BY CHIZU OMORI
Examiner Contributor“The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito, and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II”
by Klancy Clark de Nevers
University of Utah Press, 2004
Klancy de Nevers says she became obsessed with the story of Karl Bendetsen while doing research for another book about a Pacific Northwest town during wartime.
Originally intending to write something short like an article, she became more and more fascinated with the man. Delving into his life took her all over the United States.
De Nevers grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., which was where Bendetsen and Saito also grew up. Her father and uncle knew him, and thus, this interest in the man intersected with her own ties and connections in Aberdeen. The story of the town’s one Japanese American family, the Saitos, also grabbed her attention since their lives were greatly affected by Bendetsen during World War II.
At the end of his life, Bendetsen had attained great social prominence, had become rich through his business dealings, and was well-known and influential in army and government circles. It could be said that his is a quintessential American success story: Ambitious young man from the boonies in the Pacific Northwest works his way up to the top of the social ladder.
To many Japanese Americans, however, the name Bendetsen casts a dark shadow, for it is this man who had so much to do with the incarceration during World War II. In some sense, the rise of this man began with his plans for the round up and imprisoning 120,000 of Japanese Americans during World War II. He was rewarded with swift promotions and a number of important army jobs for carrying out the internment with such efficiency and success.
Once proud of his role in the internment, he later dropped his references to it when it took on a negative cast. His testimony during the hearings held by the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (the congressionally mandated study of the internment) was sugar coated, throwing a benign light on the treatment of the inmates and justifying his role with a “just following orders” defense. De Nevers has done an admirable job in tracking his statements over time, following the changes in his stories.
Bendetsen was clearly an extremely capable and hardworking figure with the brains and energy to match his ambition. He was also one who could be quite ruthless and capable of lying if it suited his ends. The fact that disturbed de Nevers the most was his repudiation and concealment of his Jewish background. As a student at Stanford, he pledged a fraternity and regarded his “Jewishness” as a liability, so it was cast aside.
In fact, in later years, he created a lumber baron Danish grandfather so that Bendetsen, who also changed the spelling of his name, could pass himself off as Scandinavian. “He was a “fabulist,” said de Nevers in an interview. This is a kind word for someone who discarded family, ethnic background and friends, and who relentlessly pursued business success by stomping on an old associate. “A little Hitler” was a characterization that came up in a conversation de Nevers had with someone who saw him in action. He prospered mightily using these Machiavellian tactics and his crowning social achievement was marriage (his third) to an East Coast socialite, which gave him entree into elite social circles, including memberships in exclusive clubs in Palm Beach, Fla.
And yet, as de Nevers says, his internment connection stained him, somewhat like the blood on the hands of Lady MacBeth, which he could never remove. He maintained that the 1943 “Final Report,” which he wrote for General John DeWitt, the general in charge of the Western Defense Command, and which was the summation of the Army’s role in the internment, was absolutely accurate in every detail. He never expressed any doubts about the internment.
But in the rare recorded interviews that de Nevers looked at, she found discrepancies pointing to “fabrications, distortions, and even fantasies.” De Nevers feels that Bendetsen’s propensity for shaping and inventing a false background put him on the road to a lifetime of denial. There is something morbidly interesting about a man who lacks a moral base, who can lie about events that others can check out. His Jewish roots did not impede his intimate involvement in the persecution of another minority group.
Perry Saito, on the other hand, also a son of Aberdeen, is a complete contrast to Bendetsen. At the beginning of World War II, the FBI jailed his widowed mother and his family endured the internment. Nevertheless, Saito went on to become a Methodist minister, a pacifist and a civil rights activist. In fact, he is so saintly in this telling that his story is a bit boring. Scoundrels are always more interesting than saints, and though Saito is a very admirable man, there would have been more drama if these two had actually known each other. Alas, they never met. It might have been better to tell just the Bendetsen story while reserving Perry Saito for another book. Nevertheless, de Nevers’ fact-filled book is a great read, one of value to anybody who is interested in the internment. Too bad Japanese Americans fell into the clutches of men like General John DeWitt and Karl Bendetsen.
Note: The “Magic” cables, much in the news today, play a part in the Bendetsen story. After they were declassified in 1977, Bendetsen pounced on them as a rationale for the internment, allowing for another version of his testimonies.