By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Sixty-five years ago Friday, May 28, the New York Times reported that Henry J. Kaiser, as national chairman of the United National Clothing Collection, had announced that more than 125 million pounds had been gathered on the way to a 150-million-pound goal for overseas war relief.
It was a momentous time as America prepared for the first Memorial Day following Germany’s unconditional surrender—VE Day—less than three weeks earlier and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt only six weeks earlier.
In an example of Henry Kaiser’s spirit of supporting the social needs of people, he had agreed in January to chair the clothing drive at the request of President Roosevelt.
Said the President in a Jan. 22 letter to Kaiser: “…As many war victims have died from exposure and a lack of adequate clothing as have died from starvation… The importance of the cause demands a leader who will stimulate thousands of our people throughout the land to give vast amounts of volunteer service, as well as inspire all Americans everywhere to contribute all the clothing they can spare. I am confident your personal leadership will command the nationwide cooperation needed for success…”
Henry Kaiser had never led such a national campaign before, but took up the cause with the same gusto with which he had built ships for the war, and which had earned him nicknames as the “can-do” industrialist and the “patriot in pinstripes.”
There is enough spare clothing in America’s clothes closets and attics,” he said, “to go far toward relieving the stress of these innocent people.”
By a mid-March kick-off, Kaiser had 2,500 volunteer local chair people lined up on his way to 7,600 for the drive. The goal was surpassed with a total of 150,366,014 pounds of used clothes, shoes and bedding shipped overseas.
As if that were not enough, Kaiser repeated the feat after VJ Day— the surrender of Japan on Aug. 14, 1945.
World War II was finally over and Kaiser this time responded to a request from President Harry Truman.
The sponsoring agency for both volunteer drives was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which had been formed by participating World War II allied nations. It was disbanded after the war, with its functions transferred to agencies of the newly formed United Nations, establishment of which had been supported by Kaiser.
By example, Kaiser further embedded into his organizations a spirit of service to the common good that continues to this day within his lasting legacy, Kaiser Permanente, co-founded with surgeon Sidney R. Garfield and open to the public in October 1945.
As one of his biographers, Albert P. Heiner, summed it up: “…Once again, Kaiser had proved he was more than an exciting industrialist, he was a man with a heart.”