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Food for an island at War


The Footfalls of History

One of the more intriguing things I learned while researching Pearl Harbor’s Final Warning involved the issue of food. Once war broke out, Japanese submarines were on the prowl and would eventually sink 1554 merchant ships loaded with supplies. How did the islanders cope with the prospect of having their food supply dependent on shipments from the mainland?

The day after the Pearl Harbor, Oahu grocers were ordered to close and take inventory. The results—the island had a 37 day supply of smoked meats and staples, a 75 day supply of flour and cereals, 18 days’ worth of onions and potatoes and only a 13 day supply of rice. The Office of Food Control began to monitor usage which fluctuated drastically when civilian workers began to arrive in droves to help repair the damage inflicted by the Japanese. Congress quickly allocated 35 million to build up reserves administered by the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC). The FSCC would be the only importer of items designated “as sufficient for a balanced diet.”[1] The only food allowed to leave the island was pineapple and sugar.

By 20 December 1941, the first shipment of supplies ordered by the FSCC was ready to depart from San Francisco. It contained a year’s supply of sardines, and 180 tons of cheddar cheese—food that had originally been tagged to send to England. The shipment made it. The pineapple companies were expected to haul the food to a warehouse, but they had no trucks because they had been pressed into service as ambulances. The Navy wanted the docks cleared to expedite turnarounds, so the Army stepped up with men and trucks. When the pineapple warehouse was full, plumbing shops, schools, church auditoriums, and even automobile showrooms were used for storage. And the rodents had a field day. Rain poured through leaky roofs. “At the end of 1942, the FSCC reported that some warehouses had literally come alive with worms which crawled in masse across the floor, up the bags and pillars and up to the ceiling rafters.”[2] Reserves had been built up but what a mess! Who would want to eat worms with their rice?

Sugar and pineapple plantations were ordered to plow under their crops and plant vegetables. Four hundred tons of carrot seed arrived in the first shipment. The only problem was that Oahu’s soil and tropical climate ended up being more conducive to weeds than carrots. Local agricultural experts made recommendations. But, the Army thought the FSCC knew better. Thousands of acres were under cultivation by March. However, there were no men to harvest the crops, and pineapple machinery didn’t work well on veggies. “The sad state of the plantation plantings is almost entirely a result of ignorance in regard to vegetable production methods,” the advisory committee later pointed out. [3]

To compound the problem, 90% of Hawaii’s farmers were alien Japanese who were restricted from being on the roads before sunrise. One island restricted aliens from driving trucks. Many who had arable land lost it to the military. Victory Gardens sprung up throughout the islands as a matter of necessity. The FSCC was obviously a work in progress, and who wanted to rely on that? The lack of refrigerator storage was one of the most challenging issues to overcome. Prior to the attack, Hawaii had appealed to Congress for funding for more refrigeration units. But, Congress, in their wisdom, had refused their small request.

Then there was the issue of meat. Existing stocks of chickens and beef needed imported feed. And there wasn’t enough feed for the chickens. So, all commercial chicken farms were told to kill chicks less than five weeks old and remove eggs from the incubators. Cattlemen were asked to not slaughter for 10 days so people would be forced to buy chickens. Needless to say, the price of eggs skyrocketed. Along with the Victory gardens, backyard flocks increased in number. Luaus were banned because of the lack of pork, which did not sit well with the Native Hawaiians planning weddings. Fishing boats were restricted to certain waters, often not the most productive, and they had to be back to port before nightfall. On Maui, fishermen had to report to the police when they departed and when they returned.

All was not bad though. Most of the troops were on field rations, so dairy products were readily available for the civilian population. Oahu civilians became the beneficiary of a military regulation that stated that if an order could not feed an entire outfit, then the order was to be refused. Lots of candy bars made it into the local grocery stores.

A screw up in an order by the FSCC created “Maui Onion Week.” Three hundred tons were supposed to be delivered once a month. Instead, 900 tons arrived. And there was no storage space for that large of a quantity. Newspapers ran “My Favorite Onion recipes” and lauded onion breath. Fortunately, coffee was never in short supply like it was on the mainland. It certainly must have helped the Islanders down their onion soup.

[1] Allen, Gwenfread; Hawaii’s War Year’s 1941-1945, Pacific Monograph,1999,166.

[2] Ibid, 168.

[3] Ibid, 171.

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