On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, an event that led to the incarceration of over 110,000 men, women and children across the western United States. Two thirds of those prisoners were American citizens. What crime did these prisoners commit? None. In the eyes of the United States government, they were guilty of possessing Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) at the same time that the U.S. declared war with Japan.
In response to growing fear and hysteria following the attack, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 established a military exclusion zone along the west coast of the U.S.
The result: the U.S. government revoked the constitutional rights of legal citizens based on race (Nikkei). The events that followed became the largest forced removal of U.S. citizens in our nation’s history.
Torn from homes, friends, farms, and businesses, Nikkei families faced incarceration behind barbed wire in one of ten internment camps scattered across the U.S. Located on tracts of undeveloped federal land, a central goal of these centers was to use the large labor force of relocated Japanese Americans to establish farming communities and transform harsh landscapes into profitable properties.
Over time, our fellow incarcerated Americans exceeded the U.S. government’s land development goals. Thus, despite their unjust circumstances, the Nikkei strived to break through racial stereotypes and support the Allied war effort.
A central component of Nikkei land development included food production within the prison camps and on local farms owned by white, rural landowners. A careful examination of Nikkei labor reveals the inextricable link between food and World War II.
Without a steady food supply, militaries cannot function. Without a reliable food source, home fronts cannot maintain their manufacturing of materials required for an extended war effort. Food shortages in the United States at the outset of America’s entrance to WWII led to the adoption of a rationing program.
At present there is a rich body of literature on Allied rationing efforts and the stress governments placed on domestic citizens to produce as much food as possible. Within this corpus, the role of emergency harvester programs such as the Women’s Land Army and the Crop Corps emerge as the unsung Anglo heroes of the domestic food shortage.
However, the scholarship overlooks the role of non-Anglo emergency harvesters such as the Mexican Braceros and the Nikkei prisoners. Yet these emergency harvesters, and especially the Nikkei, dramatically improved the local food supply in their communities.
My research focuses on the contributions of imprisoned Japanese Americans to the war both in an effort at sustaining the country’s food supply as well as proving their loyalty to a distrustful nation. A central effort in complementing the rich supply of primary source material is recovering untold accounts of those who lived through internment.
With an aging and declining group of survivors, oral histories are crucial to collect and preserve the recollections of those who experienced the incarceration. Recently I had the fortune of interviewing Fujiko Tamura Gardner, interned behind Minidoka Relocation Center’s barbed wire at age ten. Her story adds great depth and insight into an already compelling event.
Included in Gardner’s accounts are memories of her family’s experiences harvesting food in local areas. Expelled from their farm in the Seattle area, this family’s journey to inclusion in Idaho agriculture is representative of thousands of other experiences:
The Nikkei transition from persecuted “undesirables” to “model minority” and saviors of the war was difficult. Through its outstanding efforts at improving race relations through food production, Minidoka Relocation Center, termed “Hunt” by locals, became an example for not only other camps, but the entire nation.
Located on the harsh sagebrush desert of Jerome County in South Central Idaho, confused and frightened Japanese Americans began arriving in August 1942. Minidoka’s population quickly peaked at 10,000 — designating it the seventh largest city in the state at the time.
Creation of such a large settlement presented an adjustment for all as Minidoka represented a new population base comprised of different cultures than the local areas had experienced. The experience presented a unique situation with little-to-no precedence to follow. With hostile locals unhappy at the arrival of their new neighbors, farming associations representing towns near Minidoka voted overwhelmingly against utilizing evacuee labor.
Despite uneasiness between locals and incarcerated Nikkei, food shortages were becoming more pronounced. As the war dragged on through 1942, an early cold season threatened to destroy a large portion of the nation’s food supply. Lack of labor from increasing numbers of western farmers departing for military service compounded difficulties in producing enough food for a hungry country. As the nation’s food situation became dire, local farming communities grudgingly requested aid from Minidoka’s residents.
With requests for labor pouring in to the Minidoka Placement Office, many internees saw labor assistance as an answer to proving their loyalty. Within the first few weeks of internment, 1,280 Nikkei had answered the call for aid — a majority of whom toiled on Idaho sugar beet fields.
One reason for such a significant volunteer turnout was the prisoner’s hope that they could transcend their race and resume their lives as American citizens with full civil liberties. Unable at this point to serve in the military — which Nikkei viewed as their biggest bargaining chip in their re-acceptance to the nation — the opportunity of producing food would allow them to aid in combating the global starvation expected to occur during the next winter. Most emergency harvesters received sliding wages agreed upon between the government and farmers.
For grueling work that entailed beginning before sunrise and arriving home after sunset, an average wage of $16 per month compensated Nikkei. To supplement meager wages, additional benefits were offered to emergency harvesters. Those employed outside the center for large sugar refineries — expected to comprise the majority of requests for evacuee labor — would be allowed to prepare their own meals on site.
This represented a significant draw to those incarcerated since food and dining conditions within the camps was unsatisfying. Food prepared by cooks with little experience was often served either nearly raw or burnt to a crisp. Although encouraged to eat in camp cafeterias, many white staff members at Minidoka refused because the food was nearly inedible. Thus, the ability to prepare their own food outside the center was an appealing advantage.
Fujiko Tamura Gardner recalls how this ability to work outside camps and farm once again impacted her father, who like many other displaced patriarchs had begun to withdrawal during their early incarceration: “Going to the farm labor camp, Twin Falls, that really saved my father. I am grateful to the Idaho farmers for wanting us to help them harvest their crops and I’m grateful that Twin Falls had the farm labor camp where we could go and live.” Although many Nikkei related gratitude for the opportunity of outside work, government officials heaped the most praise upon them as results of the success of 1942’s harvest were revealed. The U.S. Agricultural Department even went so far as to credit such large sums of Japanese American harvesters as saviors of the nation’s crops.
Of all the crops saved, sugar represented one of the most crucial. In addition to its importance of providing high calories to workers on the American home-front and hungry soldiers fighting in Europe and the Pacific, sugar represented a crucial ingredient in munitions manufacturing. In a military conflict which relied on heavy bombing campaigns, and nitrated cane sugars — sucrose — comprising a common component of nitroglycerin explosives, sugar yields became a matter of national security. Working outside the camps, such as the Tamura family did, became a major element of internment life. During 1942-1945 nearby communities consistently requested both domestic and physical labor assistance from Minidoka. For the duration of the war Minidoka assisted in farm labor more than any other camp, helping race relations as well as filling hungry appetites.
While the ensuing improved racial relations were undoubtedly beneficial, they were achieved at the expense of this persecuted minority group neglecting their own farms and future food supply. As harvest seasons ended, workers returned to their holding facilities behind barbed wire to concentrate on their own food production. Cultivating thousands of acres of dry sagebrush landscapes into producible farmland presented a formidable task. By the close of Minidoka in August 1945, the land surrounding the center produced a plethora of fruits and vegetables. This land became productive farms which are still in use. All the hard development work undertaken through this prison labor then went to returning white veterans in land lotteries. Returning Japanese American soldiers who had lived in the camp were excluded.
Emergency harvesters from Minidoka directly resulted in the Allied success of WWII. Rather than focusing on the injustice of their incarceration, Americans of Japanese descent joined in the war effort. On the backs of a mistreated minority, harvested sugar beets provided ingredients to maintain munitions manufacturing. While Nikkei undoubtedly contributed in other ways, and other groups aided in feeding America, production of food by this incarcerated minority provides one of the most significant and ironic contributions in American history.
If you have any questions or comments, you can reach Andrew Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.