Japanese-American Beet Farmers Played Vital Role in WW2

Published online: Jun 01, 2021 News Richard McDonough
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Source: Scottsbluff Star-Herald

While Japanese-Americans were taken into custody in a number of western states and then imprisoned in our nation’s interior, the situation was quite different in western Nebraska. Japanese-Americans were, for the most part, able to continue living their lives the same as their neighbors during World War II.

For the previous 20 plus years, Americans with Japanese heritage had become part of the community. Local folks — with, of course, some exceptions — were said not to have treated them any different than the German-Russians and others who had made their homes in Scottsbluff, Gering, Mitchell, Lyman, Morrill and other places in western Nebraska.

What was different was how federal officials treated Japanese-Americans in this region. The same federal officials who had no difficulty in justifying the imprisonment of newborn babies in California and the incarceration of elderly individuals who could not walk in Wyoming welcomed and encouraged the assistance of the Japanese-Americans living in freedom in western Nebraska.

The same federal officials that turned their backs on their constitutional duties needed the help of the local Japanese Americans in the valley.

To a large extent, it was because of sugarbeets.

The farmers of western Nebraska – including those with Japanese heritage – knew how to grow sugarbeets. The processing plants to convert sugarbeets into granulated sugar and other products were already in place.

“Our area was and is prime for growing sugar beets,” Leo Hoehn, a former sugar company executive, now retired, said. He worked in the sugarbeet industry for 52 years. “For decades, we’ve had the facilities necessary to process the beets into sugar and other products.”

He said Western Sugar Cooperative still processes sugarbeets in Scottsbluff. This entity went through a number of ownership changes through the years and formerly had a number of sugar beet processing plants in towns throughout western Nebraska.

During the 1940s, sugarbeet farming was very labor-intensive. The local Japanese Americans as well as Mexican migrant laborers that came to the valley by way of Texas provided the key labor to grow sugar beets in the region during this time period.

And the country needed sugar.

Sugar typically comes from sugar beets and sugar cane. Sugar beets grew in a number of regions within the contiguous states. Sugar cane typically came from areas outside of the continental U.S.

With war underway, many of the overseas sources of sugar that had previously supplied the American market were no longer easily accessible. Sugar cane produced in the Philippines, for example, was no longer available because of the occupation of that American territory by Japan.

Details about the shortage of raw materials from those islands as well as other areas were reported by Vassar College students in a news article dated April 11, 1942, in the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News. Beyond the situation in the Philippines, the students reported that sugarcane availability would be limited from Hawaii and Cuba.

Sugar was one of the products rationed by the federal government.

To meet the need for sugar, previous federal restrictions on sugarbeet farming were removed. The federal government issued posters to encourage farmers to grow sugar beets.

With many men fighting in the war and many women replacing men as workers in factories, labor was in short supply in many places. This was especially true in rural communities with needs for agricultural workers.

In Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and elsewhere, thousands of Japanese-Americans held as prisoners by the federal government spent their days on farms providing the labor to plant, weed and harvest sugarbeets.

The need for sugar beets was so high that some of the German and Italian Prisoners of War (POW) imprisoned in western Nebraska were placed under the supervision of Japanese-Americans so that the POWs could help grow sugar beets.

Japanese-Americans — considered by federal officials to be a threat to the U.S. — were trusted to such an extent in western Nebraska by those same federal officials that they could supervise the activities of the nation’s actual enemies.

The Sakurada Family was one of the Japanese-American families that supervised German prisoners of war.

“We’d go to the German POW camp usually between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.,” Neil “Nick” Sakurada said. He is now retired from farming. “The German prisoners would be in the back of the truck, while a military guard would sit in the cab. After the day’s work, we’d take everyone back to the camp between 5 and 6 p.m.”

Typically, 25 to 30 prisoners would come to the family’s farm each day, according to Sakurada. Some did manual labor in the fields, while others ran tractors.

“I remember the German prisoners as hard workers,” Sakurada said.

He only knew of one prisoner who tried to escape from the family farm; that man was not successful in his escape attempt, Sakurada added.

Sakurada said his family fed the German prisoners while at their farm.

“We’d have pots of coffee for them. My mother would make stew or soup each day for lunch. She also made fresh bread.”

Sugarbeets were needed to provide the sugar to sweeten food Americans loved to eat. Rather than focusing on taste, though, the need for sugar was promoted as a necessary source of energy for our military personnel.

Beyond its use in food, sugar beets were even more critical when it came to weapon systems. The sugar beet juice was converted into an industrial alcohol that was used to produce munitions and synthetic rubber — products that were then utilized to fight our nation’s actual enemies globally.

According to a news article dated April 26, 1942, in The San Bernardino Daily Sun, “Aerial bombs, submarine torpedoes and artillery shells...” were among the military munitions that needed “sugar transformed into industrial alcohol.”

The United States Beet Sugar Association noted in a news article dated May 12, 1942, in the Daily News of New York City, that sugarbeets “...may be the largest source of sugar supply for the future, when sugar has become a military necessity for smokeless powder, solvents, chemicals and industrial alcohol for synthetic rubber.”

A number of news reports in 1943 included comments from the association that “…every time a sixteen-inch gun was fired, one-fifth of an acre of sugarbeets went up in smoke.”

Sugarbeets grown in western Nebraska helped to replace the sugar cane that could no longer be imported as well as the sugar products diverted for military use.

“I saw no indication that the sugar beet juice was diverted from western Nebraska for munitions,” Hoehn said. “It is likely that the sugarbeets grown and processed on the West Coast would have been the sugarbeets converted into and used for munitions.”

The Great Western Sugar Company ran a large advertisement on Feb. 24, 1944, in The Western Nebraska Observer of Kimball with the title “Why the Government Wants Maximum Beet Production.” In the ad, the company detailed that beet farmers locally in Nebraska and throughout the country were encouraged to grow as many sugarbeets as possible.

A telegram to beet growers in California, for example, was highlighted in the advertisement. The telegram indicated that increased beet production was “...urgently needed in order to insure an adequate sugar supply for domestic requirements and for our armed forces. We earnestly hope that each sugar beet grower will consider it his individual patriotic duty and responsibility to plant a maximum acreage...”

Sugarbeet farmers — including many Japanese-American sugarbeet farmers in western Nebraska —  helped meet the needs of our country during World War II. Their leadership did not conclude with the end of that war. Today, sugar beet farming and processing is still critical parts of the economy in western Nebraska.