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War Nickels Were Made With Silver
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
March 28, 2011

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Nickel was a hot item during World War II. When western movie star Johnny Mack Brown’s six-shooters were sent to be nickel-plated, they came back with silver instead. Pretty much the same thing happened to the Jefferson “five-cent coin,” as the government called it.

Armor plate and other military uses had top priority for nickel during the war. By September 1942, five-cent pieces were scarce because of heavy demand and a nickel shortage. As a result, the Federal Reserve temporarily suspended nickel shipments.

Recognizing the need to remove nickel from the five-cent piece, Treasury officials considered several options. One of them was for a five-cent piece composed of copper and manganese. However, the Miami News pre

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dicted “slenderized” nickels in the proposed alloy would turn yellow.

In August 1942, officials announced a plan to strike five-cent pieces in an alloy of 50 percent silver and 50 percent copper. But they soon dropped the idea because of rising silver prices and the failure of test coins to work in vending machines.

They finally decided to use an alloy of copper, silver and manganese. It may not seem practical today, but in 1942 the silver in the revised nickel was only worth one or two cents.

Denver Mint Superintendent Moses Smith announced production of nickel-less five-cent pieces would begin

Sept. 1, 1942. The Philadelphia and San Francisco mints would also strike wartime five-cent pieces.

Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau gave samples of the new coins to reporters on Oct. 8, 1942. The public had to wait until Nov. 1 for the official release.

In addition to their alloy, which darkened with age, war nickels were distinguished by a large mintmark above Monticello’s dome. For the first time, a “P” appeared for Philadelphia.

Experimental five-cent pieces with a reeded edge had been struck before oversized mintmarks were chosen as a distinguishing feature.

Nearly 900 million five-cent pieces poured from the presses from 1942-1945, pushing U.S. silver use to record levels. The five-cent pieces returned to its former alloy in 1946, but silver nickels circulated for decades.

In 1953, Francis Henning made counterfeit nickels in his New Jersey machine shop. He used several different dates, including 1944. But he forgot to add the “P” mintmark. Henning’s counterfeit 1944 nickels were slightly larger and heavier than the real thing, and they weren’t the right alloy.

Coin collector Walter Williams was the first person to spot some of the phony nickels. At first the Secret Service pronounced them genuine. But the Mint superintendent wasn’t sure and sent them to a lab. It found them to be counterfeits.

With federal agents hot on the trail, Henning dumped thousands of counterfeit nickels into the Cooper River. He was arrested in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1955. Weeks later, police found $10,000 in counterfeit nickels and two of the six dies Henning had used to make them. They were at the bottom of the river.

Henning was tried, convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. The judge added three years to the sentence when he learned of Henning’s plan to counterfeit $5 bills.

By the 1960s, wartime five-cent pieces were worth more than face value. Millions were melted, despite the Mint director’s warning the meltings were not in the public interest. In 1966, silver-alloy nickels were worth seven cents. Massive meltings resulted in a severe shortage of five-cent pieces in New England.

Even so, there are plenty of survivors. Today, several war nickel dates are valued at less than $10 in Mint State-60.



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Comments
On March 29, 2011 Rick P. said
Interesting article about the "weird bird" that is the War Nickel. See Why I Hate The War...Nickel, for a light-hearted article on this strange coin http://survivalus.blogspot.com/2010/06/why-i-hate-warnickel.html .

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