Photograph of gold nugget

Aram Dulyan. Via Wikipedia Commons

Gold is one of the rarest yet most familiar of metals. That it is found in workable concentrations at all is a result of its tendency to be concentrated in pyrite or quartz veins arising from hydrothermal action near the boundaries of underground magma bodies. Its inertness and great specific weight allows it to be further concentrated in placer deposits. Most likely the richest deposits have undergone this process repeatedly. It is estimated that the entire amount of gold extracted over human history would fit into a cube 67 feet (20.4 meters) on a side. Almost all this gold is still in circulation, since gold is chemically almost as inert as the noble gases, giving it remarkable durability.

Gold is used in dentistry and jewelry, but by far its most important use was and is as money. Its characteristic physical properties, its durability, and its scarceness make it an almost ideal basis for currency. However, most nations have gone off the gold standard, since they desire a more flexible money supply than gold provides. Gold has several industrial uses today in high-tech applications, but it had almost none at the time of the Pacific war.

Gold is mined either from placer deposits, where its heavy specific gravity allows easy separation from the gangue (panning for gold), or increasingly from primary ore bodies as the placer deposits are exhausted. Even the richest gold ores typically contain only a few ounces of gold per ton of gangue rock, so that the gold must be extracted chemically from the crushed ore. Its inertness means that chemical extraction is limited to either the mercury or cyanide processes, both of which involve highly toxic chemicals and the potential for environmental damage.

Gold is found in the central ranges of New Guinea and accounted for many of the settlements and airstrips on that island. It was also mined at Baguio in the Philippines, Kolar in India, Vatukoula on Viti Levu, and in several locations in western North America. Japan mined about half its gold in Korea. Since gold had almost no industrial uses in 1941, it was not a limiting resource, and the amount produced during the war had little effect on the money supplies of belligerent nations.

Japan had gold reserves of about $500 million in 1930, but the decision to return the yen to the gold standard just as the Smoot-Hawley tariffs went into effect proved disastrous, with half of the reserves drained in a single year in a vain effort to prop up the yen. The remaining gold reserves were mobilized after the beginning of the China Incident in 1937 and sold in the United States to raise dollars to finance the war. Fully 55% of the reserves, $250 million dollars worth, were disposed in 1937. Strenuous efforts to increase production were only partially successful, with  total Japanese production peaking at $63 million in 1939. The Japanese government also encouraged citizens to turn in their gold jewelry and other treasures ("smashed gold") and eventually collected $119 million. The U.S. government made no effort to block gold sales, incorrectly calculating that the gold reserves would soon be exhausted and Japan would be forced to make peace. Instead, American bank inspectors discovered in August 1940 that the Japanese had quietly built up a "war chest" of over $100 million in American financial institutions that had been concealed through fraudulent financial reporting. This was a major factor motivating the subsequent freezing of Japanese assets.

The United States had historically been a major gold producter from the California and Alaska fields, and by 1941 it held most of the world's gold reserves. With the United States exporting much of the arms and munitions used by the United Nations, these reserves were largely untouched at the end of the war, and the dollar became the premier reserve currency in the postwar world.

Gold mines in the Pacific









Miller (2007)

Neff (2007; accessed 2012-8-2)

Van Royen and Bowles (1952)

Vatukoula Gold Mine Website (accessed 2010-7-24)

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