Corn, Tomatoes, & POWs: Hoosier Agriculture During World War II

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Lawn mowing was reportedly one of the most coveted jobs at Camp Atterbury amongst Italian POWs reportedly, which apparently weren’t used much in Italy.  Indianapolis Star, 13 June, 1943, 6, accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

In May 1943, Indiana newspapers advertised a new pool of workers who could alleviate the farm labor crisis caused by World War II. Hoosier farmers just had to provide equipment, tools, materials, and transportation. The only snag? The new laborers were Italian prisoners of war that Allied troops had recently captured in North Africa. These prisoners were currently interned at Camp Atterbury, a military training camp just outside Edinburgh, Indiana.  Would the enemy soon fill Hoosier fields, picking tomatoes and detasseling corn? The Franklin Evening Star speculated

It is entirely likely that more than one farmer will apply for this Italian labor. The farmers are badly behind their work…Industry and the draft have created a serious farm labor shortage at the very time most farmers are trying to increase production…for the food needed for victory.

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The Call-Wood Leader [Elwood, Indiana], 19 May 1943, 1, accessed newspapers.com
Farmers across the nation felt the pressure of wartime demands. In addition to soldiers, an unprecedented number of workers were needed to produce food, clothing, supplies, and munitions for troops. Balancing all these demands proved difficult. The Bureau of Agriculture reported that between April 1940 and July 1942, two million men had left their agricultural jobs for employment in the military or war industries. Reports surfaced of farmers unable to get all their work done without additional help. The Tribune in Seymour Indiana reported that a Maryland farmer, “another victim of the manpower situation,” had to plow under thirty five acres of beans after his call for pickers came up empty.  Hoosier farmers hoped the situation wouldn’t repeat in Indiana.

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OWI Poster No 58, Office of war Information, Washington, DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

Meanwhile, the federal government emphasized farmers’ need to produce more, despite the labor shortages, to help win the war. President Roosevelt created Farm Mobilization Day on January 12, 1943. He declared “food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” Soon after, the Office of War Information produced pamphlets, posters, and films filled with catchy slogans like “Food Fights for Freedom!” “Food is a Weapon-don’t waste it!” and “Raising Food is a Real Job!” The government created various labor programs, including the Women’s Land Army and the Bracero Program, to mobilize civilian women and Mexican guest workers respectively to help fill the void on the nation’s farms.

After the US entered the war in 1941, prisoner of war (POW) labor became another possible solution to the labor crisis. The first POW arrived in the country in April 1942 from the Pacific. As the war continued, up to 30,000 POWs arrived in the US each month from battlefields abroad. The War Department decided to utilize this labor force and created camps across the nation to bring POWs work sites across the nation. At the war’s end, nearly 425,000 Japanese, Italian, and German POWs were held in prisoner of war camps across 46 states.

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Map of major POW camps across the nation, accessed HistoryNet.

Hoosier farmers and food processors jumped at the chance to hire the first of many POWs to arrive in Indiana, despite their enemy status. In Johnson County alone, 250 people attended a meeting on May 24, 1943 to discuss the farm labor shortage and to learn how to register for potential POW labor from Camp Atterbury. After POWs filled positions within the camp to keep it running, such as bakers and cooks, launderers, repairmen, and gardeners, the rest could be employed outside the camp at local farms and factories. To the dismay of many farmers, at first the POWs could only work within a 25 mile radius of the camp. They picked apples, beans, and tomatoes, and hoed, detasseled, and picked corn. However, since their labor became so vital, the radius was soon lifted. In the summer of 1943, some Italian POWs also worked in tomato and corn canning plants as far away as Austin and Elwood, Indiana.

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OWI Poster No. 59, Office of War Information, Washington DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

POW labor came with stipulations. POWs could not engage in dangerous work or labor that directly benefited the war effort. They could also only be employed in cases where civilian labor could not be found. In addition, farmers paid the US Treasury and the War Department the standard prevailing wage in the area so POWs would not usurp local, civilian labor. In turn, those departments paid the POWs 10 cents an hour, up to 80 cents per day for their labor, which was less than the prevailing wage.

POWs did not receive cash, but scrip they could spend only at their camp’s canteen. The War Department reinvested canteen profits back into the camps, often to buy “extras” to occupy the POWs in their spare time, such as musical instruments, art supplies, sports equipment, and books. In time, the POWs organized their own choral contests, soccer and volleyball leagues, and boccie ball games.

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Italian POWs playing volleyball in their spare time at Camp Atterbury, Indianapolis Star, 14 Jund 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

 

Canteen profits may have been used to finance construction of a small chapel POWs built at Camp Atterbury in 1943. Most of the POWs at the camp were Catholic and wanted a place of their own to attend daily Mass. Prior to construction, prisoners held mass in their rec room and had an altar in an open field. POWs who were employed as skilled artisans before the war designed and built a new brick and stucco 11’x16’ foot chapel for worship. They also painted frescos inside on the ceiling and walls. The chapel still stands at Camp Atterbury.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury built this chapel, photo accessed AtlasObscura.

Entertainment, rations as large as American enlisted men’s, and payment for labor sprouted media reports accusing the War Department of “coddling” the POWs. However, the War Department had logical reasons for providing proper treatment to the POWs in their care besides abiding by stipulations of the Geneva Convention, which laid out rules for proper POW care. Providing good food, leisure activities, and small payment for their work promoted internal camp security and helped sustain a more productive POW labor force. Leaders also hoped good treatment of POWs at home would encourage similar treatment of American prisoners abroad in enemy hands.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury clearing ground for their own garden, Indianapolis Star, 14 June 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

Italy’s surrender to Allied forces in the fall of 1943 threatened Hoosier food producers’ new labor supply. In February of 1944, the War Food Administration advised farmers not to count on Italian POW labor during the upcoming summer. After surrender, Italy became a “cobelligerent” nation and joined the Allied forces. The Italians at Camp Atterbury and across the nation were no longer really prisoners of war, but still were not free until the war ended. Italy’s new leader, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, encouraged all former Italian POWs to help the Allied cause and join labor battalions, called Italian Service Units. Italians were still guarded by American soldiers like other POWs, but now could perform labor that directly benefited the war effort and received other benefits, like increased wages. The War Department began to transfer Italians at Camp Atterbury in January 1944 to these units. All were gone by May 4.

Soon after, German POWs arrived and replaced the Italian POWs, just in time to help out in the fields during peak production months in the summer and fall. Several smaller, temporary camps, called “branch camps” were established at Austin, Windfall, Vincennes, Eaton, and Morristown, Indiana to bring some of the Camp Atterbury POWs closer to additional work sites across the state. By October, there were nearly 9,000 POWs in the Camp Atterbury system. Living conditions at the branch camps were less accommodating than Camp Atterbury, which contained proper barracks, a recreation room and a mess hall. Since the branch camps were temporary, POWs often lived in tents close to their work sites. At the Austin camp, prisoners lived in a fenced area behind the Morgan Packing Company where many of them worked. At Windfall, a local farm across from the town’s high school served as the branch camp’s location.

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Entrance to prisoner of war branch camp in Eaton, Indiana. Photo courtesy of indianamilitary.org.

The arrival of POWs made an impact on everyday life in these Indiana towns and influenced Hoosiers’ perception of the war. Windfall only had a population of 835 in 1940. 750 German POWs and 100 American guards arrived in the town on August 24, 1944, doubling the town’s population. The POWs arrived by train late at night. Gretchen Cardwell, Windfall native, remembered nearly everyone in the area came to town to watch the POWs step off the train and march to the camp. As the train whistle sounded, she remembered

“The crowd of onlookers grew silent. It was almost as if everyone held his breath as we awaited the sight of our hated enemies. This group was quite different than we expected.”

Instead of proud, haughty, frightening enemy soldiers Gretchen recalls seeing missing buttons, tears and tatters in their uniforms and slumping shoulders. “It was hard to accept this new vision of the enemy.”

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Stokely Foods, Inc. advertisement for labor, Tipton Daily Tribune, 5 June 1944, accessed newspapers.com.

As the POWs began working in fields and factories in communities across Indiana, native Hoosiers began to identify similarities between them and the enemy. Farmers appreciated the hard work ethic many of the POWs exhibited harvesting tomatoes and detassling corn. At Windfall, POWs worked in 40 food processing plants in the area. In Morristown, 400 POWs worked at 17 canning plants. POWs peeled and packed tomatoes, canned corn and peas. At the Morgan Packing Plant in Austin, POWs stacked cans in the warehouse, cooked tomatoes before they were canned, helped run the labeling machine, and loaded canned tomatoes for shipping. When the German POWs returned to Camp Atterbury in the fall of 1944, locals at Windfall admitted they would miss the POWs, especially “the outdoor concerts of a large chorus of voices” of the prisoners singing as they worked or rested in the evening.

By the end of the war, more than half of all the prisoners of war held in the US during World War II provided essential agricultural manpower. Farmers saw POW labor as so essential, President Truman eventually gave into pressure and kept them in the states to work in farms, canneries, and food processing plants through the fall of 1945 and into 1946 before repatriation. In all, POWs saved hundreds of acres of crops from going to waste, in Indiana and the nation.

Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

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Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

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Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

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WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

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Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
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WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

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African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”