John Lesesne DeWitt (January 9, 1880 – June 20, 1962) was a general in the United States Army, best known for his vocal support of the internment of Japanese-Americans and his role supervising the combat operations in the Aleutian Islands, some of which had been invaded by Japanese forces during World War II.
General DeWitt believed that Japanese and Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington could be conspiring against the American war effort, and recommended they be removed from areas with sensitive military installations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized local military commanders to place militarily important areas off limits, and to provide for those subject to the order. Dewitt used the authority granted to him to issue military proclamations to place most of the west coast off limits to Japanese Americans, incarcerating 110,000 Japanese men, women and children, 62% of whom were American-born citizens.
DeWitt was born at Fort Sidney, Nebraska, on January 9, 1880. He was of Dutch descent. On October 10, 1898, he was appointed as a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army Infantry. He would ultimately serve nearly fifty years, from 1898 to 1947, in the Army.
His early assignments included service during the Philippine Insurrection and in Mexican Punitive Expedition.
World War I
In 1918, DeWitt shipped out with the 42nd Division to the battlefields of France as a quartermaster in the division headquarters. Other noteworthy members of the division included Douglas MacArthur and William J. Donovan. In July 1918, DeWitt was promoted to full colonel, and continued quartermaster duties for the First Army. He received the Distinguished Service Medal at the end of World War I.
Between 1919 and 1930, DeWitt served in various quartermaster positions, including assistant commandant of the General Staff College, Chief of the Storage and Issue Branch, and the Supply Division. In 1930, he was promoted to major general and assigned as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army. DeWitt also assumed control of the Gold Star Mothers' Pilgrimage. General DeWitt was responsible for all logistics involving this Congressionally approved event.
After returning to the infantry, DeWitt assumed control of the Philippine Division. In July 1937, he became commandant of the Army War College. Two years later, in December 1939, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, and then assumed command of the Fourth Army as well as the Western Defense Command of the United States Army, with responsibilities for the protection of the West Coast area of the United States from invasion by the Japanese.
World War II
At age 62, DeWitt would produce the Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942; Its conclusion was a need for relocation and internment of American-born citizens of ancestor tie to a past or present immigrant of Japan.
At the end of the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese-American citizens, not a single case of espionage was uncovered. Stated in DeWitt's obituary, "The Evacuation of these citizens was motivated by ... the greed of some special-interest groups who were in a position to profit from the property losses of these citizens." He died in Washington, D.C. on June 20, 1962 and was buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. His son, John Lessesne DeWitt, Jr., lieutenant colonel, United States Army (1904–1982) and his wife, Annie Sue Dewitt (1907–1996) are buried in an adjacent gravesite. John Lessesne DeWitt, Jr. survived by John (Samuel) Lessesne DeWitt.
From December 5, 1939, to June 15, 1943, DeWitt was assigned command of the IX Corps Area and its 1942 successor, the Western Defense Command, both headquartered at the Presidio of San Francisco.
DeWitt was in San Francisco on the evening of December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when air raid sirens were sounded. An estimated 35 Japanese warplanes were supposedly sighted above San Francisco Bay on a reconnaissance mission. DeWitt was furious at the lack of blackout precautions during the air raids. He blasted city leaders at a Civil Defense Council meeting the next day, saying, "Death and destruction are likely to come to this city at any moment. ... The people of San Francisco do not seem to appreciate that we are at war in every sense. I have come here because we want action and we want action now. Unless definite and stern action is taken to correct last night's deficiencies, a great deal of destruction will come. Those planes were over our community. They were over our community for a definite period. They were enemy planes. I mean Japanese planes. They were tracked out to sea."
At the Civil Defense Council meeting, DeWitt suggested that it might have been a good thing if the planes had dropped bombs to "awaken this city." He said, "If I can't knock these facts into your heads with words, I will have to turn you over to the police and let them knock them into you with clubs." DeWitt acknowledged that some people had asked why he failed to give orders to fire on the planes. "I say it's none of their damn business," he responded. "San Francisco woke up this morning without a single death from bombs. Isn't that enough?"
DeWitt recommended for the 1942 Rose Bowl football game, normally played in Pasadena, California, to be moved. DeWitt feared that the large crowd of spectators would be too tempting a target for Japanese warplanes. For the first and only time in its history, the 1942 Rose Bowl game was moved to North Carolina.
In February 1942, DeWitt reported to Franklin Roosevelt that no sabotage by Japanese Americans had yet been confirmed, but he commented that it only proved "a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken." He recommended the evacuation of all Japanese from the coastal areas of California, Oregon, and Washington state. Using Executive Order 9066, DeWitt then began implementing a plan for classifying, rounding up, and removal of "undesirables."
On March 2, 1942, DeWitt issued "Military Proclamation No. 1," which designated the western parts of California, Oregon and Washington as "military area no. 1," further divided into "prohibited zone A-1" and "restricted zone B." In the first phase of the order, a provision was included directing that "any person of Japanese ancestry, now resident in Military Area No. 1, who changes his place of habitual residence must file a 'change of residence notice' at his local post office not more than five days nor less than one day prior to moving." Days later, DeWitt announced that the army had acquired 5,800 acres (23 km2) of land near Manzanar, California, for construction of a "reception center" which he said was "to be used principally as a clearing house for the more permanent resettlement elsewhere for persons excluded from military areas."
Removal began on March 23, 1942, with the resettlement of citizens living in Los Angeles. On that date, General DeWitt issued new orders applying to Japanese-Americans, setting an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and banning ownership of firearms, radios, cameras, and other contraband. DeWitt stated, "Let me warn the affected aliens and Japanese-Americans that anything but strict compliance with this proclamation's provisions will bring immediate punishment." Northern California followed in April, as DeWitt declared, "We plan to increase the tempo of the evacuation as fast as possible." Citizens in specific areas were required to report to their designated "Civil Control Station," where they would then be taken to an Assembly Center for relocation.
All told, DeWitt ordered the removal and internment of 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry from their homes to internment camps. According to DeWitt, "a Jap is a Jap," whether a US citizen or not.
A federal judge, James Alger Fee of Portland, Oregon, ruled in November, 1943 that American citizens could not be detained without a proclamation of martial law. DeWitt's response was "All military orders and proclamations of this headquarters remain in full force and effect."
After the relocation of Japanese Americans was complete, DeWitt lifted curfew restrictions on Italian-Americans on October 19 and on German-Americans on December 24. Technically, the curfew was "inapplicable to the Japanese since all members of this group were removed from the affected zones." DeWitt had a personal vendetta against one Italian in particular, Remo Bosia, which is detailed in Bosia's autobiography, The General and I.
DeWitt was opposed to War Relocation Authority efforts to distinguish loyal from disloyal Japanese Americans/and to the creation of an all-Japanese combat unit. He testified before Congress, in 1943, that he would "use every proper means" at his disposal to stop the resettlement of Japanese Americans outside camp and their eventual return to the West Coast after the war. His "Final Report" also laid out his position that their race made it impossible to determine their loyalty.
DeWitt's orders also regulated other areas of life on the West Coast. A proclamation prohibited deer hunting and the playing of outdoor sports at night. An Alaska Travel Office was established to issue permits to anyone seeking to travel into or out of the territory of Alaska.
Less known is DeWitt's role in supervising the combat operations in the Aleutian Islands, some of which had been invaded by Japanese forces. When houses of prostitution were closed across America, General DeWitt allowed Sally Stanford to continue to operate a high-class brothel in San Francisco. At the end of his tenure as head of Western Defense Command, he was appointed as the commandant of the Army and Navy Staff College in Washington. He retired from the army in June 1947.
A report by General DeWitt and Colonel Bendetsen depicting racist bias against Japanese Americans was circulated and then hastily redacted in 1943 and 1944. The report stated flatly that, because of their race, it was impossible to determine the loyalty of Japanese Americans, thus necessitating internment. The original version was so offensive, even in the atmosphere of the wartime 1940s that Bendetsen ordered all copies to be destroyed.
In 1980, a copy of the original Final Report was found in the National Archives, along with notes showing the numerous differences between the original and redacted versions. The earlier, racist and inflammatory version as well as the FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reports led to the coram nobis retrials, which overturned the convictions of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, on all charges related to their refusal to submit to exclusion and internment. The courts found that the government had intentionally withheld the reports and other critical evidence, at trials all the way up to the Supreme Court, which would have proved that there was no military necessity for the exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans. In the words of Department of Justice officials writing during the war, the justifications were based on "willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods."
In 1943 DeWitt was reassigned as the commander of the Army-Navy Staff College (predecessor of the National War College) at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C. He held this position until he retired from the Army in 1946.
On July 19, 1954, DeWitt became a full general by special act of Congress for his services in World War II. He died of a heart attack at the age of 82 in Washington, D.C., and he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
- Army Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster
- Navy Distinguished Service Medal
- Philippine Campaign Medal
- Mexican Service Medal
- Victory Medal with seven campaign clasps
- American Defense Service Medal with star
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one campaign star
- World War II Victory Medal