Cork Goes to War

Before the age of plastics, cork was king in the American manufacturing industry. Author David Taylor sits down with Brian to bring us a story about how a fire at the Crown Cork and Seal factory raised suspicions of Nazi Sabotage and threatened national security on the eve of World War II.


Lode Runner by Podington Bear

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Brian: Come with me to Baltimore on the eve of World War II when American national security was threatened by a factory fire, Nazi sabotage, and cork. You heard it, cork.

David: For much of the first half of the 20th century, before there was widespread plastic use.

Brian: That’s author David Taylor.

David: Cork in granulated form was used to seal and to insulate and to buffer things in industry. So whether it was in gaskets in car engines or to glaze windshields, there were many industrial uses for cork that we don’t think of today.

Brian: Found in countless consumer products, cork was a hidden necessity in everyday life. So imagine the alarm when an entire harvest of cork caught fire at the Crown Cork and Seal on September 17, 1940.

David: This was over a year before the US entered World War II, but there was already an atmosphere of paranoia and the fear of Nazi sabotage and activity on the East Coast, and so …

Brian: Because of course the war was flaring in Europe.

David: It was flaring in Europe and Germany was trying to keep the US out, and so it was basically using fear tactics to do that. And so there was ports and factories were on high alert, and then in this September late afternoon, suddenly the cork in the cork yard at Crown Cork and Seal burst into flame, and it was a tremendous fire covering like nine acres of cork in two nights of fire. It drew 400 firefighters. You could see the fire from as far away as Philadelphia some said.

Brian: Wow.

David: Yeah. It was the biggest fire in Baltimore of that century at that point. And so, it was just a spectacular in and of itself. And then the fact that it was that late in the fall, after the harvest of cork, it made it … It was that much bigger, and that much kind of more devastating because it wiped out basically a year’s supply of the cork.

Brian: At the time, the United States was the world’s leading importer of cork all of which came from European forests, and with Germany blockading the Atlantic, America’s cork supply was in serious peril.

David: That fire with its spectacle and the timing alerted the national security machinery basically to say, this is a potential vulnerability that we have. The foreign Commerce Department looked at what the flows of cork was and how cork was used in the defense industry and that we were ramping our role as the arsenal of democracy, and so the manufacturing was key, and it was at that September 1940. After that you see that cork goes under allotment the way that rubber goes in.

Brian: And is that because so much was wiped out in this one fire or because as a result of the fire, they said, wait a second, we better really start allocating this.

David: I think it was more the latter that it was the attention that it drew to this fact that we were completely reliant on a foreign supply of this natural product.

Brian: Almost immediately after the fire, rumors of sabotage began to circulate, and they weren’t entirely unfounded. Glaring questions emerged about the timing of the fire, which erupted after a new shipment of cork had just arrived, and multiple stories of Nazi spy activity on the East Coast made headline news.

David: The FBI at that point of the fire had already been tracking a real Nazi spy ring based in Long Island. A man named Fritz Duquesne had started it, but he did have plans for infrastructure bombing and disruption, and so when their ring was actually arrested a few months later after the fire, it just validated public concerns that there were these hidden forces at play.

Brian: Taking these suspicions into account, the FBI launched a secret investigation into the origins of the fire. Agents descended on Baltimore to collect any information related to the incident, but in the end, the investigation found no evidence of foul play.

David: One of the articles later during the time took a look at these, a bunch of these factory fire and explosion instances, and saying at that point, fire forensics was so early that a fire would destroy the evidence of its origins.

Brian: Sure.

David: And so it’s not surprising there was no conclusive finding at the time. For me, it’s a less critical about whether or not it was deliberately started, but what’s interesting is how the response pushed this company and the whole sector into the limelight of national security.

Brian: A few months before America entered World War II, the government declared cork a critical material for national security. And someone in the cork industry mounted a campaign to plant cork trees on US soil in an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on the European supply of cork.

David: Crown Cork and Seal’s owner, Charles McManus Sr., said well maybe we can grow our way out of this crisis, and grow our way out of this vulnerability, and he worked with agronomists and arborists to say what zones can we grow cork in? And he developed a public campaign working with state governors and state forest agencies and 4H clubs.

Brian: So I have Arizona in mind.

David: Yes.

Brian: Is that where it was?

David: Well, it was the whole arc across the South from Maryland to Louisiana to, yes, Arizona and California. The whole sweep of the country that way growing cork.

Brian: And did that every get put into production or does it take longer than that?

David: It’s interesting. That’s what intrigued me to read about this campaign. It’s such a longterm investment. It would take 20 years before you could harvest from the trees, but it was for morale and for potentially other reasons, it was worthwhile doing, and so you had millions of cork oak seedlings planted and you had people checking out the quality of cork, practicing harvesting, trying to get that practice going in case it caught on for the industry.

Brian: David says some of those cork trees are still part of the landscape today. The living monuments to the devastating fire that erupted at the Crown Cork and Seal factory in September 1940.

David: I’ve also heard from people in the Carolinas that say, yes, in fact my father, a farmer, was really intrigued by this campaign, and so we planted cork, and they’re still alive and still growing. So there are some in the landscape. I think in many places they’re sort of incognito, ’cause people don’t know where they came from originally, but if you see a 70 or 80 year old tree, and it looks like its bark is sort of woolied and spongy feeling, check it out, it could be a cork tree.

Brian: David Taylor is a freelance writer and the author of many books, including Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II.