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Karl Bendetsen

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Subject: United States Under Secretary of the Army, Internment of Japanese Americans, Executive Order 9066, Thomas Eckert, United States Assistant Secretary of War
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Karl Bendetsen

Karl Bendetsen

Karl Robin Bendetsen (October 11, 1907 – June 28, 1989) was born in Aberdeen, Washington. His parents, Albert M. and Anna Bendetson, were first-generation American citizens, and his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Karl changed the spelling of his last name during early 1942, and would later make written claims to descent from Danish lumbermen who had come to America as early as 1670.

Bendetsen is remembered primarily for his role as architect of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (a role he tried to downplay in later years).

Military career

Prior to World War II

Bendetson (as he was then known) enlisted in the Washington National Guard, at the age of fourteen. While this was well below legal age, the National Guard turned a blind eye to the many young men who desired to enlist while who were still in — or, as in Bendetsen's case, had yet to enter — high school.[1]

As he matured, Karl entered Army ROTC, eventually taking an infantry commission in the Army Reserve.[1]


Bendetson, now a major, was on the administrative staff of Judge Advocate General Major General Allen W. Guillion.[2]

In early September 1941, Bendetson was sent to Hawaii to discuss the need to intern enemy aliens in case of war. He stated in his notes that there were 134,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in the islands, and worried that "good Americans" might "give Japs the benefit of the doubt" for economic reasons.

In November, Bendetson was sent to take over an aircraft plant in New Jersey, as part of a plan by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to boost production of factories making materiel needed by Great Britain.

Major Bendetson was given this assignment after having written the orders for seizure and strike-breaking at a North American Aviation plant, but the army had taken charge of the Air Associates plant in October, prior to his arrival. In later years, however, Bendetsen would describe a wild scene of standing on his overturned car to face down the "mass" of strikers who had blocked his way into the plant.

The strike settled, Bendetson was back at his own desk in early December.

Architect of Japanese American internment

Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested approximately 5,500 leaders in the Japanese American communities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii.[3] While the government was worried that these leaders had been involved in anti-American activity on behalf of the Empire of Japan, eventually, all were cleared of any wrongdoing.

However, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in early 1942, which authorized military commanders to designate "exclusion zones", "from which any or all persons may be excluded" for reasons of military security. Following that authorization, Bendetsen (he had changed his name by this time) developed a plan by which all persons of Japanese ancestry, whether foreign-born alien or American-citizen "non-alien," were forced to leave the West Coast. He then pressured Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt to accept his plan, rather than the less-restrictive one which DeWitt had originally intended.

Initially, only southern Arizona and the western parts of Washington, Oregon and California were designated as "Military Area No. 1," and many Japanese Americans simply moved to the eastern portions of their home states, while several thousand moved to other states.[4] Bendetsen would later call this "voluntary relocation," though the moves were done at the orders of the government. The Western Defense Command then announced that the exclusion zone would be expanded to include all of California and created "Military Area No. 2," at the same time prohibiting Japanese Americans from leaving either military area. Only those who had moved outside California escaped being rounded up and confined in makeshift "assembly centers" (often horse stalls at racetracks and fairgrounds),[5] and then later incarceration in "relocation centers."

While Bendetsen and other supporters of internment cited military necessity (and continue to do so), reports by the FBI and by the Office of Naval Intelligence had stated that not only were vast majority of Americans of Japanese ancestry loyal, but likewise their parents (who had been denied American citizenship) were loyal to the United States and held no allegiance to Japan.

Bendetsen also ordered that any person, no matter their age, who had "one drop of Japanese blood"[6] were to be confined. This included the removal of infants and children from orphanages and the transportation of hospital patients, a number of whom died when their care was cut off. He would later claim that the orders were not so broad-sweeping, though even Military Intelligence Service officers of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave California.

Throughout the rest of the war, Bendetsen and DeWitt opposed army orders that soldiers of Japanese ancestry be allowed to re-enter the coastal states while on leave or military assignment. The reason for opposition was primarily political, and the fear of ridicule when the soldiers had proven patriotic Americans while the government had spent millions of dollars to put those soldiers' families behind barbed wire.

Opposition to Japanese American redress

Bendetsen joined others who had been involved in the exclusion and incarceration to oppose the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings, which in 1983 determined that there had been no just cause for the actions taken against Japanese American communities during World War II. He was adamantly opposed to calls for reparations to be paid to former camp inmates and their relatives.[1][2]

Embellishments and falsehoods

After the war, Bendetsen's claims of his importance to the army and role in the war grew, while admissions of his role in the internment shrank.

Over the years, he made many contradictory claims, each apparently intended to impress his audience. Others were made to hide his Jewish ancestry.

Pearl Harbor

One of the greatest of these claims was given when interviewed in 1972 for the Harry S. Truman library. Speaking to historian Jerry Hess, Bendetsen claimed to have spent "late 1941" carrying "the title of Special Representative of the Secretary of War" to have conferences with Major General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. He also claimed to have stopped to meet with Lieutenant General Walter C. Short (the military commander in charge of Hawaiian defenses) and Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel (commander of the Pacific Fleet), leaving only days before the Pearl Harbor attacks.

In this oral history, Bendetsen tells in great detail that the

However, army records (and his earlier claims) show no such trips to the Pacific, and it would not have been possible for him to have been the house guest of Generals MacArthur and Short while at the same time staring down hundreds of strikers while standing on the door of his overturned car in New Jersey.

Moreover, the Pearl Harbor attack began a few minutes before 8:00, Hawaiian Time Zone, which was 1:00 p.m. in the District of Columbia—thus, Bendetsen has a detailed, word-for-word memory of being advised of the Japanese attack at a time when the first wave of planes were still tied to the decks of their aircraft carriers.

The timing errors become more obvious when one considers that someone who landed at the Washington airport at 9:00 could not collect the luggage needed on a trans-Pacific trip and drive from there to the Chief of Staff's office with enough time to spare that he would be told to go home to Bethesda, Maryland and "be here by 10:00 a. m."

Bendetsen claims to have been sent home by Bedell Smith, whom he says was pulling a watch as Assistant Secretary to the Chief of Staff. However, Smith had been appointed Secretary in September 1941, and would not have been pulling any kind of office watch, especially not on a Sunday morning.

Further claims include Bendetsen's knowing the contents of "urgent and private" messages from both Short and Admiral Kimmel, intended for General Marshall. There are several reasons that this is nearly impossible. First, if they were urgent, they would have been encrypted and sent by cablegram, rather than risking their loss on a 19-hour flight from Hawaii to California, and delaying them by an additional day across the United States. Second, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet would have no reason to send messages to the Army Chief of Staff, 5000 miles away. Lastly, should there have been such messages, and they had been entrusted to a major who was just passing through (instead of a designated "officer courier"), there is no way that major would have read them—the envelopes would have been sealed and marked TOP SECRET.

This interview took place in October, 1972, at a time when the Academy Award-winning film Tora! Tora! Tora! was finishing its second run in the theaters. The film had boosted familiarity with the sequence of events, and there was much discussion of the roles (and apparent scapegoating) of Short and Kimmel, as well as various of the details found in Bendetsen's rich narrative of events in Washington that morning.

Bendetsen confused the timing of events—he claims to have arrived at Marshall's office at the time when (according to the movie), Colonel Rufus S. Bratton was desperately trying to reach Marshall with warning of the impending attack.

Family histories

Bendetsen's grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania and Poland in the 1860s. His father was born in New York, and was co-owner of a clothing store. However:

  • In early 1942, Karl changed the spelling of his name from "Bendetson" to "Bendetsen."
  • In 1970, Bendetsen claimed (for the National Cyclopedia of American Biography) that he was "grandson of Benedict and Dora Robbins Bendetsen, and great-grandson of Benedict Benediktssen, who came to this country from Denmark about 1815 . . ." In truth, Bendetsen's paternal grandparents were Samuel A. and Catherine Rabbin Bendetson, who were born in Germany (1830) and Poland (1838), respectively.
  • In 1983, he took time from testifying in opposition to redress for Japanese American internment camp survivors to describe how his first Danish ancestor "came over here in 1670, decided he didn't want to be a sailor, he wanted to be a farmer . . .my family has been in timber ever since." He also described selling lumber to Japanese ships. In truth, Bendetsen's family first entered the "timber" business after he retired from the army, when he became a general consultant for the Champion Paper & Fibre Company in 1952. Rising to company president (the reason for the Biography entry in 1970), Karl was described as "ruthless" by his lifelong friends, who also were critical of his betrayal of his Jewish heritage.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Oral history interview with Karl R. Bendetsen for Harry S. Truman Library, New York City, 1972.
  2. ^ a b de Nevers, Klancy. "Karl Bendetsen" Densho Encyclopedia (accessed 23 May 2014).
  3. ^ Densho. "About the Incarceration" (accessed 23 May 2014).
  4. ^ Niiya, Brian. "Voluntary evacuation" Densho Encyclopedia (accessed 23 May 2014).
  5. ^ Linke, Konrad. "Assembly Centers" Densho Encyclopedia (accessed 23 May 2014).
  6. ^ Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996) 76-77.

Further reading



  • Oral History interview for Harry S. Truman Library

External links

  • Karl R. Bendetsen papers, 1917-1989
Government offices
Preceded by
New Office
General Counsel of the Army
Succeeded by
Francis Shackelford
Preceded by
New Office
Assistant Secretary of the Army (General Management)
February 2, 1950 – May 6, 1952
Succeeded by
Francis Shackelford
Preceded by
Archibald S. Alexander
United States Under Secretary of the Army
May 1952 – January 1954
Succeeded by
Earl D. Johnson
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