During World War II, even the youngest of Americans contributed to the US war effort. Whether through planting victory gardens or holding war-stamp drives at school, young people from across the United States knew their volunteerism on the Home Front was vital to victory on the overseas battlefront. No one wanted to be left out or be seen as not doing their part, especially not six-year-old Billy Michal of Zimmerman, Louisiana, attending first grade in a one-room rural schoolhouse with 11 other classmates.
While the tiny Rapides Parish hamlet of Zimmerman and its one-room schoolhouse might have seemed like long shots to win a statewide student “scrapping” competition sponsored by a Louisiana newspaper in the fall of 1942, the township enjoyed a distinct advantage in being built around a local sawmill. Once the students had exhausted the supply of their own personal possessions to scrap—Billy Michal even going so far as to toss his toy wagon and his sister’s tricycle on the scrap pile—other members of the Michal family who managed and worked in the sawmill intervened on the students’ behalf. Company officials, including Michal’s father and grandfather, made sure that all of the sawmill’s scrap metal would be added to the school’s collection effort. At the conclusion of the contest, Zimmerman Rural School was credited with collecting an average of 9,166.7 pounds per student, far surpassing any other school in the state.
In recognition of his personal contributions to the scrap drive, Billy Michal was one of three Louisiana students chosen to be invited to the January 1943 launch of the Liberty Ship SS Leonidas Polk in New Orleans. Michal also enjoyed an “inspection tour” of the city aboard a US Army jeep and a visit to Audubon Zoo.
Following the war, Michal attended Louisiana State University before entering Loyola University Dental School, graduating with a DDS degree in 1961. After a tour in the Air Force, Michal completed his studies with an MS in pedodontics, opening the first fully integrated dental office in Baton Rouge in 1966. Michal retired in 2011.
Michal’s early childhood efforts in support of the American war effort in 1942 were lovingly documented in a scrapbook kept by Michal’s mother, which was donated to The National WWII Museum in 2002. Since then, Michal’s example of hard work and patriotism have been used in numerous Museum education initiatives including the Get in the Scrap! service learning project.
In 2017, for the annual American Spirit Awards inaugural Student Leadership Award, Michal, in addition to receiving the Silver Service Medallion, was chosen to serve as the student award’s namesake. In June 2017, 48 students from across the country, inspired by his example, traveled to the Museum to receive the Billy Michal Student Leadership Award. Many of the students also got to meet Michal during the course of the awards weekend.
Though he has little memory of the actual scrap drive itself, Michal said the American Spirit Awards “was one of the greatest days of my life.”