As the aroma of late summer barbecues drifts into homes and backyards across New Jersey this Labor Day weekend, we might pause and take a moment to consider the meaning of the holiday. As we do, black and white images appear of our grandmothers working in factories or of our grandfathers fighting overseas in World War Two.
Able-bodied men became newly minted soldiers and left the farm and factory behind for the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. This shift caused an immediate crisis of industrial production on the homefront. The Allies were counting on us, and we were struggling to provide the machinery of war. We had a ways to go to become the great “arsenal of democracy”(1). It was a time when FDR issued a “call to arms” that excluded no one.
Seabrook Farms: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese-American Labor in WW2
FDR’s call went out as women and African-Americans entered war factories in unprecedented numbers. As war production heated up, labor shortages increased. Promising and lucrative jobs opened up in war industries, and nearby farming families who had worked the land for generations were changed forever as sons and daughters rapidly left.
Both large and small farms felt the impact. Some farmers attempted to fill the shortage by hiring “immigrants, women, students, disabled veterans, and persons deferred from the draft”.(2) None of these hirings, however, were successful in eliminating the labor shortage on larger farms. One of these larger farms was the 6,000 acre Seabrook Farm in South Jersey. At Seabrook, they turned to a group of workers few had considered – Japanese-Americans. These American citizens and laborers were conscripted into the war effort. They helped to maintain vital food production during the war on this farm in New Jersey.
How did Japanese-Americans end up in South Jersey?
After Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the proximity of the west coast to Japan and a real fear of Japanese attacks on the mainland led to a vicious anti-Japanese sentiment. Rumors abound about Japanese-Americans secretly sending signals to Japanese troops, painting them as untrustworthy and disloyal to the US. Even those who only had “one drop” of Japanese blood were a threat to some. A combination of this prejudice and fear led to calls from across the political spectrum to detain not only Japanese citizens but also US citizens who were Japanese-American.
As the anti-Japanese feeling reached a fever pitch, FDR issued executive order 9066; authorizing the “prescription of military areas” inside the United States. The entire west coast was then deemed as such allowing the Western Defense Command to issue the instruction that “All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” would be “evacuated”. Around 120,000 people were taken to a combination of “relocation centers” and government-run concentration camps in some of the most desolate areas of the United States. In the process, they lost their houses, assets, businesses and livelihoods; either through outright theft or the pittance they received as they left. Few had anything to return to upon release.(3)
As the years wore on the former war-time hysteria about the Japanese-Americans died down, and an attempt was made to reintegrate Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The WRA appealed to businesses to recruit internees, largely Japanese-Americans who had taken a loyalty oath and were not considered a threat.
Getting the Word Out
Seabrook Farms took out ads in camp newspapers and invited delegations from the camps to see the opportunities the farm could offer. One such delegation was from a camp located in Jerome, Arkansas. One Delegation member and internee, Ellen Nakamura, recalled feeling at home in the New Jersey countryside: “Seabrook was not even on the map, and we still didn’t know where we were headed for. But as we came to the site on a bus, I could readily relate to New Jersey. Because here it was April, and it was springtime and trees were just turning emerald green, and the farmers were beginning to till and it reminded me of California where I had grown up.”(4)
Internees arrived at Seabrook Farms from camps and relocation centers across the country, numbered 2,500 by 1946. According to Nakamura they came from “Jerome and Rohwer Relocation Centers in Arkansas, as well as from Poston and Gila Relocation Centers in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Topaz in Utah, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and Manzanar Relocation Center in California”.(5)
The work was difficult and underpaid. Some of the housing conditions were “not much different from the assembly centers”(6) and “the equivalent of a barracks”(7) many of the older Issei (first generation) considered this a new start. They were grateful for the opportunity of a life that more closely resembled the freedom they once had. The younger American-born Nisei (second generation) were far more determined to tell the story of the internment of their families and the injustices it caused.(8)
The Aftermath of War
One such example is the story of Seiki Murono’s father; one of 3,000 people illegally taken by the US government from Latin American countries, 80% of whom were Japanese. Upon arrival in the states, they were declared “illegal” and sent to the internment camps with most sent to the family camp in Crystal City, Texas(9). Those who did not declare loyalty to the US became prisoners for exchange with Axis countries. Those who did had the opportunity to leave the camps.
Seiki explains his family’s journey to Seabrook Farms: “When the war ended, and my parents were allowed to leave the camp, their options were quite limited. They couldn’t go back to Peru because the government wouldn’t allow them back. And so, Mrs. Nakamura . . . and Mr.Sasaki . . . came to Crystal City, Texas, and offered employment at Seabrook Farms for any of the internees who wanted to come. Facing no other option, they decided to come here.”(10)
Many families decided to stay and in 1994 the remaining Japanese-American community founded the Seabrook Education and Cultural Center (SEEC) to keep alive the memories and stories of the workers and former internees who settled there. The exhibits include oral histories, cultural artifacts, photographs and a large-scale model of Seabrook Village in the 1950s.(11)
End of an Era
Seabrook Farms eventually closed its doors due to a combination of family feuds and general decline; as newer techniques and faster transportation changed the face of the frozen food industry and industrial farming in general. Today the Seabrook Farms brand is back in the family after years of legal battles.
As we enjoy the weekend, we also remember those who labored to make our country what it is today. But we should also celebrate the contributions of those Japanese-Americans who settled in New Jersey; those who labored under the most difficult circumstances in the most trying of times.
About the Author
TR Peterson is a freelance nonfiction writer with a Master of Research degree in Political Theory from the University of London. TR is currently writing a book on civil liberties in FDR’s America. Find out more on the TR Peterson website.
1. Maury Klein, A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
2-4. Densho Encyclopedia, Seabrook Farms, see Seebrook article
5. Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2015)
6. Academia, Seabrook At War (Radio Documentary Script)
7. Balch Institute article
8. Academia, Seabrook At War (Radio Documentary Script)
9. Academia, Seabrook At War (Radio Documentary Script)
10. Journal for MultiMedia History, Vol 2 1999, Seabrook At War, a review for the Journal of Multi Media History by Meg Jacobs
11. Jan Jarboe Russell, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2015)
12. Academia, Seabrook At War (Radio Documentary Script)
13. The website and details on the SEEC can be found online here.