John DeWitt, who rose to the rank of lieutenant general, was born on January 9, 1880, in Fort Sidney, Nebraska. Reared on army posts, DeWitt left Princeton University during his sophomore year for a career in the military. He joined the U.S. Army as second lieutenant during the Spanish-American War, and remained in the army for nearly 50 years, serving in both World Wars I and II.
Before World War I, DeWitt spent three tours of duty in the Philippines. From 1914 to 1917, he worked in the office of quartermaster general in Washington,
D.C. During World War I, he served as director of supply and transportation for the First Army Corps in France. At the end of the war, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and as a colonel served in the Army's War Plans Division as its assistant chief of staff. In 1930, DeWitt was appointed to quartermaster general, and in 1937 he served as the commandant of the Army War College. Two years later in 1939, DeWitt was promoted to commander of the Fourth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco, and assumed control over the Western Defense Command.
During the 1920s, as acting assistant chief of staff in the War Plans Division, DeWitt worked on a plan called the “Defense of Oahu” concerning the Hawaiian Islands. In that document, which anticipated war with Japan, DeWitt recommended actions for defending the island against its Japanese American civilian population. He proposed the declaration of martial law, suspension of civil liberties under military rule, registration of all enemy aliens, internment of those considered to pose a threat to security, and restrictions on labor, movement, and public information. Military necessity, DeWitt argued, would justify those extraordinary measures because “the establishment of complete military control over the Hawaiian Islands, including its people, supplies, material, etc., is highly desirable.” Martial law, DeWitt contended, would secure the islands and enable the military to control and direct labor for the benefit of the war effort (Okihiro, 124).
After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, DeWitt wrote to the War Department that to defend the Pacific Coast, the area of his command, the army needed to establish broad civil control, antisabotage and counterespionage measures, and the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry. “Military necessity” justified those measures, DeWitt maintained, because of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. His recommendations for the West Coast at the start of the U.S. entry into World War II bore a remarkable likeness to the plans he developed for the defense of the island of Oahu in the early 1920s.
DeWitt observed that intelligence reports showed the existence of hundreds of Japanese American organizations in California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona that allegedly were actively engaged in advancing Japanese war aims. DeWitt pointed to the thousands of American-born Japanese who had gone to Japan to receive their education and thus became, presumably, pro-Japan. Their loyalties, DeWitt believed, were suspect.
A key figure in DeWitt's decision making was Karl Bendetsen who was sent from the army's provost marshall's office in Washington, D.C. to advise DeWitt on matters concerning aliens and Japanese Americans specifically. Although DeWitt distrusted the loyalty of Japanese Americans, he wavered in his position concerning actions to contain them. Thus, in January 1942, DeWitt declared: “I have little confidence that the enemy aliens are law-abiding or loyal in any sense of the word. Some of them yes; many, no. Particularly the Japanese. I have no confidence in their loyalty whatsoever” (Daniels, 45–46). At the same time, he hesitated about the need for a mass, forcible removal of all Japanese Americans from his command. Instead, in January 1942, DeWitt was thinking of evicting Japanese Americans only from areas surrounding a few strategic installations. Bendetsen and the pro
vost marshal's office pushed for a mass removal from the entire Western Defense Command, and by February 1942, Bendetsen had converted DeWitt to his view.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the army under DeWitt to prescribe military areas for the protection of vital installations against sabotage and espionage, and remove “any and all persons” from those zones. “Military necessity” prompted EO 9066, the president wrote, and he authorized the military to provide “transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary … until other arrangements are made.” DeWitt proceeded to implement the order.
The commander issued Proclamation 1 on March 2, 1942, dividing Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into two military areas, 1 and 2. Military Area 1 was further divided into a “prohibited zone,” essentially a strip along the Pacific coastline and Mexican border, and a larger “restricted zone” adjacent to it. In addition, he named 98 strategic installations as prohibited zones to German, Italian, and Japanese aliens and “any person of Japanese ancestry.” Japanese Americans were prohibited as an entire group. Military Area 2 contained no such prohibitions or zones.
DeWitt issued other proclamations establishing an 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. military curfew throughout Military Area 1 for all enemy aliens and all persons of Japanese ancestry. Another proclamation regulated the movement of the targeted people within Military Area 1, and yet another forbade Japanese Americans from leaving Military Area 1 where most of them lived. On March 24, 1942, DeWitt issued the first of his Civilian Exclusion Orders that began the forced removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Those actions began with Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, and they worked their way southward to encompass the entire Japanese American population on the West Coast.
DeWitt put Bendetsen in charge of the operation, making him the head of the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), which was set up on March 11, 1942, to handle the army's forced evictions. “Instructions to All Japanese Living on Bainbridge Island” appeared on posts and in public areas, directing the island's Japanese Americans to settle their affairs and prepare for a departure from their homes. The instructions told them to pack bedding, clothing, eating plates and utensils, and toilet articles for each family member, but they could only take what they could carry. All the rest, the family's possessions of a lifetime had to be sold or stored entirely at the risk of the owner. The 54 Japanese American families on Bainbridge Island had just six days to get ready.
The army loaded the exiled Japanese Americans onto trains, and transported them to an assembly center at Puyallup Fairgrounds in Washington State. There, they were joined by others as the WCCA forcibly evicted Japanese Americans from their homes. The process was repeated 107 times from Washington to California based upon Bendetsen and his staff's systematic division of the West Coast into 108 areas for Japanese American exclusion, each area containing about a thousand people. By June 5, 1942, the army succeeded in removing all Japanese Americans from Military Areas 1 and 2.
DeWitt served as the head of the Western Defense Command until September 10, 1943, when he was relieved of his command. He was awarded a second Distinguished Service Medal for his service, and was assigned to head the Army and Navy Staff College in Washington, D.C. DeWitt retired in June 1947, and on June 20, 1962, at the age of 82, he died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.
Okihito, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.