The Train to Crystal City

A book written by Jan Jarboe Russell and published in 2015 by Scribner relates a chapter in Texas history that I have just discovered. I believe it deserves special attention at this time when our country is again roiling in fear of immigrants. The arrest and internment of Japanese

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Americans during World War II has been well-documented, but nothing until now has been published about the program to arrest and repatriate to their country of origin German, Japanese, and Italian families.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the arrest and incarceration of Japanese, Germans, and Italians who were declared “enemy aliens.” Our country also orchestrated and financed the removal of thousands of these same families from thirteen Latin American countries. They were brought to the internment camp in Texas.

In her book, The Train To Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, Jan Russell documents the lives, the fierce patriotism, and the resilience of some of the 6,000 civilians held in the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility. The vast majority were loyal to America. They were forced out of their homes, lost their businesses, and were never charged with any crime. The men were allowed to have their families join them in prison if they agreed to take part in a repatriation program with Germany and Japan. Although their children were born in this country, they were exchanged for other Americans––soldiers, diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and physicians––who were being detained behind enemy lines in Germany and Japan.

The wives and children, wearing family ID tags around their necks, were shipped on trains with the curtains drawn to Crystal City, to rejoin their husbands and fathers in the dusty South Texas town that boasted the friendly moniker, “Spinach

Spinach Capital of the World

Spinach Capital of the World

Capital of the World.”

The 290-acre camp was enclosed by a ten-foot high barbed-wire fence, anchored by six towers manned by guards with long rifles. Men on horseback patrolled the perimeter, and the night searchlights were visible thirty miles away across the border in Mexico.

Fear of the foreigners, many of whom were in the process of becoming American citizens, resulted in mob attacks on businesses of Japanese on the West Coast and Germans on the East Coast. Newspaper columnists argued for American’s safety over civil rights. Politicians and military officials pressured FDR to act against these civilians. Finally, in 1944 the Supreme Court in a six to three ruling legalized the detention. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that the need to protect against espionage outweighed individual rights.

Russell conducted interviews with over fifty survivors, used private diaries and journals, obtained access to FBI files and camp administration records to paint a picture of a place where most of the internees did not understand why they were

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

being held but continued to maintain hope for their release. The camp was organized into ethnic communities with two-family cottages. They could choose to send their children to Japanese, German, or the federal (American) school where the students would learn English. The inmates were allowed to run their own communities, organize churches, a library, a hospital, barber shops and beauty parlors. In the summer of 1943 German internees dredged an existing reservoir to build a combination swimming pool and reservoir for irrigating the camp’s vegetable gardens. Despite the semblance of freedom, each morning they had to line up for roll call and their mail was censored. Even though they were not charged with a crime, the length of their internment was indefinite.

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Russell chronicles the story of two teenage girls––a German and a Japanese––whose families were finally exchanged, sent back to the devastation of Germany right after the Battle of the Bulge and to Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima. She relates the story of their determination to survive and to eventually return to the United States.

Today, all five hundred buildings are gone. The site belongs to the local school district and is noted by a memorial on the foundation of one of the cottages and a nearby Texas Historical Marker.

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp

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10 thoughts on “The Train to Crystal City

  1. Hello Myra, Jan Jarboe Russell will speak at the GTHS German Free School April 23.

    I have an interesting documentary premiere coming the 26th of Feb. See attachments.

    Perhaps you would be interested in one or both.

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently saw a movie based on the Japanese internment. It was heart breaking. My grandparents emigrated from Germany prior to WW1. I sincerely hope that they were treated better (they were good people) than immigrants today. Seriously we are all immigrants except for the native Americans.

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    • In many instances, we also mistreated Germans. We actually burned German books here in Texas during WWI. German was not taught in schools, etc. I hope your grandparents weren’t among those people.
      I know a woman in her 50s who was spanked for speaking Spanish in a San Marcos school.
      It is not a proud picture.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t really know what happened here (I was born so much later that I didn’t hear any stories) but they lived in southeastern Pennsylvania in a German neighborhood. They lived here 50 years and never learned English. They didn’t have to. The church and butcher were all German. I have a warm spot for immigrants.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This seems harsh and was undoubtedly hard on the internees, but protecting our nation and citizens rightfully came before individual hardship. The difference between the public’s attitude at that time and now is amazing.

    During WW II we were fighting for our national existence, and everyone knew it. The overwhelming majority of civilians backed our war efforts and even sacrificed in order to help.

    Today, we are fighting for our national existence against radical Islam, which has as its purpose, based on commands from Mohammed in the Koran (Quran, whatever), the conquest of the entire world and subjection of it to Sharia Law, and the annihilation of all non-Muslims who do not knuckle under to Islam. Yet a large faction of our civilian population today, maybe even a majority, seems more worried about the civil rights of the terrorists who would destroy us than the protection of our nation.

    This new attitude began to surface during the Korean War and almost tore the nation apart during the Vietnam War, and now it’s raising its ugly head once more – this time in sympathy with the most dangerous foe our nation has ever faced.

    We need to find more Americans with the backbone our ancestors had during WW II.

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