Susannah Karron

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Food to Win the War
Susannah Karron

Wisconsin sent approximately 329,000 soldiers to World War II, and its factories produced much needed weapons and machine parts. But one of Wisconsin's greatest contributions to the war was something less obvious: food! Two photos I have selected portray the importance of this contribution. Photo A, a poster for International Harvester tractors, announces "Plowshares ARE Swords". The message on the poster reminds people that although the Bible says that swords are beaten into plowshares when peace follows war, these were times agricultural tools were needed for war itself. As the poster states, food is the most vital war material. "With it, all things are possible. Without it, tanks and planes can give no security." Humble agricultural work was essential to the war effort. It was important for farmers to dedicate their production of food to the military. Photo B also emphasizes the importance of this contribution, stating "Food for Fighters Everywhere – Farm Work is War Work!" Farming to produce food for the soldiers was as important as producing equipment to fight the war.

But with men leaving the state in order to fight, who was left to do this important work? Women! During World War II, International Harvester created a program to teach women the important skills they needed to do the work that their husbands, brothers and fathers did before the war. Called the "Tractorettes", these women learned how to operate and maintain the tractors used in Wisconsin fields. As LIFE said in a 1942 article titled "Women Join the 'Field Artillery' as International Harvester Dealers Teach Power Farming to an Army of 'Tractorettes:'"

The Harvester company furnished manuals, slide films, mechanical diagrams, and service charts. The girls themselves were required to bring only two things – an earnest willingness to work and a complete disregard for grease under the fingernails or oil smudges on the nose. They studied motors and transmissions, cooling systems, and ignition. They studied service care. They learned to drive tractors. They learned to attach the major farm implements that are used with tractors. And they were painstakingly taught the safe way to do everything. Today on their family farms or elsewhere, thousands of "graduates" are doing a real job for victory.

Photo C illustrates "Tractorettes" being taught in an outdoor classroom how to care for machinery. Photo D shows a "graduate" driving a tractor through a field. Without women such as these, there would not have been food for the soldiers.

During World War II, Wisconsin produced milk, meat, eggs and vegetables for the soldiers. Milk production alone increased by twenty percent between 1939 and 1943. By 1943, approximately 55% of all receipts of cheese were set aside for government use. Borden Company's Plymouth, Wisconsin plant received the Army-Navy "E" award in 1943 for its exceptional record in producing cheese for the war. These Wisconsin foods were used in the soldiers' rations. The Jungle ration, or "J-ration" contained powdered milk, while the C-Ration "M" Unit included dishes such as a canned entrée with beef or pork. Oscar Mayer provided several of these meats, as well as their packaging. Photo E portrays an Oscar Meyer display that proudly celebrates its contribution to the war effort. Photo F illustrates K-Rations, which contained a tin of cheese. These foods from home meant a lot to the soldiers, who still remember them today. My grandfather, Army Sergeant Carl Gugel, remembers powdered eggs, powdered milk, and "a product known as K-rations. It had a little bit of cheese inside, and that was very special and wonderful." Seaman First Class Martin Gutekunst remembers, "After D-Day-plus-three, when the rest of the battalion landed, we had C-rations and they set up a field mess hall. I recall trading cans of meat for the Wisconsin cheese I loved."

In conclusion, Wisconsin's contributions to World War II greatly impacted soldiers in combat. Although Wisconsin provided soldiers, weapons and machine parts to the effort, perhaps its greatest contribution came from agriculture. With the help of the "Tractorettes", Wisconsin provided the food needed to win the war.