When a weed went to war

University of New Hampshire Library

It it hadn’t been for school kids picking milkweeds, a lot of sailors wouldn’t have lived long enough to tell their stories of surviving ship sinkings in World War II.

Beverly Walker, of Madison, Wis., probably helped save quite a few of them.

She’s profiled in a marvelous story by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Meg Jones today, because she got to meet a sailor or two who were saved by milkweed.

During World War II, the government encouraged people to pick milkweed, which was used in life jackets aboard Navy ships. So Walker did.

“Our teacher said you need to pick them on your way home from school,” Walker, 84, tells the JS. “They told us it was to save lives, to save brothers and fathers.”

That’s the way things were back then; you did your part.

And that was good news for Mel Jacob, who was 19 when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the Pacific. Only 900 men survived the sinking. For four days Jacob held onto a life jacket full of milkweed.

Of the 1,200 men aboard the ship, 900 survived the sinking. Three-hundred-seventeen came out of the water alive, thanks to kids like Walker.

She met some of the survivors at a recent reunion.

“I kind of think they were shocked” when they learned about milkweed and the connection to their life jackets, Walker said of the Indianapolis survivors. She asked each of the 11 survivors at the reunion to stand up and say how many days they were in the water. One man said if hadn’t been for the life jackets, there would be no reunion because none would have survived.

“Everybody did what they had to back then. Nobody said ‘thank you.’ You just did it,” Walker said. “It’s almost a miracle. This simple weed saved so many lives.”