In the fall of 1943, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) administered a compulsory “Application for Indefinite Leave Clearance,” which was intended to streamline the process for the relocation of Japanese Americans from the concentration camps. For release, the WRA held and “military necessity” dictated, Japanese Americans had to first agree to remain loyal to the United States. Accordingly, on the question
naire were Questions 27 and 28, the former asking if the respondent was willing to serve in the U.S. military, and the latter, if the respondent would foreswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor and pledge allegiance to the United States. Because of their ambiguity, the questions led to a great uproar in the concentration camps and to the establishment of Tule Lake as a camp for the “disloyals.”
Nonetheless, those determined to be “loyal” were given an opportunity to leave the WRA camps to work in selected industries. Seabrook Farms in New Jersey was one of those work sites approved by the government. Charles Seabrook began Seabrook Farms around 1912 when he bought his father's farm and turned it into a farm with a greenhouse and canning and freezing capacities. After a downturn in the 1920s, the business thrived in the following decade because of new methods in quick freezing vegetables, which Seabrook pioneered. After a strike in 1934, which netted the workers higher wages, Seabrook abandoned the practice of hiring migrant laborers and instead employed settled residents. By 1939, Seabrook Farms was the largest farm in the state with over 6,000 cultivated acres of vegetables and more than 2,000 workers during the peak season.
In need of laborers during World War II, Seabrook began to recruit from the WRA concentration camps. Skilled agriculturalists and a captive population, Japanese Americans seemed an ideal source of labor. Offering free transportation and nothing to lose, Seabrook's representative dangled the prospect of employment to Japanese Americans in Jerome concentration camp in mid-April 1944. Already in Seabrook since January 1944 were about a dozen Japanese American men, all U.S. citizens, from Granada concentration camp. They had proven their value to their employers, and thus the recruitment for more. This time, the company wanted entire families.
Delegates from Jerome went to New Jersey to inspect the facilities, and they journeyed to Washington, D.C. where the WRA's director, Dillon Myer, assured them that the WRA approved and encouraged the move. Thus began the family relocation to Seabrook Farms, including issei and nisei families from Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps and the camps in Poston and Gila River, Granada, Topaz, Heart Mountain, and Manzanar. They worked 12-hour days for 35 to 50 cents an hour with a day off every two weeks. They lived in concrete blocks similar to the camp barracks, and had to take care of their own food and cooking. They were held under semiconfinement, and the company regulated much of their lives. By the end of 1946, there were over 2,500 Japanese Americans comprising some 500 families working for the Seabrook Farms Company.
The company prospered as the result of Japanese American labor. In 1949, Seabrook produced 65 million pounds of frozen and 10 million pounds of canned vegetables. Even after the war, Japanese Americans, like the 178 Japanese from Latin America from the Crystal City camp, continued to arrive in Seabrook seeking employment. But for the vast numbers of Seabrook's Japanese Americans, the company was merely a holding place between the concentration camps and freedom. Most left as soon as they could. By 1949, Japanese Americans numbered
less than 1,200, and by 1954, their total dwindled to about 900. Those declines mirrored the company's shrinking fortunes throughout the 1950s as competitors with newer and quicker plants eclipsed Seabrook's capacities. Seabrook eventually closed, but a small Japanese American population remained.
Gary Y. Okihiro