Carl F. Eifler

Name Carl F. Eifler
Born June 27 1906
Died August 8 2002
Birth Location Los Angeles

Early commander of the Sand Island Internment Camp . With his imposing frame and equally outsized personality, Carl Eifler's life was straight out of a spy novel—he ran a covert guerrilla operation against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma, plotted the assassination by poison of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, hatched a plan to kidnap and kill a German physicist working on the atom bomb, and devised a scheme to use two-man submersibles to invade Korea. But before all this, for three tumultuous months immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Captain Eifler served as the commander of the Sand Island Internment Camp in Honolulu Harbor, overseeing the incarceration of several hundred Japanese, Italian, German, and American civilians and POWs. His brief tenure at Sand Island would leave a lasting impression on those who came under his control, and their recollections would reverberate well past the years of war.

The Early Years

Carl F. Eifler was born on June 27, 1906, in Los Angeles, where his father worked on the derricks during the southern California oil boom. At the age of thirteen, he dropped out of school and followed his father into the oil fields. A couple of years later, with the aid of his mother, Carl lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to the Philippines but was discharged after eighteen months, when his true age was discovered. [1]

Back in the states, Eifler joined the L.A. Police Department, hunting down bootleggers during the heyday of the Prohibition. But when it was discovered that he had again lied about his age, he was forced to resign. By 1928, Eifler had joined the U.S. Army Reserve and was working as a patrol inspector for the U.S. Customs Service along the border region between California and Mexico, where he scoured the area for smugglers and rum-runners. [2]

According to Eifler, in 1934, he undertook an independent investigation of what he believed was a Japanese plot brewing in the Tijuana area to gain Mexican support for an invasion of the West Coast. He took his suspicions to his then-reserves commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Stilwell, and although nothing came of his investigation (he, however, would grow to believe that his report presaged the attack on Pearl Harbor), it marked the beginning of a lifelong association with Stilwell. [3]

Two years later, Eifler was among a group of law enforcement officials sent to Honolulu to clean up the U.S. Customs Service there. As chief customs inspector, Eifler gained a reputation as a hard-nosed, "fault-finder"—"one of the toughest men in Honolulu." [4]

Commander of the Sand Island Camp

By December 1941, Eifler was an active duty army captain in command of an infantry unit, which in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack guarded the headquarters for the commanding general of the newly created Hawaii military government. [5] Within several days, Eifler was selected by Provost Marshal William F. Steer to oversee the incarceration of several hundred Japanese, Italian, and German aliens who had been arrested in the wake of the bombing and were now being confined at the Sand Island Internment Camp. In the chaos immediately following the attack, Eifler was required to assemble his own guard company for Sand Island. He did so, he said, "from the streets, from ROTC and wherever else I [could] find them." [6] Faced with the immediate need to secure the Sand Island facility, Eifler installed along the camp perimeter a double barbed-wire fence with twenty-two-hundred-volt electric wires running in between, though it was later switched off. [7]

Internee accounts remain consistent in their criticisms of Eifler as cruel and ill-tempered, prone to intimidation as a way to maintain obedience and control. "Eifler was a mean, tough guy and all of us were afraid of him," Suikei Furuya recalled. "I admit that it was his duty to enforce the rules, but he seemed to enjoy picking on us for trivial matters." According to Carl Armfelt, a U.S. citizen and army veteran, who was arrested while at his post as chief of communications for the Honolulu Office of Civilian Defense, Eifler was "a great hulk of a man, profane and given to abusive language. . . . For approximately one month [he] addressed us daily to the effect that as soon as he got orders we would all be machine-gunned, that he had soldiers trained for that purpose." [8]

Internees point to Eifler's use of strip searches as one of his more severe tactics. [9] The well-documented "Okano Incident" of December 14, 1941, stands out in the collective memory, as internees were made to stand naked at attention while guards conducted a protracted search. Similar searches were said to have occurred at other times as well, a missing spoon sparking a strip search in January 1942. [10]

Others point to examples of what internee Otokichi Ozaki has characterized as "nonsensical" displays that Eifler used as a "strategy to flaunt his authority": inspecting garbage cans in the search for discarded food, ordering internees to dig for unexploded ordinances as punishment for violating rules against assembly, or sending them to a week of solitary confinement for disrespectful speech. Ozaki noted, "In the atmosphere of wartime hysteria and exaggerated stories, we must have been seen as hated enemies who deserved to suffer as much as possible. In all, I experienced internment in five different camps, but I [was] never treated as unreasonably as I was at Sand Island." [11]

In contrast, Eifler's biographer Thomas Moon and Hawai'i internment historian Patsy Sumie Saiki argue that critical assessments of the captain fail to take into account the unique challenges that he faced as commander of a large confinement camp in the turbulent period immediately following the Japanese attack. In those early days, they contend, there were few established regulations for the detention of civilian enemy aliens, and Eifler often found himself "on his own," required to make decisions immediately to preserve the welfare of not only the internees—individuals whose loyalty at that point was assumed to not be toward America—but also the men under his command. "I was not sent to Sand Island or any other war zone to win popularity contests," Eifler would later state. "I wanted to prevent suicides because of temporary intense depression. I wanted to prevent escapes, which might mean someone could be shot or killed. I wanted to safeguard the health of the detainees, for they were not criminals. I made rules and regulations which were then non-existent, for I needed a system of behavior in the camp." [12]

Moon and Saiki argue that while seemingly severe and uncompromising, Eifler applied his discipline equally toward the internees as well as the men under his command. For example, rules against food waste, which the internees saw as capricious, were brought to bear against the guards as well. Both also describe an incident involving a ruptured water main and the extent to which Eifler went to ensure clean water for the camp. "(W)hat they didn't realize," Saiki argues, "was that Eifler fought for their welfare relentlessly." [13]

Eifler's wife, Mary Lou, served as the matron of the female internees there and later at the successor internment site at Honouliuli . In contrast to her husband, Mary Lou Eifler is depicted in internee memoirs as "a warmhearted person," who "took very good care of" and "treated nicely" the female internees. "We have a saying," Suikei Furuya observed, "'the wife of a devil is like a Buddha.'" [14]

Military Intelligence and the OSS

After several months as commander of Sand Island, Eifler was recruited in March 1942 to head up a new top secret Office of Strategic Services guerrilla outfit known as Detachment 101. [15] Staffed, according to Eifler's memoir, by men for whom "there was no such thing as honesty, integrity, or even decency," the unit included officers brought from Sand Island: Eifler's sergeant, Vincent Curl, and his fellow camp commander, John G. Coughlin. [16] The contingent was sent to Burma in March, assigned to provide covert support for Stilwell's war in China. DET 101's exploits soon matched the audacious, larger-than-life personality of its commander: guerrilla warfare, sowing propaganda, sabotaging strategic installations, and gathering intelligence hundreds of miles behind the Japanese lines in the Burmese jungles. [17]

In May 1943, while on a commando raid in the Bay of Bengal, Eifler suffered a severe head injury. He was plagued for months thereafter with pain and bouts of amnesia, and he turned to alcohol and morphine to alleviate his suffering. [18] Over the course of the next year, the effects of the injury provided the grounds for Eifler's removal from command of DET 101. Nevertheless, it was during this same period that Eifler was promoted to colonel and apparently given a new role as the central player in several extraordinary, highly covert missions designed alter the course of the war. [19] These included a plot to assassinate China's nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek; one to kidnap and kill the Nazi's leading atomic physicist, Werner Heisenberg; and a plan to use two-man submersibles for an invasion of Korea and, ultimately, Japan. None came to pass. [20]

Postwar and Later Years

With the end of the war, Eifler was discharged from the OSS and the U.S. Army, and he returned to the Honolulu Customs Service. His wartime exploits caught the attention of the local press, which reported upon his daring deeds in Burma. [21]

The effects of Eifler's head injury continued to plague him, and he suffered recurring episodes of violence that sometimes resulted in his awakening in "a padded cell the next morning" at Tripler Military Hospital in Honolulu. In his memoirs, Eifler recounts violent assaults during this period of friends, strangers, and even police officers. He underwent extended periods of hospitalization and medical treatment. [22]

In the 1950s, Eifler experienced a religious awakening; he obtained a degree from a small, private Christian college in Honolulu and then relocated to the Mainland in order to pursue a career in the ministry. [23] In the 1960s, apparently having overcome the debilitating aspects of his injury—and after his wife's death in 1961—Eifler earned a doctorate in psychology and served as a psychologist for the county health department in Salinas, California, until his retirement in 1973. [24] He received numerous military awards and citations and was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. Every year, the Colonel Carl F. Eifler Award is bestowed upon a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and the U.S. Army National Guard.

Carl F. Eifler died on April 8, 2002, in Salinas. [25]

Authored by Sheila H. Chun

For More Information

Anderson, Jim and Dirk A.D. Smith. " GIMIK and SKIFF: A Tale of Two Semi-Submersible Submarines. " Studies in Intelligence 58.4 (December 2014): 19-29.

Furuya, Suikei. An Internment Odyssey: Haisho Tenten . Translation by Tatsumi Hayashi. Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2017.

Moon, Thomas N. and Carl F. Eifler. The Deadliest Colonel . New York: Vantage Press, 1975.

Moon, Tom. This Grim and Savage Game: The OSS and U.S. Covert Operations in World War II . N.p.: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Ozaki, Otokichi Muin. Family Torn Apart: The Internment Story of the Otokichi Muin Ozaki Family . Edited by Gail Honda. Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2012.

Powers, Thomas. Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb . New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1993.

Sacquety, Troy J. The OSS in Burma: Jungle War against the Japanese . Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013.

Saiki, Patsy Sumie. Archival Collection. Archival Record 18/Box 1/Folder 6, Archival Record 18/Box 1/Folder 7. Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. Honolulu.

———. Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1982.

Steer, William "Frank" F. Oral History Interview by Mike Gordon. 21 April 1981. Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. Honolulu.

Soga, Yasutaro. Life behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'i Issei . Translation by Kihei Hirai. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008.


  1. Thomas N. Moon and Carl F. Eifler, The Deadliest Colonel (New York: Vantage Press, 1975), 2-3; "Carl Eifler," Monterey County Herald , Apr. 13, 2002.
  2. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 3-5.
  3. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 7-13. Eifler’s investigation coincided with a period of heightened U.S. counterintelligence of suspected Japanese espionage in the southern California area, conducted primarily by the Office of Naval Intelligence. According to historian Pedro Loureiro, only two major cases of espionage were ever uncovered there (against naval officers Toshio Miyazaki in 1934 and Itaru Tachibana in 1941). Loureiro, "Japanese Espionage and American Countermeasures in Pre-Pearl Harbor California," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 3.3 (1994): 197–210.
  4. "Hawaii Customs Shakeup Ordered," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Oct. 6, 1936; also Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 14. The quotes "fault-finder" and "toughest men" from Yasutaro Soga , Life behind Barbed Wire (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 30.
  5. Eifler was the only reserve officer in command of such a unit, about which he was sufficiently insecure. Lacking a formal military education, he felt the greatest rivalry with Capt. John Coughlin, a soft-spoken West Point graduate, whose company was one of the best-trained in the regiment and preceded Eifler's at guard at Sand Island. Eifler discusses this, as well as his memories of the Pearl Harbor bombing in Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 15-24.
  6. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 24-25.
  7. William F. Steer, "Oral History Interview with William 'Frank' F. Steer," 21 April 1981, interview by Mike Gordon, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. There are conflicting reports about Eifler's use of prisoner labor to erect the barbed wire fencing before the Army Corps of Engineers became available. One account describes the internees as "voluntarily and 'willingly'" participating in this work detail; see Harry N. Scheiber and Jane L. Scheiber, Bayonets in Paradise: Martial Law in Hawai'i during World War II (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016), 185. However, an internee account contends that Eifler ordered the internees to build the fence, using them to replace workers who had gone on strike to protest the commander's verbal abuses. Suikei Furuya is highly critical of Eifler's having assigned the hard physical labor to elderly internees like Yasutaro Soga. See Suikei Furuya, An Internment Odyssey: Haisho Tenten (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2017), 27-28.
  8. Furuya, An Internment Odyssey , 17; Armfelt quoted by Scheiber, Bayonets in Paradise , 185. Eifler, for his part, claims that the internees began the rumor that he was instructing his men to shoot them; Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 25. Saiki argues that Eifler, in fact, sought to avoid any killings by the guards. In her notes from an interview with Eifler, she quotes him, "'If you shoot anyone, I want to find his body hanging over the barbed wire.' Which meant escapees had to climb to top and be over at least halfway over the fence for him to be shot. But internees didn't know that." "Eifler," notes 19 pp, Saiki Archival Collection, AR18/B1/F6, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i.
  9. Eifler was not the only official to subject the internees to strip searches. Accounts of the early days describe strip searches upon arrest and transfer to other jurisdictions, seemingly part of the routine processing of the prisoners. See Otokichi Ozaki, Family Torn Apart: The Internment Story of the Otokichi Muin Ozaki Family , edited by Gail Honda (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2012), 20; Furuya, An Internment Odyssey , 50. What sets apart Eifler's use of strip searches, according to the internees, was his intent of degradation and punishment.
  10. For detailed descriptions of the Okano Incident, see Furuya, An Internment Odyssey , 17-18; Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire , 30-31; Ozaki, Family Torn Apart , 21-22; Saiki, Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1982), 36-37. According to Saiki, Eifler recalls the missing spoon incident but denies that he ordered a strip search. However, Saiki identifies internees who recalled the strip search. See Ganbare! , 36-37; "Eifler," Saiki Archival Collection.
  11. Ozaki, Family Torn Apart , 21, 22-23; Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire , 31, 35; Furuya, An Internment Odyssey , 16-17, 30-31.
  12. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 28, 30-31; Saiki, Ganbare! , 35-36, 43; "Eifler," Saiki Archival Collection.
  13. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 28, 30-31; Saiki, Ganbare! , 35-36, 43; "Eifler," Saiki Archival Collection.
  14. "a warmhearted person" and "took very good care" are from Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire , 47; "treated nicely" and "the wife of a devil" are from Furuya, An Internment Odyssey , 39.
  15. Eifler suggests that his relationship with Stilwell led to his selection to head Special Unit Detachment 101; Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 31, 40-42. However, this is disputed by historian Troy Sacquety, The OSS in Burma: Jungle War against the Japanese (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013), 15-19, 20-21.
  16. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 39, 41-43, 53-55; "Honolulan Led Silent Battalion in Burma Jungles," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Oct. 2, 1945.
  17. For details of DET 101's evolution from its earliest days under Eifler as a "dysfunctional" guerrilla band to a disciplined, highly-decorated clandestine operation by war's end, see Sacquety, The OSS in Burma .
  18. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 115-120; Sacquety, The OSS in Burma , 41.
  19. Sacquety suggests that while the substance abuse no doubt compromised Eifler's effectiveness, it was in fact his leadership style—one of "recklessness and impetuosity"—that ultimately brought about his removal from DET 101. On the other hand, Thomas Powers argues that, his medical difficulties aside, it was precisely this part of Eifler's personality—and his willingness to perform acts of "personal violence"—that made him ideally suited to the dark, politically sensitive missions he was subsequently given. Sacquety, The OSS in Burma , 70-72; Thomas Powers, Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 262-63.
  20. For accounts of Eifler's involvement in these operations, see Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 145-46, 181-87, 220-227, 232-33; Powers, Heisenberg's War , 263-69, 312-13; Jim Anderson and Dirk A.D. Smith, "GIMIK and SKIFF: A Tale of Two Semi-Submersible Submarines," Studies in Intelligence , 58.4 (December 2014): 19-29, accessed Feb. 8, 2017 at . Support for the existence of the idea to assassinate Chiang is provided by Gen. Frank Dorn, who served as Stilwell’s aide in China. He, however, provides a framework that differs from Eifler’s in chronology and the identities of those involved in the planning. Frank Dorn, Walkout with Stilwell in Burma (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1971), 73-83.
  21. Lewis Wood, "Honolulan Headed American Saboteur Force in Burma," Honolulu Advertiser , Sept. 25, 1945; "Honolulan Led Silent Battalion in Burma Jungles," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Oct. 2, 1945; "Flying Infantry Officer Sets Top Thrill Record," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Aug. 15, 1946.
  22. Medication was apparently used to control his behaviors and reduce his symptoms. He also stayed for some eighteen months at the army's Letterman General in San Francisco, where, it was reported, he underwent a series of operations. Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 238-40, 244, 247, 251-52; "Stormy Chapter in Career Closed: Eifler to Leave Customs for Church," Honolulu Advertiser , Apr. 13, 1956.
  23. Eifler attended the short-lived Baptist academy, Jackson College, in Manoa Valley. "Stormy Chapter," HA; "Customs Aide to Retire, Start Ministerial Study," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Sept. 25, 1956; Moon, The Deadliest Colonel , 257.
  24. Eifler earned his degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
  25. "Carl Eifler," Monterey County Herald .

Last updated Dec. 22, 2023, 12:56 a.m..