Texas's Unknown WWII Prisoner Camp: Jan Jarboe Russell's The Train to Crystal City

It's a little known and dark episode in Texas history: the WWII family internment camp in Crystal City, just north of the Mexican border. Thousands of German and Japanese immigrants -- and their American-born children -- were held in the Crystal City facility, deep in South Texas. Jan Jarboe Russell, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, recounts the events in her new book, The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II.

Russell focuses her story on two American-born teens, Ingrid Eiserloh of Ohio and Sumi Utsujogawa of California. The Eiserlohs were forced to leave their home in Ohio because a neighbor reported they had a large cistern in their basement. It could be used for a secret room or "filled with quicklime used to dispose of dead bodies in the event of war," the neighbor alleged. That one unfounded, unproven accusation got them sent to the camp and eventually to Germany.

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Life in the camp was harsh. Rations were handed out by armed guards, and living conditions were determined by the Geneva Convention. Detainees were denied any news of the war and allowed very little contact with anyone outside the camp.

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The detainees faced even harsher attitudes -- any comforts or supplies were seen as "too much and too good" for them by some Americans who themselves were living on rations.

Eventually thousands were sent to a war-torn Europe in exchange for American prisoners of war. Like almost all of the children in the camp, Eiserloh and Utsujogawa had been born in America and were American citizens. Very few spoke German or Japanese fluently; even fewer had ever been to their parents' homeland. Families -- including American-born children -- were "repatriated" to Germany and Japan with no resources or support.

With each family that was repatriated, FDR secured the release of American prisoners of war.

Many of the families were eventually able to return to America, but their lives had been dramatically changed. While all of them had suffered from their experience in the Crystal City camp, until Russell interviewed them, most had never discussed it.

Russell discusses and signs The Train to Crystal City at 7 p.m. February 26. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-523-0701 or visit brazosbookstore.com. Free.

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