National Nutrition Month: Hydroponics feed ailing WWII Army Air Forces personnel

  • Published
  • By Judith Taylor
  • Air Force Medical Service
"An Army moves on its stomach"-- Napoleon

As we observe National Nutrition Month in March, a time to focus on the importance of eating healthy, well-balanced meals, having access to fresh food was not always possible for yesterday's Army Air Forces personnel, serving in remote locations during World War II.

During the war, as today, the military provided pre-packaged, processed rations for use when fresh foods were unavailable. Never intended for long-term use, the ration too often became the norm during the war while fresh food became a luxury, especially for those in isolated areas. Despite efforts by the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago, which worked to improve the palatability and nutrition in rations, the Army still reported significant nutritional problems within its ranks. Research showed that the issue wasn't so much with the nutrition provided by rations, but with the limited variety and lack of fresh food.

While the Navy had the ability to store vegetables and dairy in shipboard refrigerated units, stockpile regular canned goods for use, and bake fresh bread products on ships, the Army and its attached Air Forces (AAF) frequently had no such luxury. No matter how successful the military was in improving nutrition, many servicemen would rather skip meals than choke down another ration, and that led to a greater problem.
Flight surgeons with the AAF were keenly aware of the dangers of nutritionally-deficient flyers' diets. They knew a lack of Niacin could produce depression, diarrhea and forgetfulness; night flying required high levels of Vitamin-A to prevent night blindness; and sufficient levels of Vitamin-B were needed to combat irritability, fatigue, inefficiency and infection. Any of these problems could put a crew or mission at risk. And, preventing infection was particularly important when considering the close proximity of the crew inside the aircraft.

Aircrews stationed in remote or far-forward areas had more problems in getting balanced diets than those in more populated areas. During the invasions of Italy and Sicily for example, it was documented that some advanced fighter groups went without fresh (frozen) meat for four to five months. In the New Guinea region of the Pacific, military leadership routinely chalked-up cases of anorexia, listlessness, fatigability, physical and mental inadequacy, and reduced resistance to infection, to the cost of being in the tropics.

However, medical officers were unconvinced of this reason for illnesses, and continued to highlight nutritional deficits and their impacts on unit readiness. The November 1945 issue of the Air Surgeon's Bulletin reported, "Medical officers in New Guinea, as early as 1942 recognized the signs of dietary deficiency in military personnel under their supervision. Reports from other areas in which fresh foods were unobtainable indicated clinical evidence of vitamin deficiency in local diets, with resultant fatigability and listlessness, and even more acute symptoms, in the personnel."

Armed with this evidence, medical officers successfully argued for better nutrition for flyers, enabling air crews to receive extra rations of items such as fruit juices and powdered milk that were usually unavailable to other troops. Not surprisingly, this policy caused resentment amongst ground crews and other members of the unit, who worked side-by-side with the better fed flight crews. Eventually, flight surgeons determined that except for Vitamin-A to ensure optimum night vision, special diets weren't necessary. Yet, the new policy did not solve the ongoing dilemma of AAF personnel's refusal to eat more processed foods.

Understanding personnel's dire need for fresh food, the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, discovered a way to solve the problem: hydroponics.

Although somewhat unusual in the 1940s, hydroponics, the science of soilless growing, wasn't unknown. It began in the 1860s in Germany and had been successfully applied by Pan American Airways on Wake Island before the war began. The Army charged the Aero Medical Labs with providing supervision and training of personnel as well as the construction of hydroponics greenhouses in Europe and the Pacific. In May 1945, two of the planned 14 facilities were in operation--one on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, and one in Hawaii. Personnel built additional greenhouses at Iwo Jima, Atkinson Field near Georgetown in British Guiana, and Wright-Patterson AFB. The AAF Regional Convalescent Hospital in Coral Gables, Fla., hosted the training program.
No record could be found indicating that other greenhouses were ever built, most likely due to the war ending in 1945.

The typical hydroponic greenhouse consisted of 25 beds of three feet wide, and eight inches deep, spaced four feet apart, and 120, 100, and 80 feet in length. An aggregate mixture held plants in place as they grew through slits in the burlap-covered beds. Workers pumped a chemical solution into the 120-foot bed, which then drained into the 100-foot bed and then into the smaller 80-foot bed. The remaining solution was then recovered and reused. The results could be impressive.

The greenhouse on Ascension Island reported one monthly harvest of 1,910 pounds of cucumbers; 768 pounds of tomatoes, 990 pounds of lettuce, 109 pounds of peppers, and 955 pounds of radishes. This was especially remarkable, noted historians, given the fact that Army personnel had to distill fresh water from seawater in order to provide enough for irrigation. The island also had no native bee population to pollinate plants. Until the Army flew in a hive of bees, staff working the facility had to transfer pollen by hand or use fruit-stimulating hormone paste applied with a syringe. To manage high winds and heavy sun on the island, crews created wind breaks and installed shade coverings on the facility.

Reports from Hydroponics Station No. 3 on Iwo Jima between May and September 1946 highlighted some of the frustrating issues faced by these remote greenhouses. The intense heat and heavy use of insecticides along with a lack of rain during the first part of May weakened plants and necessitated twice-daily watering to keep plants producing. Even so, the greenhouses reported a substantial harvest in May that included 3,311 pounds of radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers.

Not surprising to observers, the island of Iwo Jima had the same problem Ascension Island had-- there were no bees. The first shipment arrived in June, all dead, so workers had to continue laborious hand pollination of crops. July brought new problems as the island was hit with a typhoon, destroying all plants and knocking flat shade and wind barriers. Crews rapidly began rebuilding and replanting only to be hit with a second, even worse typhoon, in August. Again, rebuilding and replanting the gardens began quickly, only to have them flattened again when a third typhoon skirted the area later in the month. As a result, the station reported no harvest in August and only 70 pounds of radishes in September. There was one piece of good news, however, a new shipment of bees arrived, alive and healthy.

Even though the greenhouses continued to successfully operate after the war, the military eventually discontinued the program as ease of air transportation increased. In the end, these greenhouses provided Airmen with the nutrition they needed to carry the fight through to the finish, due to the ingenious efforts of the men and women of the Aero Medical Labs, and the life-saving hydroponics stations.

USAF. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)