanese forces when they attacked Pearl Harbor, the US government was afraid that they might come back and capture Hawai'i. This would be a problem not just for the people of the islands and the US military, but also the US economy. The money used in Hawai'i was American currency. If Japan captured the islands, they would also capture the American cash circulating there. To lose that much currency and to have it in the hands of their enemy could cause havoc.[7]

To solve the problem, in January 1942, the US government pulled all American money out of circulation in Hawai'i (except for $200 per person and $500 per business). To dispose of the $200 million collected, they government took it to the Nu’uanu Mortuary for burning. The crematorium couldn’t handle that much paper at once. It was finally destroyed in the furnaces at the boiler house of the Honolulu Sugar Company (also known as ‘Aiea Sugar Plantation). The smoke from the burning bills would have been visible from the Naval base just across Pearl Harbor.[8]

The government then issued money printed just for use on the islands. They were the same as US currency, but had “HAWAII” printed on both sides of the bill. If Japan took Hawai'i, these bills could be declared useless.[9] These were the only legal paper money on the islands from August 1942 until October 1944. There are stories of people who kept large amounts of this currency hidden in their homes “just in case.” The good news is that it is still legal tender, and worth its face value (though bills in really good condition are often worth more to collectors).[10]
The front and back of a US $10 bill printed in green and black and red. The front is printed with “HAWAII” in small print on the left and right. The back has a large “HAWAII” printed over the image of the US Treasury.
$10 HAWAII overprint note. Photo by Godot13.

Collection of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Money in the Philippines

A silver colored coin with the coat of arms of the Philippine Commonwealth with an eagle and a shield. Words circling the coat of arms read: “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA / 1944.”  Collection of the Author
5 Centavos coin, Filipinas / United States of America, 1944. The coat of arms is of the Philippine Commonwealth. Obverse: A Filipino holding a hammer leans on an anvil, a smoking volcano in the distance. This design was also used pre-World War II. Coin minted in San Francisco.

Megan E. Springate. Collection of the Author.

Before World War II, the Philippines issued their own paper money and coins as a commonwealth of the United States. Some of it came from the mainland, with coins from the San Francisco and Philadelphia Mints and bills printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in DC. Some of the coins were minted at the Manila Mint, also known as Casa de Moneda, the “House of Money.” It was the only US Mint located outside the continental United States. It ceased production in World War II, and was destroyed when Allied forces retook the Philippines in 1945.[11]

As the Japanese occupation of the Philippines spread across the islands in 1941 and 1942, the government emptied the treasury to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. They were able to ship some of it (two tons of gold bullion and 18 tons of silver pesos) to Australia, and hid the rest. When it became clear that Japan was going to take the country, the Filipino government destroyed the hidden riches, burning paper money and government securities. The remaining 390 tons of silver pesos were dropped in the dead of night into a deep and choppy area of Caballo Bay.[12]

It did not take long for the occupying Japanese to find out, and they sent Filipino divers to recover the coins. Several of these divers died from the bends after surfacing too quickly, and the rest refused to continue diving.[13] The Japanese turned to imprisoned US Navy men to replace the Filipinos. They purposefully sabotaged the mission, working very slowly and sometimes pocketing coins. They also insisted on short dives and safety stops so they would not get the bends. By the time the Japanese stopped trying to gather the coins, they had recovered about one-eighth of the treasure which they melted down and shipped back to Japan.[14]

Front and back of a paper bill printed in green and black. The front says “The Japanese Government / One Peso.” On the back, is a large printed “ONE.”
One Peso Japanese Invasion Note. The “P” in the “PE” mark indicates it was issued in the Philippines. The “E” indicates what series it was part of.

Collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1992.23.1623C.

The occupying Japanese brought their own currency to the Philippines. Known as Japanese Invasion Notes, Japanese Occupation Money, and “Mickey Mouse Money” by the locals, it became the only legal currency.[15] Bills in the Philippines were in pesos and centavos and have “The Japanese Government” printed on them.[16]

The front and back of a bill crudely printed in green, red, and dark blue. Collection of the Spurlock Museum.
2 Pesos Emergency Circulating Note. “APAYAO LEGAL TENDER / Issued by authority of the President of the Philippines.” Back: “EMERGENCY CERTIFICATE / COMMONWEALTH OF THE PHILIPPINES / MOUNTAIN PROVINCE / Payable to the bearer in silver pesos or in legal tender of the US. / REDEEMABLE AFTER THE WAR.”

Collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1992.23.1663.

Banknote printed in green, black, red, and dark red. Front: light green background, border and text in black and white. It reads “The Japanese Government / Five Pesos.” Back: red printed border and propaganda text overprinted in dark red.
These Japanese Invasion Notes, captured by Allied forces, were overprinted with propaganda, “The Co-Prosperity Sphere: What is it Worth?” and air dropped into the Philippines.

Collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1992.23.1635A.

Those Filipinos working against the Japanese occupiers needed a way to pay for supplies and food. No one could afford to give supplies away, even if they opposed the Japanese occupation. In response, the Philippine government in exile as well as regional groups and banks printed Emergency Notes (also called guerilla currency or Emergency Circulating Notes) for local use. Forced to use what was available, designs are often crudely stamped on poor quality paper. Those who refused to accept these emergency notes were often perceived as siding with the Japanese. At the same time, those found to have them (and their families) were arrested and often executed.[17]

It took from October 1944 through August 1945 for Allied forces, led by US General Douglas MacArthur, to retake the Philippines.[18] As Allied forces advanced, they began parachuting in large quantities of counterfeit Japanese Invasion Notes. Dropped where guerillas could find them, these were very good counterfeits printed in the US and Australia. They were designed to be spent, making the real versions less valuable. At the same time, Allied forces were overprinting captured Japanese Invasion Notes with “The Co-Prosperity Sphere: What Is It Worth?” The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was the goal of the Japanese Empire: to liberate East Asia from white colonial rule, uniting it for the prosperity of all under the guardianship of Japan. Allies dropped these propaganda notes over the Philippines, encouraging Filipinos who had been suffering under Japanese occupation to oppose it, and to demoralize the Japanese.[19]
Heavy orange border with white text reading “FIVE PESOS.” Within the border it also says “FIVE PESOS.” Overprinted “VICTORY” in black (center). In red above and below, overprinted “CENTRAL BANK / OF THE PHILIPPINES.”
5 Peso VICTORY Note (reverse). Printed by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1944 and overprinted later by the Central Bank of the Philippines.

Image by Jscandila, public domain (Wikimedia).

Returning to the Philippines with General MacArthur were both the Philippine Commonwealth government and Philippine money.[20] Coins, minted in San Francisco and Philadelphia, used the same design as pre-war coins and were dated 1944 and 1945.[21] The bills, dated 1944, were printed in the United States using pre-war designs overprinted with the word “VICTORY.”[22] They were known as the Victory Series No. 66. After the Philippines became an independent nation on July 4, 1946, these Victory notes were overprinted with “Central Bank of the Philippines.” They remained legal tender until July 1964.[23]

Money in Guam

Printed bank note. The border is black with a white “5” in the upper left and lower right corners. Two birds printed in black fly through the green center of the design. A red stamp in the lower left, and a red serial number in the lower right.
Japanese Military 5-Yen, 1940. Front translation: “Empire of Japan 5 Yen Made by the Printing Bureau of the Empire of Japan.” Back: “This note is exchangeable to Japanese currency upon presentation. Severe punishment will be applied to anyone who counterfeits notes or knowingly uses such notes.”

Photo by Megan E. Springate. Collection of the Author.

Prior to (and after) World War II, the legal currency in Guam was the American dollar.[24] When the Japanese captured Guam in December of 1941, they made Japanese yen the only valid currency. They offered to exchange existing American dollars for yen, but the rate was so poor than many Guamanians hid their US dollars instead.[25] The yen issued on Guam was most likely military yen, issued by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces (rather than legal tender issued by the Bank of Japan). Military yen was used to pay Japanese armed forces and used as currency in some occupied territories during World War II. It became useless after American forces retook Guam in July 1944.

Money in Assembly, Incarceration, and Prisoner of War Camps

The systems of currency varied between those considered enemy aliens, Prisoners of War, and those of Japanese descent and their families incarcerated in War Relocation Authority centers. While enemy alien detention centers and Prisoner of War camps relied on scrip for all transactions within them, those incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority dealt with a much more complex system.

War Relocation Assembly and Incarceration Centers

The economies in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) centers and assembly centers ran on a complex and seemingly ever-changing system of US cash, checks, and money orders as well as chits (also called scrip or coupons). When the forced relocation was announced, some were able to sell or rent their assets, and to put those funds into their bank accounts. But not everyone had free access to their pre-war money in the assembly centers and camps for things like supplemental food, mail order goods, and toiletries, or to pay their income and property taxes.[26]
Black and white photo of a Japanese woman in a white dress entering a camp building. To the left of the door a sign reads “Newspapers and Magazines”; to the right, a sign reads “Bank of America.”
A view of the bank and newsstand at the Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California (cropped). Photo by Francis Leroy Stewart, War Relocation Authority, July 1, 1942.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 538244).

Those of Japanese ancestry who were not US citizens (largely first generation Issei) or who banked with a Japanese-owned bank (based either in the US or in Japan) were suspect, and had their accounts blocked or frozen by the US government.[27] When Japanese-owned US banks failed (unsurprising when they were not allowed to operate), their assets were liquidated and clients had the opportunity to file claims for their assets.[28]

Camp residents were paid their allowances and employment income by cash, check, and (less frequently) scrip. Co-ops, offering goods and services and run by camp residents, operated using scrip or cash – and sometimes both.[29] Banking services were available through camp-run banking systems, offices visited by bankers from outside banks, and by the co-ops. Those whose pre-war accounts were not frozen could also transfer money in and out of the camp. Which of these services were available at any given time depended on WRA and center policies, staffing, and other factors.[30] For example, when the Bank of America branch at Tule Lake closed because the bank employee managing it was transferred to a different bank branch, the Co-Op was available to cash checks (but only government and traveler’s checks).[31]

Prisoner of War Camps

All Prisoners of War held in the United States were paid a monthly allowance by the US government into a Treasury account. For enlisted prisoners, this was $3; officers received more (lieutenants $20; captains $30; majors and above $40; Japanese officers received $5 per month less until late in the war). Those POWs (including officers) who chose to work were paid an additional 80 cents per day, roughly equivalent of the 1941 pay of a US private.[32]

Prisoners of War could request to receive some of their pay in camp money called coupons, chits, or scrip. These could then be used within the camp as money. Prisoners were not issued actual US currency in case of escape.[33] Each camp had its own chits. Like point rationing coupons, chits were issued in serial-numbered booklets, often valid only for a period of time, and only the shop clerk was permitted to remove chits to pay for items.[34] Where these chits could be used was printed on them: “Prisoner of War Canteen” or “Prisoner of War Camp Post Exchange.”[35] Items available included toiletries, stationery and postage, tobacco and cigarettes, low alcohol beer (3.2% alcohol), candy, and soft drinks. When POWs were repatriated, they received a check for all the money left in their Treasury accounts plus whatever remaining chits they turned in.[36]

Former Italian POWs who transferred to Italian Service Units after the surrender of Italy in 1943 and those held in alien detention camps -- enemy aliens of Japanese, German, and Italian nationality or ancestry – also used camp-issued scrip. Most used paper chits similar to those used in POW camps (with the difference that they were printed “Internment Camp Canteen”/ “Internment Camp Post Exchange” or “Italian Service Branch.”[37] At least two alien detention camps in Texas, Crystal City and Seagoville, used tokens instead. These were non-metallic tokens made of pressed paper and plastic.[38]

Special Mention

There are two other examples of US money that are related to World War II: the Roosevelt dime (ten cent piece) and the Mary Golda Ross one dollar coin.

A silver-colored coin. Front: bust of FDR facing left, text: “LIBERTY / IN GOD WE TRUST / 2005.” Back: a torch, oak leaves, and an olive branch, text: “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA / E PLURIBUS UNUM / ONE DIME.”
An example of the Roosevelt dime design. The “P” over the date indicates it was minted at Philadelphia.

United States Mint, 2005.

Roosevelt Dime

President Roosevelt, who had carried the United States through the Great Depression and most of World War II, died in April 1945. With popular support, the dime was redesigned with his face on one side and torches on the other. Sculptor Selma Burke, an African American woman, created the bas relief sculpture of FDR that was adapted for use on the dime. In the 1920s, she was part of the Harlem Renaissance. During the Great Depression, she taught art to youth in New York City with the Works Progress Administration. She was also one of the first African American women to enlist in the Navy during World War II. She drove a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until she was injured. It was while recuperating that she sculpted the image of President Roosevelt. In order to assure a proper likeness, she asked for (and received) permission to sketch the president in person at the White House. She completed the sculpture in 1944.[39]

The Roosevelt dime went into circulation for 1946, and is the design we still use today. The 10 cent denomination was chosen because of President Roosevelt’s close association with the organization, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. FDR founded the organization in 1938 to combat polio – a disease he had been diagnosed with in 1921. Their first annual fundraising drive, called the March of Dimes, brought in donations of over 2.6 million dimes. The organization was later renamed the March of Dimes Foundation.[40]

Gold-colored coin, woman at a table facing right, a slide rule beside her. She is writing. Over her shoulder a rocket launches. Math equations are written in the smoke. Above are several stars and an astronaut. Text: “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”
Mary Golda Ross is featured on the US 2019 one-dollar coin.

Courtesy the United States Mint.

Mary Golda Ross One Dollar Coin

The second is the US 2019 one dollar coin featuring Mary Golda Ross. Ross was the first Native American woman engineer. Her great-great-grandfather was Cherokee Chief John Ross. She received her Master’s degree in mathematics in 1938. In 1942, Mary Ross was hired by Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects (colloquially known as the Skunk Works). Her job was to rescue the P-38 Lightning aircraft project.

Rushed into production for the war, the plane was unstable as it reached the speed of sound, and pilots died. Mary Ross was on a team of “computers” -- women who did the calculations needed for research. The team of women for the P-38 Lightning successfully calculated changes to the plane’s design to make it stable. After the war, when many women lost their jobs, Ross stayed at Lockheed. She later worked on early space projects.[41]
A small rectangular piece of paper. It is purple with black and red printing. Black printing reads “Prisoner of War Camp, Camp Ellis, Illinois. Not Good If Detached. 5 Cents. No.” and a serial number in red, “26064A.”
A 5 cent chit (camp money) for use at the World War II Prisoner of War Camp at Camp Ellis, Illinois.

Photo by Megan E. Springate. Collection of the author.

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023