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Court hears arguments in WWII land dispute

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Posted: August 20, 2008 2:57 p.m.
Updated: September 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Court hears arguments in WWII land dispute

Heirs of Kentucky land owners, whose families were moved from their farms by the U.S. government to build WWII training camps, leave the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008, after oral arguments. At left is Tommy Wathen, whose father owned one of the farms in Morganfield, Ky., Wathen is accompanied by his daughter Karen Wathen Brownlee and grandson Nick Wathen, center.


    WASHINGTON — An attorney for hundreds of Kentucky families forced to sell their farms to the Army during World War II argued in federal court Tuesday that government agents bullied them into accepting bad deals in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
    A government lawyer countered that the landowners were more than fairly compensated and have no right to additional payments even though the government later earned a windfall from coal, oil and gas resources found under the land.
    The arguments came in an unusual, congressionally authorized dispute before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over thousands of acres in western Kentucky that the Army seized during the war to build the Camp Breckenridge training facility.
    In April, Judge Susan Braden recommended awarding the families $34.3 million — roughly the profits the government made from selling the mineral rights to the land in the 1960s. Tuesday’s arguments were at a review hearing before a three-judge panel that will decide whether that recommendation stands. Congress — which asked the court take up the case — must approve any recommendation for damages.
    Roger Marzulla, a lawyer for the families, said owners were rushed to sell in a matter of weeks and had no opportunity to survey their land for mineral resources. He said many families didn’t aggressively resist because they were assured they would be able to buy back their land after the war.
    William Shapiro, a Justice Department lawyer representing the government, said the families cannot produce anything aside from vague recollections and hearsay supporting their key claim that they were promised an option to repurchase.
    ‘‘If that were true, wouldn’t one expect at least one of the landowners to ask for something in writing?’’ he said. ‘‘Wouldn’t there be ... one piece of historical evidence supporting that allegation?’’
    He said the owners knew there was a possibility for minerals on the land — some had even sold drilling leases already — when they negotiated the deals.
    The landowners began the long-running case by suing the federal government in the 1960s.
    Only one of the original owners is still alive, according to attorneys, but more than 1,000 heirs representing some 36,000 acres in Union, Webster and Henderson counties have been involved.
    Many of the families have similar stories: Government agents arrived on their doorsteps in 1942 or early 1943 with notices that their property was being taken and they had a short time to get out. Many were farmers who sold furniture, equipment, winter supplies and livestock while scrambling to find a place to live.
    Several dozen heirs attended the hearing and said they were optimistic the court would rule in their favor.
    ‘‘We finally got our side of the story told,’’ said Mildred Wood Watson, an heir who said her family gave up about 200 acres. ‘‘That’s what we’ve been working on for all these years.’’

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