US Iron and Aluminum Mining During WW2

Quote of the Day

Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.

— General Jim Mattis. His answer to the question, "What keeps you up at night?"

Figure 1: Hematite Crystal. I used to find smaller versions of these crystals when I was a boy. (Wikipedia)

Figure 1: Hematite Crystal. I used to find smaller versions of these crystals when I was a boy. (Wikipedia)

My vacation/retirement cabin is in the iron mining region of Minnesota. The rock throughout the area shows the reddish hue of iron. I recently heard some old-timers talking about how the intensity of mining operations during WW2 took the last of the high-grade iron ore (hematite –Figure 1) and left only low-grade ore (taconite). This comment made me curious about mining during WW2.

Because metals were so important to the war effort during WW2, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the war affected iron and aluminum mining. Since I have often heard people say that WW2 pulled the US out of the Great Depression, this data may help illustrate what really happened.

All of the data is from the US Census Bureau's The Historical Statistics of the United States 1789 - 1945 (link – 55 MBytes). I am not going into the nuances of gathering the data because it required only doing Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the document. All I did was make a couple of simple graphs. However, the graphs are interesting.

For this exercise, I defined the war years as 1940 through 1945. Technically, the US did not enter the war until late 1941, but the US had started supplying materials almost immediately after hostilities started on 1-Sep-1939. Production greatly increased with the passing of the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940.

Figure 2 shows how WW2 affected iron ore production. Note how iron ore production had dropped to less than 30 million tons in 1938 (see Recession of 1937-1938), but rose steadily to its peak in 1942. Production then declined each year during the rest of the war (1943-1945). We see that iron ore production increased, but it was not an order of magnitude. Aluminum ore was a different matter.

Figure 2: US Iron Ore Production from 1914 to 1945.

Figure 2: US Iron Ore Production from 1914 to 1945.

Figure 3 shows how WW2 affected aluminum ore (bauxite) production. Ore is key to the production of primary (non-recycled) aluminum. Note the dramatic rise in bauxite production as compared to that of iron ore. Since aluminum is important to the production of aircraft, this chart shows the massive increase in the production of aircraft that occurred during the war.

Figure 3: US Bauxite Production from 1914 to 1945.

Figure 3: US Bauxite Production from 1914 to 1945.

For those who are curious, my Excel workbook is here.

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6 Responses to US Iron and Aluminum Mining During WW2

  1. A bit of trivia I once stumbled upon was that at the end of WWII there were more brand new planes (fighters, bombers etc...) sitting, waiting on the ground at factories in the USA than had fought in the entire war (from all nations).

    In other words while the ability of axis countries to produce planes was virtually nil, the US was just getting started.

    The great majority of these planes were obviously made from aluminium, or alloys thereof.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Hi John,
      I am sure there were thousands; you could get the number by looking at the factory produced versus military accepted. That data exists. This shows the importance of having a well-resourced manufacturing infrastructure that was not subject to attack.

      It is a stunning thing to me that the Allies and Axis produced hundreds of thousands of aircraft during WW2. By the end, the majority were obsolete and soon destined for the boneyards. The arrival of the jet engine and new aerodynamic designs (e.g., swept wings) changed everything.

      Thanks for your comment.


  2. Robert Murphree says:

    in wwii aluminum was mined Ozarks arkansas, missouri, Oklahoma, processed by new dams on ozark plateau (including oklahoma) and central plains power executives, part of the future southwest power pool, southwest who made handshake deals to deliver power needed to convert. no proof, but I would guess alot of that aluminum was used to produce planes in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    arkansas production aluminum in wwii
    southwest power pool began for aluminum in wwii.

  3. mathscinotes says:

    I had no idea that aluminum was mined and processed in the South. Thanks for the links.


  4. Robert Murphree says:

    The ozark area was once a rain forest which eventually formed bauxite deposits. The local topographic uplift gives rise to vertical relief and hydropower potential. Some dams preceded the war. I like the power companies working as an example of cooperation in our county during wwii. We can do a lot when we work together. Soon forgotten today

  5. Robert Murphree says:

    The ne Oklahoma Vinita tri-state lead mining district produced bullets for first and Second World War. Production ended sometime after wwii. Acid lead tailings, ground subsidence and human exposure led to move to buyout property owners and encouraging people to leave. OU environmental eng have done nice work on low tech bioengineering pond system to treat acid metal contamination. This might have happened without the war. The environmental generation had yet to be born hays high earth day 1970.

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