BOOK: “THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY”


Here is a quote from the jacket of the book, The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell.

“From 1942 to 1945, secret government trains regularly delivered civilians from the United States and Latin America to Crystal City, a small desert town at the southern tip of Texas.  The trains carried Japanese, German and Italian immigrants and their American-born children.  The vast majority were deeply loyal to the United States, were never charged with any crime, and did not understand why they had been forced to leave their homes.

The only family internment camp during World War II, Crystal City was the center of a government prisoner exchange program.  During the war, hundreds of prisoners in Crystal City, including their children, were exchanged for other ostensibly more important Americans – diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians and missionaries – behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany.”

Growing up in South Texas about one hundred miles from Crystal City, I had visited this small town with my parents but never knew that it had been home to an internment camp that some called a concentration camp. 

Those internment camps for the Japanese got more attention in the history books.  These immigrants had committed no crime but were still detained and held behind a 10-foot high fence as if they were prisoners.  In time it came to resemble a small town with stores, churches, schools, libraries, a hospital and a swimming pool.  Families lived in small one-family cottages.  While the detainees were treated well, they were still the equivalent of prisoners.

 Russell interviewed more than fifty survivors and gained access to private journals, diaries, FBI files, camp administration records and more.   Through her research she follows the camp from opening to closing and provides detailed descriptions of daily life in the camp.   One focus was on two American-born teenagers, one Japanese and one German, and how they were affected by the camp, their repatriation to Japan and Germany and finally the choice they made to return to the United States.   

During the war some were released, paroled or repatriated; others were kept for the duration of the war.   The camp was finally closed in 1946.  

The author  has also written a  biography,  Lady Bird:  A Biography of Mrs. Johnson.

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After I learned of this little known part of the history of WWII and the part this remote Texas town played in the drama, I wanted to visit Crystal City again after all these years.   Husband and I drove to Crystal City one cold November day and on our way passed through the small Texas town of Freer where I grew up.  The first stop was in Crystal City at the Popeye statue; more people probably know that the city claims to be the Spinach  Capital of the World than that there was once a camp for alien enemies outside of town. 

Since the former camp is not exactly a tourist attraction, we stopped at the local library to ask directions.   A young woman gave us directions and informed us that there was not much to see but there there some markers.  We followed the directions toward the edge of town and passed several public school campuses.  The pavement ended and we were on a dirt road.

The area was marked by these simple wooden information signs describing the site; I had expected something more than these humble, almost reluctant, reminders of history.  Although we did not find it that day (it was cold!), there is a stone marker that reads, “World War II Concentration Camp 1943-1946” installed in 1985.  In 2014 the site was listed on the National Register  of Historic Places.  Wikipedia has a photo of the stone memorial and more information.

A marker with a “you are here” on a map of the former camp.  Note that it was described as “American Enemy Alien Internment” while photos appear to  more like people at  a summer camp enjoying swimming, diving and other activities.

Description of the reservoir that was converted into a swimming pool.

This seemed to be a tank used to mark a reunion of survivors of the camp and the site of the swimming pool.

The area is quiet today with nothing but a few foundations to remind us of what had been outside this small Texas town south of San Antonio.   It is rough flat country with heat and sun and dust, just miles from the border of Mexico.  What must have those families have thought when they arrived?  How did they face the unknown with no control over their fate?  How did they feel about the  government of the United States?

There are lessons to be learned from this period even today as the loyalty and patriotism of some immigrants is sometimes questioned.  We saw the reaction when we were attacked on 9/11.  Some of that fear still lingers.

Related books:
The Crystal City Story:  One Family’s Experience with the World War II Japanese Internment Camps by Tomo Izumi (non-fiction written by a survivor of the camp)

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner (historical fiction)

 

43 thoughts on “BOOK: “THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY”

  1. Thanks for this JoNell. So much that happened during that awful time has mostly been forgotten, and the children who lived in that camp now are grown with children and grandchildren of their own. One wonders if they still talk about that time.

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    • Yes, it was, and I was haunted when I learned of this camp so near where I grew up. No one ever talked about it and I only learned of it a couple of years ago. I wanted just to walk in the cold with quiet reverence. Thanks for stopping to read and comment, Frank!

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    • It was very close to home for me and I had to see for myself that it really did exist. Now I don’t even remember how I discovered the book, but it seemed well researched to me. The bureaucracy of how it was run by the DOJ was fascinating to me and reminded me in some ways of the facilities where immigrant families and children are held today in the same state of Texas new this one from WWII.

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  2. I just read a recently published novel partially set in the Crystal City internment camp called The Last Year of the War. I attended a talk by the author, Susan Meissner, and there were a couple of older men in the audience whose families were sent there. Before this, I had no idea of its existence either.

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    • How fortunate for you! I discovered her book recently and almost listed it for further reading. I may read Meissner’s book. Perhaps a historical fiction will call more attention to that period. It seems almost cruel to send the families back to countries in war or post war. Thanks for sharing! I really enjoy author’s talks. I wonder how the older men felt.

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  3. A very interesting post. Like you Jo, I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be an accepted American one day and not the next. War in all its colours plays out far beyond the battlefield.

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  4. Lessons to be learned indeed, Jo Nell. But we humans seem determined to keep making the same mistakes over and over. It’s like a really bad example of societies reincarnating themselves, only to sink back to some of the terrible emotions that drive us to do very bad things. Thank you for going there, and for sharing this with us. I know people who were in the camps here in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, sometimes history repeats itself. Someone else commented that they had seen placards in Canada. So America was not alone. And today there are “facilities” for those coming across the Mexican border and one was recently opened near Crystal City! Take care, Cynthia!

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  5. What an exceptional read Jo, Another slice of History which is not often spoken of. We are all taught in the School History books about the concentration camps of Germany within the second world war, but many do not realise that the British had their own versions of Concentration Camps that dated even further back to the Boer War in South Africa back in 1900.. Something again our History books do not mention when we do the deed to others.
    Such a shame there is not more in memory of those families to show they were held there. I wonder too how those inmates were treated when exchanged. Especially the children who were brought up in America who had been born on the US soil..

    Loved reading and seeing your images Jo..
    I am sure that the book The Train To Crystal City is also an excellent read..

    Many thanks my friend.. Enjoy your weekend ❤ and Much love ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Sue! We seem to want to forget the bad a country does and focus on the more noble acts. The US, especially after 9/1, engaged in less than noble acts,

      It seemed to be rather cruel to send families back to Japan and Germany in the midst of war. Some of the American-born children chose to come back to the US.

      We can’t change the past but we can go forward and do what we can. And you encourage us with your posts. Hugs to you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • No, I am not surprised at anything our US government does these days. I knew there were internment camps in the US but I was so surprised to find one so close to home. But then there were German prisoners kept in Corpus Christi and little is know about that. Perhaps I will plan a post.

      Take care and enjoy your beautiful Virginia!

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  6. Studying history is so important because it reminds us of the dreadful consequences of thinking in terms of “them” and “us.” Sadly, we are still encourage to think this way on almost a daily basis, from so many sources. But as soon as we decide that another group of people are dangerous, it becomes okay to treat them as less than human. Which is why we all need to remember why we have to resist that way of looking at things. Thanks for this post!

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    • Unfortunately even Americans have become divided (Democrats, Republicans) – them, us. And it becomes easier to denigrate each other. May we remember how dangerous that way of looking at things can be. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

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      • I agree! I think it is horrible the way that we are constantly encouraged to demonize anyone who dares to disagree with us, and that is one of the main reasons why I hate talking about politics. Honestly, I have friends and family on both sides, so I really don’t like it when I hear trash talk about anyone. Whatever happened to the idea that kind, intelligent people can actually look at things a little differently? And whatever happened to the idea that we can actually learn from each other? Or say, “I disagree with you on this topic, but I still value you as a person?” Just pipe dreams, I know….but I still don’t think it has to be that way.

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  7. Thank you for posting about this book, and your trip. Because of my work years ago with Jose Angel Gutierrez, I thought I knew quite a lot about Crystal City as I did so much research on it. I never knew there was an internment camp there. It is like they wanted them as far from contact as possible.

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  8. And I didn’t know he was born in Crystal City. Yes, they were rather isolated outside of town. The site still seems that way – forgotten. Interesting that you worked with a leader of MAYO & RAZA! Thanks for sharing.

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    • Yes, in doing further reading I learned that there were many other camps across the US where families were allowed to follow a husband/father. The one in Crystal City seemed to be especially for families only. There must be many untold stories like your friend’s friend. Thanks for sharing as I know it has special meaning for you. May we have learned from the past!

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  9. I’ve been to Crystal City, but like others, I had no idea that there had been a camp there. Your point is well-taken: despite the relative comfort of the place, and the obvious attention to providing at least the basic social amenities, it still was imprisonment.

    Quite apart from all the other issues associated with today’s immigrant detention facilities, I’m beginning to worry a lot about the diseases that are being allowed to pass into our country through them. I grew up in the days of crippled classmates, iron lungs, and closed swimming pools, all because of polio. I remember homes with quarantine signs in the windows, and my grandmother used to tell of the friends she lost to the flu epidemic in 1918. During the earliest days of immigration by ship to this country, people were detained at the border until their health could be assured. Politics aside, we have a public health crisis brewing, and if people can’t put politics aside to come to reasonable solutions, things will become worse than most of us imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Reasonable solutions” are not something that is talked about by many politicians these days. With air travel so common internationally diseases can spread quickly too. I remember the days of fear of polio. Thanks for sharing your views and reminding us of the quarantine of those who came by ship. My husband’s grandparents came in that way.

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