Farming to Feed the Forces

Scene in the crew’s mess, circa Autumn 1941. Note crewmen’s Short White uniforms, mess gear and details of mess tables. Photograph from Department of the Navy collections in the U.S. National Archives.

 

By Gina Nichols, Supervisory Archivist/Head of Collections Department, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

How did the U.S. provide fresh fruits and vegetables to 3.6 million service men and women throughout the Pacific during World War II?

This may seem a trivial topic in today’s day and age with steak and lobster served on carriers and fresh fruits and vegetable commonplace to most sailors, but during WWII canned vegetables, powdered milk and eggs, and C- or K-rations were commonplace. In 1942, in an effort to save on shipping space and improve the health, diet, and moral of the armed forces, several Navy officers suggested farming in the South Pacific to produce fresh fruits and vegetables.

At the time, shipping lettuce and melons was almost impossible except in refrigerated ships and then only in limited quantities. However, what could be shipped easily were seeds, plows, and cultivators which would take up significantly less space. The Foreign Economic Administration (FEA) underwrote the entire project and sent experts in tropical farming to the South Pacific to see if this project was even feasible on a mass truck farming scale. (Doying, 1944)

Seabee serving with the 40th Naval Construction Battalion harvesting radishes from camp garden on Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, 28 September 1943.

 

In May 1943, Alan Thistle, an FEA agriculturalist from Hawaii, arrived on Guadalcanal to find GIs struggling to grow produce on a small plot behind their camp. They had written home asking for seeds and were attempting to create their own victory garden in the hopes of growing a few fresh vegetables in the jungle. Thistle convinced them to turn the garden over so he could use it as a testing ground for various fruits and vegetables. Although rather irritated at the time, they were convinced by Thistle in the hopes of the garden producing fresh lettuce and cucumbers for a salad by Christmas. (Doying, 1944)

Vegetable garden on Noumea, New Caledonia cultivated by Seabees with the 504th Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit as part of the FEA program, 27 November 1943.

 

Thistle left a tractor tilling up soil on Guadalcanal to return to Efate for 3000 pounds of seeds and equipment. After a painstaking first attempt, the first crop of melons and squash finally emerged. The FEA men discovered that, as no bees were native to Guadalcanal, they needed to crawl on their hands and knees to individually pollinate each bloom. Bees from Noumea were imported but were devoured quickly by the local swallows. The FEA crew realized that the ants were pollinating the blooms after a section of plants awaiting pollination began to show signs of melon stubs. From that point forward the ants did all the pollinating. (Doying, 1944)

Vegetable garden cultivated by the 30th Naval Construction Battalion on British Guiana just prior to planting, August 1943.

 

By mid-1944, more than 2000 acres were under cultivation on Guadalcanal producing approximately 60K tons of fresh vegetables yearly. Thriving victory gardens were being grown on more than 5000 acres of jungle from Samoa to New Caledonia to Bougainville. The new gardens began producing cauliflower, taro roots, peas, corn, radishes, beans and tomatoes just to name a few. The FEA even planted Hawaiian pineapple and banana trees in an attempt produce fruit. (Doying, 1944)

Shortly after the assault on the Marianas the FEA began plans to cultivate soil for farmland. By the end of the war, Guam had 3750 acres cultivated for FEA farming projects, 5200 acres on Tinian, and 1200 acres on Saipan. Vegetables grown in the Marianas included carrots, corn, cantaloupe, cabbage, lettuce, sweet potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. The FEA also attempted fruits such as bananas, papaya, and pineapple. (Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet, 20 October 1944)

Seabee weeds the camp vegetable garden on Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, 1 July 1943.

 

The administration for the farm projects in the Pacific Ocean Areas was the responsibility of the armed forces, with technical assistance from the FEA, who worked as a team to grow the needed food. The FEA was required to supply one technical farm expert for each 1000 acres of land and one executive for the group. The armed forces were responsible for providing all G.I. and native labor and pay for all. Minor repairs were to be made by the farm personnel with major repairs conducted by the appropriate armed forces under the Island Commander. (Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet, 20 October 1944)

By the end of World War II, the FEA and armed forces were producing an extensive variety of fruits and vegetables for our fighting men on more than 25K acres across the Central and South Pacific. The crews often worked within sight of the front line and more than once were under sniper fire and aerial bombardment. During the first year of production, the farms yielded 150K tons of produce. By producing fresh fruits and vegetables, the farm crews improved the diet, moral, and health of our forces allowing them eat more than just canned or powdered rations as they advanced on to Japan and victory.

References:

Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas (1944, November 25). Foreign Economic Administration Vegetable Growing Projects in Forward Areas [Unpublished Letter to Commander Service Force, Pacific Fleet].

Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas (1944, October 20). Vegetable Growing Projects at Advanced Bases, Central Pacific Area [Unpublished Letter to Distribution List].

Doying, George (1944, June). Harvest at Hell’s Half Acre. Leatherneck Magazine.

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