Western Defense Command


The Western Defense Command (WDC) was the army command charged with the defense of the western portion of the United States, including the Pacific Coast. Under the leadership of its first Commanding General, John L. DeWitt, the WDC advocated for the mass forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, and its leaders successfully persuaded the War Department and President to that view; the WDC also went on to implement that forced removal. The WDC continued to exclude Japanese Americans from the West Coast until the end of 1944.

The Western Defense Command was established on March 17, 1941, at the same time as the Eastern, Central, and Southern Defense Commands. The Western Defense Command was charged with "the defense of the Pacific Coast…against attacks by land, sea, and air; and the local protection of establishments and communications vital to the National Defense for which adequate defense cannot be provided by local civilian authorities."[1] The WDC was responsible for the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. It's headquarters were in the Presidio in San Francisco. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt was named the Commanding General of the WDC.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, WDC Commanding General DeWitt was one of the key figures in the gradual evolution of policy over the next two-and-a-half months that led to Executive Order 9066. Advised by longtime friend and Army Provost Marshal General Allen Gullion and assisted by the young military lawyer Karl Bendetsen, DeWitt led the WDC down a path that saw him supporting the removal of Japanese American citizens as well as enemy aliens by the end of January 1942.

On February 20, 1942, one day after EO 9066 was issued, Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent DeWitt instructions to designate military areas from which Japanese and German aliens and Japanese American citizens could be excluded, to make preparations to slowly remove those populations, and to encourage voluntary migration out of those military areas. Over the next month, DeWitt issued a series of proclamations to that end. Public Proclamation No. 1, issued on March 2, created Military Areas No. 1 and No. 2, indicating that people might be excluded from the former, but that no restrictions were contemplated for the latter. In a press statement accompanying this proclamation, DeWitt indicated the Japanese Americans would be removed first and also encouraged Japanese Americans living in Military Area No. 1 to voluntarily move, whether to Military Area No. 2 or to points further east.

For various reasons, "voluntary evacuation" did not prove feasible for the vast majority of Japanese Americans, and it soon became apparent that some mechanism was going to be needed to implement the removal of the over 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast. To that end, DeWitt established the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), naming Bendetsen its commanding officer. Over the next several months, the WCCA gradually removed Japanese Americans by means of 108 "Civilian Exclusion Orders" to temporary "assembly centers" hastily set up in existing public facilities such as racetracks or fairgrounds. Once the more permanent "relocation centers" administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) were ready, the WCCA facilitated the movement of the detainees to the WRA camps. Despite promises to the contrary, the WDC ended up removing Japanese Americans from Military Area No. 2—including Japanese Americans who had moved there earlier from Military Area No. 1. The WDC also forced the Military Intelligence Service Language School to move from San Francisco and forced Japanese American farmers to continue caring for crops prior to their removal despite the fact that these farmers would not be able to profit from them.

The emerging philosophy of the WRA and its director Dillon Myer was to resettle "loyal" Japanese Americans outside of the incarceration camps as quickly as possible. At the same time, the War Department, at the urging of the Office of War Information, sought to overturn bans on Japanese Americans in the military by forming an all Japanese American combat regiment. DeWitt and the WDC resisted both of these initiatives, in large part because they seemed to contradict the WDC's contention that the loyalty of resident Japanese could not be determined. Indeed, the initial version of DeWitt's Final Report, Japanese Evacuation From the West Coast, 1942, authored by Bendetsen and completed in April of 1943, made that exact claim. Despite the WDC's objections, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed on February 1, 1943. After issuing a suspet loyalty questionnaire and segregating the "disloyal" detainees, the WRA began encouraging loyal detainees to resettle in areas other than the West Coast, as the WDC continued to exclude Japanese Americans from there.

In September of 1943, DeWitt stepped down as head of the WDC and was replaced by Delos C. Emmons, whose handling of the Japanese American situation in Hawai'i as the military governor there under martial law contrasted sharply with DeWitt's handling of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. By the spring of 1944, Emmons supported ending the exclusion from the West Coast for the "loyal" and began issuing individual exemptions. Charles Bonesteel, who took over as WDC commander in June of 1944, advocated ending exclusion by the summer of 1944. "My study of the existing situation leads me to a belief that the great improvement in the military situation on the West Coast indicates that there is no longer a military necessity for the mass exclusion of the Japanese from the West Coast as a whole," he wrote to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy on July 3, 1944. However, for political reasons, the exclusion continued until after the 1944 elections. Public Proclamation No. 21, issued on December 17, 1944 finally rescinded the exclusion orders.

The Western Defense Command was disbanded on March 6, 1946.

Western Defense Command Commanders:

  • John L. DeWitt, March 17, 1941 to September 1943
  • Delos C. Emmons, September 1943 to June 1944
  • Robert H. Lewis, June 1944
  • Charles H. Bonesteel, Jr., June to November 1944
  • Henry Conger Pratt, December 1944 to November 1945
  • Harold R. Nichols, December 1945
  • Joseph W. Stillwell, December 1945 to March 1946

For More Information

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps, North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II.  Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., 1981.

de Nevers, Klancy Clark. The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito, and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004.

tenBroek, Jacobus, Edward Barnhard, and Floyd W. Matson. Prejudice, War, and the Constitution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

Footnotes

  1. Final Report, Japanese Evacuation From the West Coast, 1942, 33, cited in Jacobus tenBroek, Edward Barnhard, and Floyd W. Matson, Prejudice, War, and the Constitution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 100.