FDR’s Forgotten Internment Camp

Thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese immigrants were deported from Latin America to the U.S. to be interned in the largely forgotten camp at Crystal City.

Trains are a primary symbol of World War II. During the war, life and death revolved around the arrival and departure of trains. American troops boarded Pullman cars with signs on them that said HITLER HERE WE COME and ON TO TOKYO. Along the tracks, American workers, who saved rubber tires and tin for the war effort, waved their arms to the troops, saluting them with smiles. Trains led soldiers to ships and to battle. Women waited at train stations for the return of their husbands and lovers and kicked up their heels when their men disembarked. In Germany, more than 6 million Jews were shipped in cattle cars, floors strewn with straw, to concentration camps.

And then there were the trains that transported people to Crystal City, Texas. Week after week, month after month, from 1942 to 1948, trains with window shades pulled shut carried approximately six thousand civilians from all over the world across miles of flat, empty plains to the small desert town at the southern tip of Texas, only thirty miles from the Mexican border.

The trains held Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and their American-born children, and many families from Latin America. The Crystal City Internment Camp, administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Department of Justice, was the only “family” internment camp—on either side of the Atlantic or the Pacific—that operated during the war. It opened in 1942 for the official purpose of reuniting immigrant fathers who’d been arrested and imprisoned as “dangerous enemy aliens” with their wives and children. The length of their internment was indefinite. Internees poured into Crystal City under the veil of government secrecy, dusty trainloads and buses of men, women, and children arriving tired and confused, with tags around their necks that displayed family identification numbers and symbolized that they had been torn away from the lives they had known.

The government’s official name for the facility was the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility. Surviving internees had their own distinctive terminology, based on their culture and experience. Japanese survivors, who later erected a granite monument on the site of the camp in November 1985, called it the Crystal City Concentration Camp. On that monument, no mention is made of the Germans, Italians, and other nationalities also interned in Crystal City. The Germans, sensitive to the Nazi extermination camps in Germany, never referred to it as a concentration camp. They generally called it the Crystal City Internment Camp. Some, however, describe it more harshly, as a kidnap camp.

Sumi Utsushigawa, born in Los Angeles to Japanese immigrants, was a shy teenager when she came to Crystal City. Her first glimpse of the city was of whirls of dust moving down a deserted main street lined with dozens of one-story buildings made of adobe. Before the outbreak of World War II, Sumi lived near downtown Los Angeles, a center of business, entertainment, and international trade. In Crystal City, she found herself in the American equivalent of Siberia, as small and isolated a place as she could imagine.

A bus took Sumi and her parents inside the front gates of the 290-acre Crystal City Internment Camp. A ten-foot-high barbed-wire fence surrounded the camp. Guards with long rifles were positioned in six guard towers at the corners of the fence line. Other guards, who wore cowboy hats and chaps made of cowhide, patrolled the perimeter of the fence on horseback. At night, the searchlights from the camp could be seen across the border in Mexico.

Paul Grayber, born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to German immigrants, was only four years old when he arrived with his mother, two brothers, and a sister in Crystal City to be reunited with their father, who was arrested shortly after Pearl Harbor. Paul’s first clear memory in life was of the camp’s barbed-wire fence. One afternoon, while on a walk with his father, Paul pointed to a small cabin beyond the fence where the officer in charge of the camp lived.

“Why is the man who lives there fenced in?” Paul asked.

“Son,” his father replied, “it’s us who are fenced in.”

The popular history of America’s internment of its own citizens during World War II has long been focused on the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese, 62 percent of them American-born, who were forcibly evacuated from the Pacific coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which permitted the secretary of war to arrest and incarcerate Japanese, Germans, and Italians who had been declared “enemy aliens.” Not only could they be arrested and held without charges or trials, but their homes and businesses could be seized without warning. The day before Roosevelt signed the order, FBI agents had arrested 264 Italians, 1,396 Germans, and 2,209 Japanese on the East and West Coasts. The hunt for perceived enemies was on.

Virtually unknown, even to this day, is that the arrests of suspected enemies extended far beyond our national borders. Over the course of the war, the US government orchestrated and financed the removal of 4,058 Germans and 2,264 Japanese and 288 Italians from thirteen Latin American countries and interned them in the United States, many in Crystal City. Carmen Higa Mochizuki was eleven years old when her father, a poor farmer in Peru who made his living selling milk from his cows, was arrested. The government seized her father’s assets. They lost everything in an instant. Her mother, father, and nine siblings were transported to the United States, under American military guard, from Callao, Peru, to New Orleans. Their passports and visas were confiscated.

At the port in New Orleans, the women and children were marched to a warehouse, forced to strip, and made to stand in line naked. “Then we were all sprayed with insecticide that stung our skin,” remembered Carmen. “Since we had no passports or proof of identity, we were arrested as illegal aliens and put on a train to Crystal City. During the train ride, my sister thought we might be killed there.”

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I first learned of the Crystal City Internment Camp more than forty years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, a young reporter on the student newspaper. One of my sources was Alan Taniguchi, a professor of architecture and prominent Japanese American. During a meeting, I asked Alan how he got to Texas.

“My family was in camp here,” he said.

“Church camp?”

“Not exactly.” He laughed. Taniguchi told me that his father, Isamu Taniguchi, then an old man with a weatherworn face who stood five feet two inches tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds, had been interned as a dangerous enemy alien in Crystal City, Texas.

I met Isamu, who had been an innovative farmer in the San Joaquin Delta of California at the outbreak of the war. In addition to tomatoes and other row crops, Taniguchi grew almonds and apricots on his farm. The FBI arrested him in March 1942 when he was forty-five, and in that moment of arrest he lost his farm and everything he owned.

In Crystal City, Isamu continued his work as a gardener, but grew much more reflective and philosophical. He claimed that during his time in Crystal City he came to understand that World War II represented what he called the “beast heart in mankind.” After his release from Crystal City, stricken with grief and shame, he decided to devote the rest of his life to peace. At seventy, he created a Japanese garden in Austin with his own hands. It took him over two years to build. The Taniguchi Garden, a small, green oasis near downtown Austin, still exists and is dedicated to peace.

The raw intensity of Isamu’s face stayed with me as the decades passed and America fought wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. One day a few years ago, I was in Austin and went by the Taniguchi Garden. I remembered the story about Crystal City. I stopped by Alan’s office and discovered he had died. His son, Evan, also an architect, greeted me. Evan shared his father’s file on Crystal City. The last time I’d seen Alan, he had told me that something about Crystal City was unresolved: a mystery needed to be unraveled, a story to be told.

I opened the file and saw a list of names, written in Alan’s meticulous hand, of many children who were incarcerated in the Crystal City Internment Camp at the time his father was interned. The children were now old men and women, who lived all over the world. The next day, I started telephoning them.

Alan’s hunch had been right. Slowly, the secrets of the camp and its sorrowful inhabitants began to unfold. The experience of their internment lay embedded in their memories, driven into them like spikes into the ties that held the rails beneath the trains that had brought them to South Texas. “During the war, there was no place like Crystal City,” said Ingrid Eiserloh, who had been a teenager in Crystal City. “So many families living behind the barbed wire, many of us born in America, humiliated and betrayed by our government.”

Living now in Honolulu, Hawaii, Eiserloh agreed to talk to me after I contacted her. On February 12, 2012, I arrived at her house. She was eighty-one years old and not in good health. She greeted me in her kitchen, ran her bony fingers through her short hair, picked up a pack of cigarettes, and poured a cup of coffee. We walked outside to the back porch, surrounded by black mountains folded into deep-green cliffs. Ingrid’s breath was quick and raspy. She seemed glad that I had found her. Time was short and she had a story to tell.

Excerpt from THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY by Jan Jarboe Russell. Copyright © 2015 by Jan Jarboe Russell. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.