The Train to Crystal City is subtitled, “FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II.” Crystal City is a small city 120 miles southwest of San Antonio, but this local connection with FDR’s infamous Japanese internment is not what makes the book especially popular in San Antonio. Rather, that popularity is due to the local connection with the author. Jan Jarboe Russell, who has written for Texas Monthly magazine for years and happens to be a Facebook friend of mine, hails from San Antonio and is quite connected with the city’s cultured society.
The biggest surprise revealed by The Train to Crystal City is that FDR’s WWII internment was not limited to Japanese people in America, but extended to people from America’s two other WWII enemies – Germans and Italians. The difference was that the Japanese on the West Coast were rounded up en masse and sent to “relocation centers” away from this so-called War Zone, while Germans and Italians throughout the nation were hand-picked based on FBI- collected evidence of a security risk – e.g., active connections with their homeland or membership in nationalistic clubs. Because of this different selection criteria, more than 100,000 Japanese were rounded up, while the German contingent was closer to 10,000, and the Italians even less.
Although there were around 20 internment camps throughout America, including one in North Dakota at Fort Lincoln, author Russell focuses on Crystal City because it was the only one that interned entire families of the security risks in separate housing units. Ironically, interning an entire family may seem harsh because of the harm inflicted on innocent wives and children (husbands were almost always the identified security risk), and this harm provided much of the dramatic focus of the book. But the family internment camp was created by sympathetic figures in the Roosevelt administration who wanted to ease the pain of being interned and help preserve the family unit. Several thousand were interned in Crystal City, and the book follows in particular detail one Japanese family from California and a German family from Ohio.
The next biggest surprise from the book is revealed by the first phrase in the subtitle, “FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program.” During the war, FDR shipped several thousand of the internees to Japan and Germany in exchange for Americans being held by those nations. This so-called “repatriation” included children at Crystal City who were American citizens. Suffice to say that sending American children into a war zone was not in their best interest, and many struggled to return to America after the war.
After the war, German and Italian Americans seemed disposed to let the internment camps fade into history, but not the Japanese. Their contrary disposition is probably based on the vastly different numbers of people involved, plus the Japanese internment was more racial and less security risk. After many years of lobbying by Japanese-Americans for redress, Congress during the Reagan administration passed a law that admitted the Japanese internment was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” and awarded $20,000 each to 82,219 Japanese who had been interned (or their heirs). Germans have filed for similar reparations, but have been denied because their detention was based, not on race, but on being security risks.
I think Congress got it right. Even an existential war against Japan and Germany doesn’t justify rounding up all persons with those ancestries. But it does justify the internment of those deemed security risks, even with something significantly less than the full recourse of peacetime due process.
As indicated above, I was surprised to learn of the internment of German-Americans during WWII. I have German ancestry and my hometown in North Dakota is mostly German or Norwegian. Further, my adopted hometown of San Antonio was, according to author Russell about one-sixth German during WWII. Yet, I have never heard or read about this piece of history.
Since reading the book, I have asked several of my elders about this subject, and they are similarly unaware. My German aunt explained that she had never met someone who came from Germany, so it appears that my ancestors and those in my hometown had immigrated generations earlier and were already assimilated. One friend who grew up in another part of North Dakota with more recent immigrants said that those folks had been stressed during the war, but not interned.
As a final note on the book, the author describes Crystal City as the only “family” internment camp operated during WWII. Yet, 30,000 Japanese children were interned in relocation centers throughout America. It seems that their stress would have been greater than those in Crystal City except for not having to face potential repatriation to their homeland.