Uncovering SPD’s hidden wartime role after Pearl Harbor

Dec 7, 2016, 6:27 AM | Updated: Dec 7, 2021, 12:43 pm

A document found in 2016 in the Seattle Municipal Archives indicates that the Seattle Police Department might have played a larger role in the apprehension and investigation of some Japanese residents here after the attack on Pearl Harbor than has been commonly understood.

Soon after word of the attack reached Seattle 75 years ago today, law enforcement officials began apprehending “enemy aliens” here – Germans and Italians, but mostly Japanese. FBI field offices around the United States had been planning for the likelihood of war, and as early as 1940 had begun compiling lists of specific persons to apprehend should war break out. Sometime on Sunday, Dec. 7, J. Edgar Hoover telegraphed word to FBI field offices to begin making arrests.

Related: Seattle’s first Pearl Harbor Day

It’s difficult to fully understand and appreciate the climate of fear and hysteria in the late 1930s and early 1940s as World War II broke out in Europe and spread to Africa and the Far East. And while it’s perhaps unfair to judge the actions of those 75 years ago, it’s incumbent to establish just what those actions were and to learn from what history has to teach us about the present and the future.

Authorities and many ordinary citizens feared that some German, Italian and Japanese citizens living in the U.S. might pose a threat in time of war, either through espionage or acts of sabotage. Along the West Coast, fear of Japanese military attack or acts of sabotage by Japanese living here was especially acute. Japanese people, of course, were a different race than the Caucasian Germans and Italians, and this made them especially prone to being targeted for racist treatment.

Further complicating a complex story is the fact that Japanese who immigrated here before World War II were legally prevented from becoming citizens, while their children who were born here were automatically citizens by birth. European immigrants faced no such restrictions.

As to what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, details are frustratingly sketchy, but it’s believed that from sometime in the afternoon hours to sometime during early the morning hours of Dec. 8, 1941, more than 50 Japanese “enemy aliens” were arrested in and around the “Japantown” section of what’s now the International District. They were taken to holding cells at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service building on Airport Way several blocks away.

Families were not told where those who were apprehended were being taken; those who were apprehended were often community leaders, but they were not told why they were being taken away, and they weren’t charged with any crime. Those lists compiled by the FBI were done so at the discretion of each local office, with not much in the way of oversight, judicial or otherwise.

In many oral history accounts of the roundup, such as those collected by Seattle-based Densho, the men carrying out the actions are almost always described as FBI agents. It’s no secret that the Seattle Police Department (as well as police departments in other jurisdictions) assisted the FBI that day, but the images called to mind are generally of FBI agents knocking on doors and entering residences in order to take specific individuals into custody, while uniformed SPD officers wait outside as backup.

The document found is the Seattle Police Department’s annual report for 1941, published in the spring of 1942. It seems to indicate that at least some of the rounding up of Japanese residents on Dec. 7 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and additional investigations in subsequent weeks, were carried out by a new SPD unit called the “National Defense Detail.”

In a single paragraph of the report, SPD Chief H.D. Kimsey outlines close cooperation between SPD and the FBI and then describes a series of actions taken by SPD, perhaps without any direct FBI supervision. If this is true, it would represent a significant new interpretation of local participation in what has generally been regarded as a federal action.

“[We] have assigned eleven especially trained police officers who are adapted to this line of work and among whom the various foreign languages are spoken,” Kimsey wrote. “The work of this detail is carried on in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the investigation and handling of all enemy aliens is the duty of this detail.”

This notion of the SPD working “in conjunction” with the FBI during World War II is consistent with what many scholars have long believed, but the “investigation and handling of all enemy aliens” being “the duty of this detail” is not; these activities have previously been believed to be the work of the FBI.

What Kimsey writes next is significantly different than how the events of Dec. 7 have commonly been described.

“On the night of Dec. 7, 1941, at the request of the District Office of the FBI, a large detail of officers under the supervision of our National Defense Detail was assigned to round up Japanese and alien enemy suspects, which resulted in the apprehension of fifty-five such persons together with the seizure of much evidence.”

This description is, of course, somewhat open to interpretation. One possibility is that plainclothes SPD detectives conducted arrests of some Japanese residents here without FBI supervision. While this may have been only a manpower issue — it’s unclear how many staff the FBI had in Seattle in 1941 — it potentially puts SPD’s wartime role in a different light than previously understood.

Kimsey continues his brief account of the National Defense Detail’s work, making it sound as if SPD officers, again, conducted wartime national security work on behalf of the FBI, but without direct FBI supervision.

“The confiscation and removal from circulation from enemy aliens of all cameras, shortwave radios, and firearms, as ordered by the FBI, was officially consummated within a few days by the officers of this detail,” Kimsey wrote.

The paragraph concludes with a description of perhaps the most troubling aspect of the work of the National Defense Detail: a broad and comprehensive investigation into Seattle’s Japanese residents, again, without FBI supervision.

“During the latter part of December the National Defense Detail conducted a thorough investigation of every dwelling and place of business occupied by Japanese and secured a personal history of each one,” Kimsey wrote.

One detail that’s not absolutely clear from Kimsey’s report is if “Japanese” here means all residents of Japanese descent, or only non-citizen, enemy aliens.

Another question to consider is if Kimsey’s report embellished the SPD’s role on Dec. 7; that is, could this be an exaggeration or an overstatement of SPD activities to make an otherwise humdrum annual report more exciting? Or, is another possibility to account for why witnesses interviewed by Densho described the men who came into their homes as FBI agents simply because they weren’t uniformed officers?

Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb was given a copy of the paragraph from Chief Kimsey’s report earlier this week.

“It’s absolutely humiliating to find out that we had any kind of role in these specific acts,” Whitcomb said, referencing the activities of the National Defense Detail as described in Chief Kimsey’s report.

“It’s always one thing to say that, ‘oh, this was the federal government or shadowy figures who remain anonymous who did these terrible deeds,’ when, in fact, it was just ordinary folks who showed up and clocked in and clocked out in a public safety job and ended up doing this on behalf of the federal government,” Whitcomb said.

“You see this throughout history, and this is how terrible things happen.”

Whitcomb also provided this statement:

“The Seattle Police Department deeply regrets its role in assisting in the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Our country is made up of immigrants who have helped shape our communities. Our training, policies and procedures reflect our commitment to constitutional policing and our values of equality, inclusion, and openness. It is our intent to foster trust and cooperation with all people we serve. Complainants, witnesses and victims are encouraged to communicate with officers without fear of inquiry regarding their immigration status.”

It’s important here to differentiate between the round-up made on December 7 and the later incarceration of all Japanese on the West Coast.

Those arrested between Dec. 7, 1941, and well into February 1942 were generally Japanese citizens (NOT American citizens) who were deemed a threat, and who were then detained by the Justice Department in special facilities inland, such as in Missoula, Montana. Larger scale incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans at huge inland camps began later in 1942 following President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. These camps were managed by a separately created authority, not by the Justice Department.

It’s also important to note that creation of SPD’s National Defense Detail was not solely for the purposes of apprehending enemy aliens or investigating Japanese homes and businesses.

Newspaper clippings from The Seattle Times during the war years show that this group was involved in other war-related police work, such as arresting draft dodgers; nabbing vandals accused of damaging anti-aircraft guns, and questioning people acting suspiciously around bridges or defense plants.

These same clippings reveal the names and roles of a handful of the detectives and officers who were part of the National Defense Detail.

The unit was led by an SPD detective named C.E. (Charles) Neuser, about whom only a little is known. Neuser joined the force in 1926 and retired at age 54 in 1951. In the years after World War II, Neuser was in charge, for SPD, of security for the local investigation into Communists, described by the Seattle Times as “the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, headed by former State Senator Albert F. Canwell in 1948-1949.”

Other SPD staff associated with the detail include Ms. Ariel Sharp, Neuser’s secretary; Detective Sergeant I.R. (Ignatius) Swanton; Patrolman J.W. Simpson; and Patrolman Leslie Miller.

More research is required to fully understand SPD’s wartime activities and the extent to which they worked with or independent of the FBI. Sean Whitcomb says that he knows of no archives from the work of the National Defense Detail, but he promised to help determine if such records do exist.

As for the FBI’s role here, one particular part of the historic record reflects in a less than flattering way on the Seattle office.

In the 1997 edition of the Report on the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, an FBI memo of Feb. 2, 1942 is cited, describing how FBI director J. Edgar Hoover polled West Coast FBI offices about their opinions of “mass exclusion” – that is, removing all Japanese from the West Coast. The opinions “varied from non-committal in Los Angeles to dismissive in San Francisco to vehemently favorable in San Diego and Seattle.”

Reasons why the FBI office in Seattle would hold this strong opinion are not known. Little is known, as well, about H.B. Fletcher, who was the special agent in charge of Seattle office, or his assistant, Tom Naughten.

Through its Seattle public affairs staff, the National Press Office of the FBI declined comment on the SPD’s National Defense Detail beyond materials about what they call “custodial detention” and information about FBI history already posted on their website.

Tetsuden Kashima is professor emeritus at the University of Washington. He’s studied Japanese incarceration for decades and was held with his family as a young child at the camp in Utah called Topaz. His 2003 book, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II, is a detailed and comprehensive study of the forces that led to what happened in 1941 and 1942.

The reasons, Kashima says, were “war hysteria, a failure of leadership, and race prejudice.”

“And there’s one more thing we talk about, and this is the economic reason,” Kashima said. Economic reasons are harder to prove, Kashima says, but “[Caucasians] wanted to get the Japanese out of the farmlands” in places including what’s now downtown Bellevue.

Like many Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, Kashima isn’t bitter. The redress movement that brought cash payments and a formal apology from the federal government was meaningful, but Kashima says the legacy of that era going forward is what’s most valuable, especially in light of controversial proposals to ban Muslims.

“I’m not diminishing the importance of what happened during World War II,” Kashima said. “It was a tragedy of civil liberties, [but] now most people who suffered have passed away.”

“The lesson of that time,” he said. “That’s the important part for the future.”

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