By John Sammon—WATSONVILLE--A little-known piece of history concerning Japanese Americans interned during World War II was the role of the Driscoll family, a dynasty of strawberry growers, and how they gave returning internees who had lost almost everything a new start in 1945.
“I think very few people know about the Driscoll family,” said Lawson Sakai of Morgan Hill. “They were life-savers.”
Today the company is still in business based in Watsonville and is simply called Driscoll’s, under the heading, “Only the Finest Berries.”
Strawberries began to be commercially grown in the Pajaro Valley back in the 1870s. In the 1890s, two Driscoll brothers, Richard and Donald, immigrated to California from County Cork, Ireland. In 1904, they along with Joseph Reiter, began growing the crop they titled “Sweet Briar” strawberries.
The company partnered with the brothers Robert and Terry Sheehy, Thomas Porter and later M.W. “Swede” Johnson, eventually expanding operations to Santa Maria, Oxnard and other locales.
They founded the Strawberry Institute, still located in Watsonville, where research could be conducted to breed superior strains of strawberries.
“They grew their own types of strawberries and had them patented,” Sakai noted.
Japanese immigrants had also arrived in large numbers at the turn of the century and they too farmed the land, but as sharecroppers, which meant they couldn’t own their holdings. They leased the properties. However, their first-generation American-born children could purchase property and as the years passed, they began to do so. The farms prospered.
Sakai, 88, remembered seeing markets along 7th Street in Los Angeles filled with flowers grown by Japanese Americans, and produce on nearby 9th Street, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Japanese American farmers had helped to found California’s burgeoning fruit industry.
“But there was a lot of jealousy of Japanese Americans because they were becoming successful,” Sakai said. “There was a feeling among some people that the Japanese were taking over everything. These immigrants had started their farming businesses from scratch and had spent 40 years working up from nothing. They were just starting to get wealthy and to send their kids to college when it was taken away.”
World War II broke out
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order calling for the relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast and their forced imprisonment in barbed-wire-enclosed internment camps because the government viewed them as enemy aliens.
“The majority of men imprisoned were not only farmers, but leaders of society, teachers, lawyers, doctors, Buddhist ministers,” Sakai explained. “The FBI had their own camps, and with the men gone, their families had no means of support. When they were given the order in April 1942 to pack up, they did as they were told. They were law-biding citizens. There was no one to resist.”
The internees lost their homes, property and jobs. Entire communities were wiped out, never to recover. Japantown in San Jose managed to survive, one of only three left in California along with Los Angeles and San Francisco, because sympathetic citizens who had not been interned, including Anglo residents, held onto mortgages until those interned could return.
The internees weren’t released until the end of the war in 1945. The government set them free and gave them $25 and a train ticket, but often they had nowhere to go. Driscoll’s became a refuge.
Sakai said many California communities where Japanese Americans had formerly lived were less than welcoming when the internees attempted to return and resume their lives. Area employers wouldn’t hire Japanese Americans.
“Some of the cities around here including Morgan Hill told the returning Japanese Americans stay out, we don’t want you,” Sakai said. “But the people at Driscoll’s said, we’ll give you a place to live if you’re willing to raise strawberries.”
Sakai said the company had been raising strawberries in a number of locations including Monterey, Seaside, Aromas, Watsonville, Aptos and Santa Cruz. During the war, the firm had soldiers from Fort Ord helping to harvest the crops because there were no laborers. After the war ended, company officials recognized that returning Japanese American internees and veterans could be a valuable labor force.
“Driscoll’s was leasing a lot of virgin ground at the time and they encouraged Japanese Americans to share-crop the land,” Sakai said. “Housing was built and each returning family got a plot of land. Driscoll’s put in the strawberries. The families could make a living and get living quarters. They had no money and few other opportunities, so it was good for both sides.”
Estimates place 600 families or more working in the strawberry industry at that time.
Sakai said for some Japanese Americans, it was like starting from scratch all over again just as the first immigrants had.
“It had to be stressful,” he added.
Sakai spent 13 years working for Driscoll’s during the 1950s and 60s.
“Usually every June the strawberries would be picked and the stems removed,” he said. “The strawberries would be brought into a little town, San Martin, and I helped process them. The processed strawberries would be put into containers and shipped out and made mostly into ice cream or used for jam.”
Today, Miles Reiter, a grandson of founder Ed Reiter, runs the company. Driscoll’s officials declined comment on their history for this article. However Sakai said the company helped to make the transition from internment to a resumption of life easier for Japanese Americans in California.
“It’s important for people to know they did this, and I give them credit,” he added.
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Lawson Sakai joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II and saw combat in Italy and France in some of the hardest fighting of the war. Today he is retired and lives in Morgan Hill. He is founder and president of Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans.