Photograph of split coconut

Wikimedia Commons

Copra is dried coconut meat.  It is valued for its high content of coconut oil, the most important tropical oil in 1941.  Coconut oil was used in everything from soaps to edible lubricants (used in food processing machinery). Most American soap contained a pound of tropical oil for every two pounds of domestic fats or oils when war broke out. The author recalls his grandmother popping popcorn in pure coconut oil, which yielded a rather distinctive taste.

Coconut oil can be used as diesel fuel in sufficiently warm climates, where temperatures do not drop low enough for the oil to congeal. The Philippines have such a climate, and guerrilla forces there made use of coconut oil as a substitute for diesel oil.

Coconut palms require a tropical climate to thrive, with constant warm temperatures and high moisture.  This restricts coconut plantations to oceanic or coastal regions within 25° of the equator.  The South Pacific is nearly ideal coconut country, and the only economic development in many backwards jungle regions, such as the Solomons, was coconut plantations. Productivity was around 3500 coconuts per acre (8000 coconuts per hectare) per year.

Unripe coconuts contain coconut water, which is rich in potassium and other electrolytes and contains some sugar. The concentration of solids is low enough that coconut water could be used as a safe substitute for stream water, which might be contaminated. However, Japanese troops in the South Pacific found that rice boiled in coconut water was unpleasantly sweet.

Surprisingly, coconut-shell char, a byproduct of copra production, was listed as one of seventeen strategic materials that could not be produced in adequate quantities within the United States and whose import was deemed critical. It was considered essential for use in gas masks.


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