The Train to Crystal City
Prisoners of fear
By Steven Martinovich
It's not new to note that some of the greatest misery to occur during war is generally visited upon civilians. Those caught in the path of the maelstrom suffer and die much like soldiers, but with no glory. Names are lost and only raw numbers reflect the staggering scale of loss. The victims of war stretch like a parade for thousands of miles, far away from the conflict even where war doesn't directly touch. Some of those are victimized by the very government that is bound to defend them.
The Crystal City Internment Camp during World War II was such a place, as documented by Jan Jarboe Russell's difficult but necessary The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, a study of one location of the odious program that based defence of America on racism, bigotry and fear of fellow Americans. It was unique among America's internment camps in that it imprisoned entire families, with many of them slated for "repatriation" to Japan or Germany for American prisoners.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning December 7, 1941 instantly thrust America into war against both Japan and Germany and almost as instantly Japanese and German-Americans came under suspicion by both their government and fellow citizens. Fearing Fifth Column attacks against stateside targets, it was decided that those of Japanese ancestry needed to be moved away from the west coast while Germans were removed from the east. Those presumed to be potential danger had been watched by the government for years prior to the war or were the subject of reports by neighbours for reasons generally petty or imagined.
The Crystal City Internment Camp, located in a desolate part of Texas, was a misguided attempt by the American government to reunite some families separated by internment. Families of those interned were given the choice of joining an interned member, but usually with the precondition that they would likely at some point be sent back to Japan or Germany in exchange for captured American soldiers or civilians.
As The Train to Crystal City chronicles, while there were some interned – chiefly those who were foreign-born – who welcomed the opportunity to leave America, the vast majority of the internees at Crystal City were American-born children. Their connection to the "homeland" was often non-existent and if given the choice would be to remain in the United States – even after being imprisoned for the crime of their race or ethnicity.
Not all Americans approved of facilities like Crystal City. Russell notes that Eleanor Roosevelt privately argued the issue with her husband and even the camp's chief on-site official J. L. O'Rourke seemed torn by its existence. Although O'Rourke spent countless hours attempting to make the camp as amenable to its inhabitants as possible with several schools, cultural activities, a massive pool and culturally appropriate institutions, it seemed he endured his assignment as much as he embraced it. Several of the internees sympathetically noted that his alcoholism may have been fueled by what they believed was anguish at his task. After Crystal City closed down O'Rourke requested and received an assignment that had nothing to do with internment issues.
A gilded cage remains a cage and Crystal City's existence wasn't meant to keep its captives comfortable. Russell follows the stories of several families – both Japanese and German – during the duration of the war and how they were traded for Americans held abroad. Several faced enormous suffering – including being sent to concentration camps – as they were dropped off in shattered countries. Remarkably, many of them chose to come back to the United States after the war. Others, primarily Japanese essentially kidnapped in Latin America for internment in the U.S. were in limbo as they weren't allowed back home, couldn't remain in the U.S. and were faced with being sent back to a country whose language they often couldn't speak.
The Train to Crystal City is a painful story though if one can take away any positive from it may be the remarkable ability of humans to endure, what the Japanese refer to as gaman – their belief in patience and resilience in the face of suffering. Though not all stories of the internees after the war are ones of success – many were forever emotionally broken by their experiences – many others succeeded, using their internment as a spiritual fuel to prove themselves to their country and themselves.
There are relatively few left who lived through camps like Crystal City – most of those still alive were children at the time – so Russell should be praised for choosing to tell the story of these internees. Although it may be ancient history to today's generations, America's recent wars have also fuelled suspicion and resentment of some religious and ethnic minorities, and while there wasn't possibility of internment camps many felt the same fear and distrust of a government sworn to protect them and fellow citizens who question their patriotism. War leaves many wounds behind – not all of them visible.
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Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.