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Harvest in the War Years
by Grant Wasden
October is harvest time across the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountain States. The war had taken most of the
able bodied young men off to be soldiers and sailors in Europe and the Pacific fronts, creating tremendous labor
shortages on America's farms.
In 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 removing more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from
the West Coast into 10 Relocation Centers (sometimes referred to as internment or concentration camps). One of
these camps was located at Heart Mountain, near Cody, Wyoming, and about 12 miles from our farm. I was born
shortly before WWII, and was quite young but have clear memories of the Relocation Camp with its high barbed
wire fences, guard towers, giant searchlights, tar paper covered single-wall construction barracks housing,
and the giant boiler building with its tall chimney. It is something you never forget.
Because of the war and the terrible labor shortages Dad was allowed to hire some of the Japanese men from the
camp to help with the potato harvest. Dad started digging potatoes at four in the morning with our little Allis-
Chalmers tractor. The men arrived from the camp around 7 a.m. and began picking the freshly dug potatoes into
rubber-coated wire baskets. When the baskets were full they were dumped into potato sacks. Two baskets filled a
sack‐about 60 lbs. The sacks were loaded on the truck and hauled to the
cellar where they would be stored for
The field workers drank from water bags hanging on the car mirrors or truck bumpers when they were thirsty. The
linen canvas sacks cooled the water by evaporation. When they came to the cellar I brought them water from the
house in a bucket with a dipper. I chipped off ice from the block in the ice box. (We bought blocks of ice in town
and put them in our ice box to keep our food cold. We did not have electricity or a refrigerator until 1948.) I
whirled the pail around and around in a windmill-like motion to chill the water, and took it to the cellar. I was
quite proud of myself for thinking to do this, but the water was too cold and the men could not drink it. I was
told not to make it so cold the next time.
As the war wended its way across Europe and toward the main islands of Japan a number of the young men from the
camp volunteered for military service or were drafted. Some resisted the war effort. A number of the internees
served in the renowned and highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. At the end of 1944 President Roosevelt
rescinded Executive Order 9066, and the Camp began closing down. My parents kept in contact with a few of the
Internees for several years after they moved back to the West Coast. Some had homes to go to but others did not.
When they were incarcerated they lost their homes in tax deed sales, or foreclosures, or sold them at "fire-sale"
prices. A few of the Internees stayed in nearby Powell and became our competitors in the truck garden business,
growing fresh vegetables and selling them to the local stores and restaurants.
Over 400,000 captured Axis soldiers, mostly German and Italian, were incarcerated in Prisoner of War camps
scattered across the United States during the war. After the relocation camp closed we hired German prisoners
from the POW camp in Deaver. Dad picked up 5 or 6 prisoners and a guard in the morning and took them back in the
The guard would position himself where he could see all the men as they worked. He often situated himself on the
sloped dirt roof of our potato cellar. My brother and I would watch him, dressed in sharply-pressed fatigues and
carrying his M-1 rifle. We asked him where he was from, whether he saw any combat, how he liked the army, and all
the other questions that popped into our heads. One time he showed us his rifle and let us sight down the barrel
as he explained how you looked through the aperture on the back of the barrel and centered it over the notch on the
front when aiming at your target. It was all very exciting to us, certainly more exciting than weeding potatoes.
Wartime rationing brought shortages. There were items we could not buy with our red coupon books. The prisoners
had some items we needed, and conversely, we had things they could not get. We would swap with them ‐butter, sugar,
salt, soap and other items.
My mother was raised in a German-speaking community in Minnesota. She spoke passable German and was able to converse
with the prisoners. We became friends with some of the POWs, and kept in contact with them for a while after they
returned to Germany. Many were farm boys or from small towns who had been drafted. They did not understand or have
an interest in the geopolitical aspects of the war. They simply wanted to go home.
Otto Roepke's brother wrote from their farm in Schleswig-Holstein, saying the war was over, Germany had lost, and he
should try to move on. This was a difficult reality for him to accept. He was one of those young soldiers whom we
A few years after the war we received four burlap-wrapped Folgers coffee cans of seed potatoes in the mail from Otto.
We grew them for a number of seasons. When we cooked them the flesh was yellow. One time Mother brought mashed
potatoes to a Sage Creek Community Club potluck. People were amazed. They thought Mother had added butter to the
dish to make them that color.
As the war wound down the POWs were repatriated to Germany. The GIs were slow in returning to the States. They were
needed to maintain the peace. Farm labor was still in short supply.
In 1942 the U.S. and Mexico had entered into a bi-lateral agreement to allow Mexicans to work in the U.S. under short-term
contracts, mostly as farm labor or working in small businesses. Called the Bracero program, or sometimes referred to as
the "green card" program, it allowed us to hire Mexican Nationals to help on the farm. Dad picked them up at a camp in
Powell each day for work. The Mexicans spoke no English and we did not speak Spanish but the government provided an
interpreter so we were able to communicate well enough.
Mother served them dinner (as we called our noon meal). She put an additional leaf in the table to accommodate these extra
field hands. The Mexicans wanted frijoles and red peppers with their meal, so Mother bought some in town to supplement our
regular farm diet. Mother cooked the bean dish and brought it to the table. One fellow picked up a red pepper from his
plate and popped it into his mouth. It appeared that he enjoyed it so I thought I might like it, too. Wow, it was hot!
I must have drunk a couple of glasses of milk to try to put the fire out.
Sometime in the 1930s or '40s the Bureau of Land Management brought irrigation water to the Heart Mountain Bench from the
Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir near Cody, providing the means to farm the land for the first time. After the war Dad leased
some land from the Bureau. We farmed the south end of the bench, and Uncle Oscar who lived in Ralston farmed the north end.
Among the crops we raised were peas and string beans for the cannery in Cowley, yellow seed clover, and sugar beets. When
Batista came into power in Cuba the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled the sugar beet price supports to encourage importing
Cuban cane sugar. We started raising potatoes as our primary crop.
The government established a lottery program for returning GIs to win the right to homestead 80 acres on the Heart Mountain Bench.
This was later doubled when they realized that 80 acres was insufficient to sustain a family. Because many of the GIs knew we
had farmed the bench for a number of years they asked Dad for help in picking good land. Some of them didn't know much about
farming, and Dad helped them with this as well. The Bench had never been farmed so the ones who ended up clearing and culti-
vating this land were true pioneers in that they converted virgin prairie land into arable acreage. They appreciated Dad's
assistance and maintained friendships with us over the years.
The Relocation Camp had 457 abandoned barracks. The GIs bought them for homes, garages, barns, and storage buildings. These
structures were pretty grim with their single wall construction and tar paper siding. However, the Japanese tried to make them
livable, and the GIs made them their homes as well until they could do something better. Occasionally in later years some
Japanese internees would complain about the housing, thinking no one understood how cold and drafty they were. The GI's would
respond with "We know. We lived in them too."
Over the years more and more buildings and structures were sold or torn down until about the only things left at the campsite
were a couple of houses and the chimney from the central heating building. In 2007 the site was listed as a National Historic
Landmark, and in 2011 the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center was opened. These are positive steps. It would be a shame for
this story to fade away.
Sometimes the exigencies of war bring about remedies that in retrospect should have been re-examined before implementation.
The relocation of the Japanese Americans was one of those.