Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book of the Month: The Train to Crystal City

Everyone who was awake in history class (or who wasn't home-schooled) knows that in WWII the US government rounded up 120,000 ethnic Japanese -- both immigrants and American-born -- on the West Coast and shipped them off to a series of "relocation" (i.e., concentration) camps east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains.

The one camp that everyone seems to know about was situated at Manzanar, California, in the dry Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, below Mt. Whitney. This camp is so well known probably because of the 1973 book, Farewell to Manzanar, written by former internee Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, which was made into a made-for-television movie of the same name in 1976. If you want to see it, it's a fairly easy three-hour drive from Los Angeles up the Owens Valley. There's not much left now.

The camps were established in remote locations from California to Idaho through Montana and Wyoming, from Nevada to Utah to Colorado, from Arizona through New Mexico to Texas, and some were scattered even farther away from the West Coast, including one in Bismarck ND.

But one of the most unique camps was built around a cluster of adobe shacks formerly used by Mexican farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley just a few miles north of the Mexican border on the outskirts of a little town called Crystal City TX. That was a light and airy name for someplace so hot and flat and dusty that many inmates came down with lung diseases from just breathing the air, but the town did (and still does) claim the largest statue in the world of ... Popeye the Sailor (they grow a lot of spinach in Crystal City).

What isn't so well known is that in addition to the Japanese, a lot of Germans -- and some Italians -- who were suspected by the government of being potential foreign agents or just somehow "subversive" (based on such things as unverified reports from suspicious neighbors) were also sent to the camps in droves, driven out of such Midwest cities as Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland. Most of them ended up in Crystal City behind barbed wire. These were mostly German immigrants who had some connection to the Hitler government, no matter how tenuous that connection was -- sometimes all you needed was a family member back in Germany who worked for the Nazis. These were people who had been in the US for years and had families but who for one reason or another couldn't or didn't get US citizenship. Almost all of the their children had been born in the United States and were American citizens, but they were locked away as well.

Add in the Japanese internees -- once again mostly "suspicious" characters who had a family member back in Japan who was in the Japanese government; even someone whose brother was in a fairly low position as field translator from Chinese to Japanese was not safe.

After this sudden lockup in the concentration camp at Crystal City, many of them became so embittered at the US government that they leaped at a chance to be repatriated back to Germany or Japan at -- or near -- the end of the war. In most cases they were repatriated with less-than-ideal results, not only for the native parents, but especially for their American-born children.

The full story of this dark part of American history came alive to me as I read The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell

Based on years of research by a native Texan, which included tracking down and interviewing former camp inmates in the US, Japan and Germany, and poring over old newspapers and examining musty documents at state and national archives, this book illustrates profoundly this little-known event in American History.

There were a lot of things I had not known before I read this book. For example, several of the families were repatriated to their "home" countries, i.e., Germany and Japan, even before the end of the war. The Americans, along with the Germans and the Japanese, created a secret "prisoner exchange program" which traded, on a one-for-one basis, Americans held in Germany since the start of the war for German-ancestry people held in Crystal City. The "model camp" at Bergen-Belsen exchanged a bunch of Jewish internees for an equal number of Germans, which meant that families being repatriated, complete with their children, were whisked by train from Marseilles where their boat landed, up into Switzerland and there they changed trains and went on into Germany. This was in the spring of 1945, very near the end of the war. For the children especially the culture shock was overwhelming -- they had gone from the urban environs of major Midwest cities to the pastoral semi-arid desertlands of Texas and then straight into the wasted landscape of a losing war. There was no shelter, no food, no room for them to stay with relatives. They had nothing.

In the meantime the Jews who thought they were getting freedom and a trip to America instead got to go to Algeria, since even at this late stage, when the Nazi atrocities against Jews had already been well-documented, the nativist anti-immigration anti-Semites in the US State Department refused to allow them to board the boat to America.

Another surprise was that, at the start of the war, almost 900 ethnic Japanese had been grabbed up in Ecuador(!) at the request of the American government, taken to the United States and interned at Crystal City. The same thing happened to a lot of Germans, a few Italians, and many more Japanese in Latin America, spirited out of their countries and into the Crystal City camp because they were seen as potential saboteurs to the alliance the US was trying to make with Latin America -- a "Good Neighbor Policy" that even Walt Disney got into by releasing The Three Caballeros as a good-will gesture for our putative allies south of the border.

In case you've never seen The Three Caballeros, you can watch the trailer here:

The book is filled with heartbreaking details of families ripped asunder by the larger issues of the war. It will give you an incredible insight into how the camp came into being, how it was administered, how families survived even as they were being torn apart, and the horror, shock and fear experienced by the children who were "repatriated" to completely foreign countries, countries that had been wasted by five years of war, countries that for the most part didn't even want them and had no place for them.

I rate this book very highly -- it's especially ideal for WWII buffs, military historians, sociologists and even anthropologists. Hell, everybody will enjoy it reading it. Get  it, read it, you won't regret it.

Further Information:
  • Crystal City Internment Camp 1945 (from Dept of Justice documentary film):


double nickel said...

This is why I keep coming back to your site.

Farnsworth68 said...

Thanks, DN. I appreciate that.