Karl R. Bendetsen Oral History, November 9, 1972

Oral History Interview with
Karl R. Bendetsen

General counsel, Department of the Army, 1949; Assistant Secretary of the Army, 1950-52; Under Secretary of the Army, 1952. More

New York City, New York
November 9, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Bendetsen Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened 1981
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Karl R. Bendetson

New York City, New York
November 9, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Bendetsen, continuing on from our first interview, you mentioned that you were called back from England to assist in the matter of the Japanese citizens who were being relocated. Why was it felt necessary to call you back from your task?

BENDETSEN: As I indicated to you earlier in our interview, I was ordered to duty in London, England, as a member of the staff of the Combined Supreme Allied Headquarters, to participate in planning the cross-channel invasion, which was then known by the code word, "Overlord." I reached my station at Norfolk House in St. James Square, London, England, in April of 1943. Approximately four months later, I received orders to proceed to the War Department, Washington, D.C., on temporary duty with instructions to report first to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Marshall, and thereafter to the Honorable John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War.


There were a number of conferences held in the course of the first day, with senior officials of the War Department General Staff, and of the War Relocation Authority. I will usually refer to the War Relocation Authority hereafter as the WRA. You will recall that the War Relocation Authority was a civilian agency having no relationship at any time in its history to the United States Army or the War Department. Its first director (prior to the time when it became activated, in full measure) was Milton Eisenhower. He established his office in San Francisco on the third floor of the Whitcomb Hotel, just one floor below the offices the WCCA occupied. Our consultations were regular and frequent and I kept him thoroughly advised and informed of our progress and our plans. As you already know, it was intended from the beginning that when the evacuation had been completed and after the evacuees who had not already resettled had been transferred from assembly centers to the relocation centers, the War Relocation Authority which was established to assume the residual responsibilities


entailed would do so, wholly relieving the War Department and the Army from any further accountability.

Before the Army phase had been completed, Mr. Eisenhower left the WRA to accept another assignment as Deputy Director of the War Information Agency, a post which he vastly preferred. I believe he remained there for the rest of World War II.

There followed a period in which the WRA had no active officer in charge. It had no functions other than preparation for a future role. During this interval the WRA "lost" whatever institutional memory it may have had during Dr. EisenhowerÂ’s tenure. It was not more than two months prior to the time when I transferred responsibility to the WRA that a new director replacing Dr. Eisenhower was assigned to it. His name was Dillon Myer. He had previously spent many years in the Department of Agriculture, as had Dr. Milton Eisenhower. As Mr. Myer delayed his departure from Washington, our "overlap" in San Francisco was necessarily brief and quite inadequate. My staff and I did the best


we could to bridge for him the vital history of the events which preceded our meeting. In retrospect, it later became clear to me that Mr. Myer failed to grasp the central fact that it had never been intended that the evacuees in the relocation centers remain there, incarcerated, so to speak. This commitment and the essential actions embodied by the declared policy was to aid the "evacuees" and their families to resettle as rapidly as possible. There was an active and successful effort of this nature under way before Mr. Myer took over. Thereafter, it was simply moribund.

Toward the end of March 1943, I transferred responsibility to him. By then all of the evacuees who had not been resettled, either from assembly centers, or directly on their own recognizance with their families, had been moved to the ten relocation centers. Operations were under way successfully and routinely. There were no problems. We had established health care, education programs for the young people, useful work programs for all who cared to participate,


libraries and recreational activities. We had advisory committees of evacuees advising the management of each center. We had trained and schooled the center managers and their staffs. We provided means within the limitation of wartime rationing to suit the palates of the evacuees and their families. Daily, a number of evacuee families were resettled to accept private employment as new members of various communities. These were the conditions of relocation center affairs when I left for my next assignment.

When I returned on temporary duty, to my amazement, I learned that in every one of the ten centers there were grave problems. It seems that during the intervening months in each of the ten centers many militant activists had surfaced. Agitation was rife. There were fires; there were pitched battles. WRA had to provide heavy guard forces. All was in turmoil. No evacuees had been resettled at all since the time when the WRA assumed responsibility. I was informed that my temporary duty assignment was


to restore peace, order, calm and equanimity.

I established and staffed an office at the Headquarters of the Ninth Service Command of the United States Army then located at Salt Lake City, Utah. It was composed of a small cadre of officers and a few civilians.

We determined who the militants were in each center. We took a head count. The number of those who were apparently beyond any early rehabilitation was large. They and their families would fill a large relocation center. I then concluded after extensive analyses and consultations that the relocation center at Tule Lake, California, was of the size and had the right facilities to accommodate all of the identified militants and their families.

HESS: But the camp had not been originally set up to house militants, is that correct?

BENDETSEN: It is certainly correct that neither Tule Lake nor any other relocation center was ever established for such a purpose! We had no militants during the Army phase. The selection of Tule Lake


as the place to receive all of the identified militants and their families was based on the findings mentioned above and its size which corresponded to the numbers to be accommodated in isolation from all the others. This was based on a careful analysis not only of the family composition of the militants but also of the complex logistics entailed. We carefully planned the needed actions, developed the requirements and made all the necessary arrangements.

The mission was accomplished without incident. It was not a simple task. There was no empty center to use. The peaceful residents of Tule Lake, aggregating over 95 percent of those then there, had to be moved in serials to nine other designated centers while militants were moved to Tule Lake as capacity for them opened. The railroad train scheduling was unusually complex.

We replaced some center management. We conducted orientation programs for all management. The manager and staff chosen to preside over Tule Lake were selected with great care and were extensively instructed with high-density methods as time was of


the essence. Four special programs of discussion were held with the leadership of the militants and order was established at Tule Lake as well. The remaining nine centers were then relatively placid and remained so.

I think I should introduce at this point for the first time some reference to the establishment of the famous regimental combat team of Japanese-Americans. This idea was born during discussions which I had initiated and held with Mr. McCloy, and he in turn with General Marshall long before I left for England. I had a very deep conviction that the Army should make use of the opportunity to find individuals who wished to give a good account of themselves not only as interpreters for the forces in the Pacific. This was already underway. I was convinced however that an opportunity should be extended to volunteers among the Japanese-American evacuees (the Nisei), to join one of more organized combat units to take part in the campaign in Europe.

HESS: Did that plan meet very much opposition initially?


BENDETSEN: No, I do not believe that it encountered any significant opposition. It was carefully considered. Many problems could have arisen if the selection process had been faulty or inept.

A regimental combat team composed of such volunteers had already been recruited and organized and was undergoing intensive training before I returned from England. Nevertheless, while I was at Tule Lake, I conferred with the leaders of the militants and advised them that if they wished for a chance to prove themselves and volunteer for special service if another combat team were to be organized, I would recommend them for consideration. A second group was not organized but some of the militants did serve as interpreters overseas and as instructors at the Army Language School successfully.

HESS: What was their reaction?

BENDETSEN: Very good.

HESS: When the units were first proposed, what was the reception of the Japanese at that time, the men who ultimately became members of those units?


BENDETSEN: Well, it varied. However, those who ultimately went through the process were very enthusiastic about the opportunity from the beginning.

HESS: They saw it as an opportunity to prove their citizenship.

BENDETSEN: Yes. Your comment inclines me to introduce another aspect, which you may consider pertinent to our discussion.

During my primary and secondary assignments (the first I described in our first interview and during the second one, we have now been reviewing), I made a special effort to meet many of the individual Japanese of all ages. It was out of these discussions that I was able to formulate the kind of program of self-discipline for them that made it possible for us to handle the assembly centers and the relocation centers, while we had responsibility, without incident. All aspects--transportation, the collection preceding assembly, the assembly center phase, the transfer to the relocation centers


went smoothly. There were no incidents, no demonstrations. As I said earlier in my transcript, we developed a set of clear rules. There were no exceptions ever made to any rule. In my discussions with leaders, I asked that they organize to assist us in administration, self-policing, etc. They did.

There was mutual respect for fair discipline. Many of these Japanese understood why this evacuation was necessary, if for nothing else, their own safety and protection. This is definitely not to say that any of them liked it. No one did. Certainly I did not. None of these aspects have been adequately covered in any of the main publications written by self-appointed authorities that have proliferated since World War II. These are revisionist histories created to suit the preconceptions of the authors about what happened in contrast to the Official Report which does give an accurate account of what happened.

When I went to Tule Lake on the occasion of my return for the temporary assignment I have


described, I knew some of the individual militants. We could talk. We reestablished a colloquy. This sort of communication had not been undertaken by the War Relocation Authority.

HESS: What did you find that seemed to be the basis of their militancy?

BENDETSEN: They believed strongly that they had been demeaned. They felt they had cooperated in a necessary but unpleasant situation. They had been assured that they would be given assistance to resettle from the centers. They saw that during the Army phase this assurance was an ongoing reality. No sooner had the WRA assumed responsibility than resettlement stop