Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: Wartime Challenges and Tensions

In April of 1943 World War II was in full swing, and the need for soldiers to fight the war created a labor shortage for American industry and agriculture. One untapped resource for labor was the detainees in the seven relocation camps that were created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s authority to house native born American citizens of Japanese descent; these Americans were referred to as Nisei. Roosevelt also created the War Relocation Authority (WRA) by executive order, and the agency was responsible for relocating Japanese-Americans from their homes and into the various camps.

Last month I presented a brief history of the Curtiss Candy Company, which was founded in Chicago by Otto Schnerring in 1916. Over the decades the company expanded and owned vast holdings in McHenry County to include a farm of over 2,400 acres on Route 20 approximately three miles west of Marengo. WRA officials approached Schnerring and pitched the idea that the Curtiss Candy Company employ some Nisei farmers to relieve the company’s manpower shortage. Prior to making a decision Schnerring approached “leading citizens” of the Marengo area, and received an assurance that the Nisei would be “favorably received.”

The sixteen workers that were slated for relocation to Marengo were all residents of the state of Washington, and were being held in Tule Lake, California. They were all born in the United States, and spoke English. An article in the April 22, 1943, edition of the Marengo Republican News reported that “all were prosperous farmers and land owners until Pearl Harbor,” and their experience included growing potatoes, asparagus, and “intensified chicken raising.” One owned “complete drainage equipment,” and it was anticipated that this equipment would be delivered to Illinois, and put to use on the Marengo farm. The overall tone of this article had a very positive tone.

In the vanguard of this labor force were three farmers; Earl Ishino, Atsusa Sakuma, and his brother Tsukasa Sakuma. After these three men arrived resentment surfaced in the press. Marengo Mayor W.L. Miller and Park Board President Charles H. Doolittle were the most outspoken, and the most often quoted in press coverage on the issue.

In the April 25, 1943, edition of the Chicago Tribune the editor attributed the following quote to Miller; “…I don’t think they should be allowed to come to town. Too many people here have boys in the service…” In the same article Doolittle was quoted as saying; “They may be good citizens, but it is just their tough luck that they have Japanese ancestry.” The Curtiss Candy Company immediately removed the three men, and the other thirteen Japanese farmers were halted in Rockford.

Not all of Marengo sided with the mayor and Doolittle, and there was another sentiment vocalized in this debate. The Marengo Kiwanis Club hosted Curtiss Candy Company representatives at a meeting, and those in attendance received information on the program. Prior to the conclusion of the meeting the club held a vote and unanimously supported a resolution to allow the candy company to employ the Japanese Americans. It seems that even Doolittle had a change of heart because he made a motion that stated, “…all citizens of this country are entitled to the privileges of citizenship without respect to color, creed or antecedents.” Later that same day the Pastors of the Protestant Churches of Marengo held a meeting, and afterward issued a public statement that included the following; “We express our own good will towards these ‘Americans with Japanese faces,’ and hope that the way may become clear for them to take up their work here.”

Probably the best testimonial of a Marengo welcome to these Japanese farmers came at a mass meeting held to debate the issue on the evening of May 4, 1943. Near the conclusion of the meeting Marengoans were given an opportunity to vote on the matter. When the ballots were tallied by City Clerk Arlie Shearer, Alderman Vernon Kays, and a Miss Charlotte Miller it was determined that the community endorsed the plan to allow the workers into our community 62 to 21.

Eventually the three young farmers that were removed, and the thirteen that were held in limbo in Rockford came to Marengo where they worked the Curtiss Candy Company farm and produced food for the war effort. Some of the products that they produced were made into candy, and distributed to US military personnel.