U.S. Geological Survey

World War II

Topographic mapping of strategic areas in accordance with military priorities was begun in 1940. In 1940 also, the State Department allotted funds to the Geological Survey to begin investigations in cooperation with other American republics to identify mineral deposits of potential importance in hemisphere trade.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, abruptly ushered the United States from defense to war and united Americans in a determination to defeat the Axis powers. For the next several years, the Geological Survey bent its entire energies to the war effort. The Geologic, Topographic, Water Resources, and Conservation Branches each made its own special contribution.

Figure 34. William Embry Wrather, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 1943-1956.

Production, the keystone of the American effort, was based on metals and other raw materials, which were the province of the Geologic Branch. The strategic-minerals program begun in 1939 as an adjunct to the geologic program was gradually extended from seven strategic minerals to base metals to nonmetallic resources, especially oil, and to rare metals. Geologists, geophysicists, chemists, physicists, petrologists, and paleontologists were all drawn into service, and the Geological Survey reached out to universities and industry to recruit others. The search for needed resources covered not only the United States but also, under the auspices of the State Department or the Board of Economic Warfare, Latin America and other foreign areas. New methods were devised to aid in the search, among them airborne magnetic surveying, which the Survey developed in cooperation with the Navy, and the Geologic Branch formed a group that used the extensive library resources to prepare terrain reports on strategic areas for military engineers. Eventually several members of the group joined the engineers in the war theaters.The Topographic Branch continued the strategic mapping program on behalf of the War Department until the threat of invasion passed and then became deeply involved in the production of maps of foreign areas for the military. The trimetrogon mapping program was developed for rapid production of aeronautical charts, at first of Alaska and then of other areas of the world as well. The Water Resources Branch supplied information on the quantity, quality, and availability of surface and ground water needed for cantonments, naval stations, military hospitals, training fields, airfields, manufacturing plants, and a host of other purposes in more than 15,000 special reports. The Conservation Branch was stretched to cover the greatly expanded production of mineral resources from the public lands.

Figure 35. Military geologists opening a box of soil samples from the Southwest Pacific, 1945.

In 1943, as the Federal Government began planning for the postwar era, Director Mendenhall, who had served 2 years beyond then mandatory retirement age by Presidential exemption, was succeeded by William Embry Wrather. For most of his life, Wrather, a graduate of the University of Chicago who had been a Survey field assistant in 1907, had been an eminently successful consulting petroleum geologist, but when he was named Director he was Associate Chief of the Metals and Minerals Division of the Board of Economic Warfare. In the fall of 1943, Wrather was a member of the small mission sent by the Petroleum Administrator for War, Harold Ickes, to appraise the petroleum resources of the Middle East, and Thomas B. Nolan, a geologist in the Metals Section who had played a leading role in the strategic-minerals program, became Acting Director. A year later, in December 1944, Nolan became the Survey's first Assistant Director. Nolan, like Clarence King, the first Director, was a graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and also had a strong interest in research to aid the mineral industry. Nolan had joined the Survey in 1924, after receiving his doctorate from Yale, and his abilities had been quickly recognized. While still only an Assistant Geologist, he was made chief of the Gold Hill project in Utah, and his study of the Tonopah mining district in Nevada helped to revitalize the district. In 1933, the International Geological Congress had awarded him its Spendiarov Prize as a particularly promising young geologist. The Assistant Director was expected to be the principal assistant and deputy to the Director in the general administration of the Survey and representative and deputy of the Director on official or technical committees or in conferences with the officers of the Department, other Federal agencies, and cooperating agencies. In corporate terms, Nolan was the Chief Executive Officer of the Survey and Wrather the Chairman of the Board in the effort to ensure full use of Survey resources in winning the war and in the postwar world.

Figure 36. Geologist operating airborne magnetic equipment, 1945.


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Last updated 04.10.00