The story told by Jan Jarboe Russell in “The Train to Crystal City” will have a familiar ring to those who have heard about or visited Idaho’s Minidoka National Historic Site.
But the purpose of the camp at Crystal City, Texas, was different from other World War II internment camps such as Minidoka, which held Japanese and Japanese Americans relocated from the Pacific Coast after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Crystal City’s purpose is revealed in the book’s subtitle, “FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II.”
The logic for Crystal City was inescapable. President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a pool of immigrant residents he could exchange for the American citizens being held as prisoners of war by Germany and Japan. But this cold, ruthless logic made collateral damage of innocent women and children, many of whom were born in the United States.
Crystal City opened in 1942 for the official purpose of reuniting immigrant fathers — including Japanese, Germans and Italians, who had been arrested and imprisoned as “dangerous enemy aliens” — with their wives and children. Some were arrested on flimsy charges made by jealous neighbors or co-workers who accused them of being spies. Once arrested, the men were not allowed lawyers or informed of the charges against them. They couldn’t challenge evidence or confront accusers. The verdicts of the hearing boards could not be appealed.
With the family breadwinner in custody, wives often had no choice but to agree to take their children and reunite with their husbands at Camp Crystal City. Although they voluntarily entered the compound, the wives and children were not free to leave. Once inside, they were prisoners, too.
Russell, a former Nieman fellow and a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, tells this heartbreaking story through the lives of the men, women and children who went through the gates of Crystal City. One of the little-known parts of this story is that the arrests of suspected enemies extended far beyond our national borders, she writes. The U.S. government also orchestrated the removal of Germans, Japanese and Italians from Latin American countries and interned them in the U.S. over the course of the war, including many who were taken to Crystal City, according to the book.
Russell conducted extensive interviews with former internees and exhaustively researched the historical records. She writes with a compassion for her subjects that helps us understand how they were as much casualties in a global war as any of the innocent civilians caught on the battlefields.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Russell, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous interviews anytime, download our free player from the iTunes App Store. Search for “Reader’s Corner.”