Milkweed, though, was not the first choice for life preserver stuffing. During World War II, the Japanese gained control of the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), cutting off the main U.S. supply of floss, which came from the tropical kapok tree. Like the common milkweed, kapok seeds are carried aloft by delicate strands of cotton-like fiber.
Luckily, milkweed proved an acceptable substitute. One problem, though, was that it would take upward of three years to produce a commercial crop. Thus the government had no choice but to make the unusual call for the collection of seed pods wherever the plant grew wild.
W.I. DeWees, an assistant professor of agriculture from Illinois State Normal University, was state superintendent for the floss collection program. With labor – both in the city and countryside – at a premium, schoolchildren were enlisted in the cause. This was a time before the complete mechanization of the farm and school consolidation, so there were many more children and many more schools in the Illinois countryside than today.
Therefore, it was schoolchildren who spent the untold hours walking fencerows, roadsides and railroad right of ways looking for milkweed, which before the war was considered little more than a weed.