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The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

3.6 12
by Jan Jarboe Russell

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The New York Times bestselling dramatic and never-before-told story of a secret FDR-approved American internment camp in Texas during World War II: “A must-read….The Train to Crystal City is compelling, thought-provoking, and impossible to put down” (Star-Tribune, Minneapolis).

During World War II, trains delivered


The New York Times bestselling dramatic and never-before-told story of a secret FDR-approved American internment camp in Texas during World War II: “A must-read….The Train to Crystal City is compelling, thought-provoking, and impossible to put down” (Star-Tribune, Minneapolis).

During World War II, trains delivered thousands of civilians from the United States and Latin America to Crystal City, Texas. The trains carried Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and their American-born children. The only family internment camp during the war, Crystal City was the center of a government prisoner exchange program called “quiet passage.” Hundreds of prisoners in Crystal City were exchanged for other more ostensibly important Americans—diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, and missionaries—behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany.

“In this quietly moving book” (The Boston Globe), Jan Jarboe Russell focuses on two American-born teenage girls, uncovering the details of their years spent in the camp; the struggles of their fathers; their families’ subsequent journeys to war-devastated Germany and Japan; and their years-long attempt to survive and return to the United States, transformed from incarcerated enemies to American loyalists. Their stories of day-to-day life at the camp, from the ten-foot high security fence to the armed guards, daily roll call, and censored mail, have never been told.

Combining big-picture World War II history with a little-known event in American history, The Train to Crystal City reveals the war-time hysteria against the Japanese and Germans in America, the secrets of FDR’s tactics to rescue high-profile POWs in Germany and Japan, and above all, “is about identity, allegiance, and home, and the difficulty of determining the loyalties that lie in individual human hearts” (Texas Observer).

Editorial Reviews

Lawrence Wright
“Jan Jarboe Russell has exposed a corner of American history that few knew existed, one that is at once bitter and transformative. The glory of this book is in the many human details so skillfully sketched, which add another chapter to the unending tally of war.”
The New York Times
"Mind-boggling...The Train to Crystal City combines accounts of terrible sorrow and destruction with great perseverance…Readers [will] wish these stories weren’t true.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A must-read for those interested not just in history, but in human nature….The Train to Crystal City is compelling, thought-provoking and impossible to put down.”
Texas Observer
"Americans—and particularly Texans—should read Jan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City... Ultimately, The Train to Crystal City is about identity, allegiance and home, and the difficulty of determining the loyalties that lie in individual human hearts."
“Poignant, even shocking…a valuable look at a dark stain on America’s Second World War.”
Boston Globe
"In this quietly moving book, Jan Jarboe Russell traces the history of one unusual camp that housed detainees from Japan, Germany, and Italy, along with their families, many of whom were American-born."
Chicago Tribune
"There are obvious parallels between Crystal City and today's Guantanamo Bay detention facility and between the anti-immigrant sentiment then and now, but Russell wisely resists the urge to connect the dots. Her story is harrowing enough on its own."
New York Times Book Review
“Russell movingly focuses on human stories coming out of one camp that held both Japanese and Germans,outside Crystal City, Tex....Poignant.”
—S.C. Gwynne
The Train to Crystal City is a story ofheartbreaking dislocation, of lives smashed and ruined, and of almostunbelievable human endurance, resilience, and determination. Jan Jarboe Russellhas written a powerful book that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief.”
Dallas Morning News
“Russell does a good job of exploring little-known historical events that deserve more attention… Die-hard Texans who think they know everything about the Lone Star State are likely to discover that they don’t… readers with no particular interest in World War II — or ties to Texas — may find it hard to put the book down.”
Huntington News
“Beautifully written…History buffs and general readers alike will enjoy this wonderfully realized account of a little known incident in 20th Century American history. Jan Jarboe Russell personalizes the story with sensitively written accounts of how the internment affected both the internees and the people running the camp….can’t recommend it too highly.”
“A gripping, horrifying and fascinating read… Russell’s reporting shines a bright light on the indignities suffered nearly 70 years ago….The Train to Crystal City is an eye-opening and moving look at the personal and political impact of racist policies.”
“This is an informative, disturbing, and necessary reminder of the dangers produced by wartime hysteria.”
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
The American government made no secret of the fact that it had rounded up Japanese residents of this country…and kept them in detention camps during World War II. At first glance, The Train to Crystal City appears to be about some version of that story…But the facts Jan Jarboe Russell has unveiled are much thornier, more complex and terrible…The Train to Crystal City combines accounts of terrible sorrow and destruction with great perseverance…
Publishers Weekly
During WWII, thousands of people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent living in the United States and Latin America were imprisoned as potential enemy aliens and forced to live in internment camps. Sometimes entire families were gathered together and shipped to a camp outside of Crystal City, Tex., to be traded for Americans imprisoned overseas. Russell (They Lived to Tell the Tale) draws on historical records and extensive interviews to revisit a confusing, shameful episode in American history. Using two American-born teenagers as her focal points—one of Japanese descent, the other German—she examines the process that transformed law-abiding Americans, regardless of citizenship, into internees and repatriated many to countries they’d never known. Russell pulls no punches describing the cost of war and the conditions internees endured. “The fundamental questions of citizenship, the status of aliens—indeed the definition of who is and who is not an American—are perennial. The travesty in Crystal City,” Russell notes, “is that in the effort to win the war... the cost to civil liberties was high.” Though Russell sometimes loses focus while delivering the full story in all its detail, it’s nevertheless a powerful piece. Agent: Amy Hughes, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Feb.)
—S.C. Gwynne
The Train to Crystal City is a story ofheartbreaking dislocation, of lives smashed and ruined, and of almostunbelievable human endurance, resilience, and determination. Jan Jarboe Russellhas written a powerful book that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief.”
Library Journal
The "relocation camps" that housed Japanese Americans during World War II have received some attention, yet there were lesser-known internment camps during this period as well. Journalist Russell (They Lived To Tell the Tale) amply demonstrates both her research and writing skills on this largely overlooked topic by focusing on the only family camp for "enemy aliens." Most occupants of the camp, located in Crystal City, TX, were considered "enemy aliens" since, for a variety of reasons, they did not become naturalized citizens. This led to an inevitable dilemma between parents and children (some of whom were born in the United States and granted citizenship), as well as between fathers and mothers. To join their husbands in the camps, mothers had to agree to repatriation with their spouses to Germany or Japan along with their American-born children. The author explains how Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration used these families in exchange for American prisoners of war from Germany and Japan, essentially treating the families as wartime pawns. The author's investigation involves interviews with those from the Crystal City camp and the history of the bureaucrats who were involved. VERDICT Both scholars and general readers interested in World War II will agree, this book is a gripping story from start to finish. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
Kirkus Reviews
Texas Monthly contributing editor Russell (Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, 1999, etc.) recounts a dark episode in America's past in this engrossing history of the forced detention of thousands of civilians in internment camps during World War II.Soon after the nation entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt empowered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to find and arrest Japanese, Germans and Italians—immigrants, their wives and their American-born children—in the United States and Latin America so that they could be "a ready source of exchange" for Americans imprisoned in enemy countries. When Eleanor Roosevelt opposed the project as smacking "too much of Gestapo methods," Hoover started a file on her, too. Russell focuses on Crystal City, a camp designed especially for families, located near the Mexican border in the Texas desert. By the time it closed in 1948, it had housed more than 6,000 people. Conditions in the camp, monitored by the International Red Cross, were humane, both to comply with Geneva Convention provisions and to ensure that rumors of mistreatment did not exact reprisals against American prisoners abroad. Each family had separate living quarters with a kitchen and bathroom; a mess hall served three nutritious meals per day. At their own request, prisoners designed and built a pool "the size of a football field," relief against the oppressive heat; when high school seniors wanted a prom, they had one, as well as graduation ceremonies. The camp's administrator, Joseph O'Rourke, emerges as kind and caring, but he could not protect the families from the secret prisoner exchanges that sent thousands back to Germany and Japan, where families were shocked to find nations in rubble; nor from Truman's edict requiring repatriation of "any enemy alien considered dangerous," decisions summarily made on shaky evidence. Based in part on interviews with camp survivors, Russell documents in chilling detail a shocking story of national betrayal.

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The Train to 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.”

    •  •  •

    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.

  • Meet the Author

    Jan Jarboe Russell is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for Best Book of Nonfiction. She is a Neiman Fellow, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She also compiled and edited They Lived to Tell the Tale. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr.

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    The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp during World War II (t) 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
    PaulHosse1 More than 1 year ago
    I got the opportunity to review this book pre-release. Simply put, its is as exceptional as it is unbelieveable. Individuals, some US citizens, held as pawns to be exchanged, often unwillingly,  along with their American born spouses and children, to be used as pawns in exhange for US citizens being held by the enemy. Also being held in these American concentration camps were foreign nations from South America; kidnapped with their families to be used as pawns to be traded as well. Each unable to go home. Much, if not all their assests gone. Unwilling to go to a country they barely knew, if at all. Dispised and mistrusted by all. An outstanding book. 
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    It's hard to believe that I had never heard of the camp in Crystal City after being a native Texsan for 70 years. This book is an excellent read. Russell did a superb job of moving the story along. I will recommend this book to every reader I know. It will be with me for a long time. A roadtrip to Crystal City is now on my agenda.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I am a Texan, born and raised, and this was never taught in Texas history classes. An incredible true story about detention camps in Texas during WWII, one in particular. It tells the stories of three women who were prisoners in the Crystal City camp. It is unforgivable that innocent "Americans", born in this country, could become prisoners because of their heritage.
    kimikimi More than 1 year ago
    As soon as the author said Crystal City was the only internment camp in America to house entire families, I just quit reading as it threw into doubt anything else I might read subsequently.  The entire families - 3 generations - of both my father-in-law and mother-in law (young teenagers at the time) were interned at Manzanar in California.   This was such a shameful period in our history and I have personally spoken with several people who STILL feel it was justified.  The slightest inaccuracy in the reporting of events of this time, allows these people to claim that those who decry this injustice have been mislead.  Obviously not on the scale of the Holocaust deniers but problematic nonetheless.
    HueyTX More than 1 year ago
    I am about 1/2 way through this engrossing book. How sad our history of hatred and abuse of human beings.. Everyone should read this....not just Texans.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This was an ugly chapter of WWII. I do believe it would have better served readers, to talk about the Japeneese and German spies that were also being caught, to show why some of the hysteria formed. I am by no means defending the actions of the government. Views of this nature are too liberal and entirely one sided, and again we are considered to be terrible. What about the American prisoners we traded for ? Did they also have a swimming pool ?
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I just read the overview and became frustrated... Crystal City is not now nor never has been on the tip of Texas. That would be Brownsville. If the facts aren't right in the overview, how can I trust the book?
    Vermillion_Bear More than 1 year ago
    This was quite an enjoyable read. The history of internment camps in America during WWII are not always well known, but this book was helpful in learning about them. It was interesting for the author to contrast Ingrid's and Sumi's stories, but at the same time include information from other teens imprisoned in the camps. I understand the author's and some of the German internees' frustration at not being acknowledged or paid reparations for their time in the same camps as many of the Japanese. The only issues I found with the book was the glossed over story of Italians also held in the camp, who seem to be equally if not more ignored than some of the other groups. In the book they are mentioned with other nationalities, but are listed as merely numbers and nothing more. Also, the book gave information about "troublemakers" in the camps, but never goes into detail about specific events that gained them the label. There is no real information about whether there was resistance among the internees and any outside opposition to the camps. Things are mentioned in one paragraph, but no further detail is given. I did enjoy that the author followed the story of what happened to internees once they left the camps. The ones repatriated to their parents' homelands were sent into war zones, Americans traded for other Americans or even foreigners. It was quite disturbing. I wonder about the ones that were never able to make it back to the U.S. Overall, this was a great book and I highly recommend it for the new information it does provide to a very little recognized part of American history.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Starts out interesting but than gets bogged down with details not in sinc with the story. Sum it up--it was an ok read not great
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I am currently a sophomore in high school who was assigned a research project on the topic of Japanese Internment camps.  I choose this book to research and I'm very glad I did. This book is a very influential book that includes many details and a stories about life as a Japanese and being put into an internment camp during World War II.  It tells the stories of three women who are forced out of their homes and put into the Crystal City camp. This book helped me to realize how tragic life was during the times of the war and what the Japanese had to go through, even though none of them had anything to do with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  All of them are innocent, but still are forced to leave their homes and move to the internment camps.  Even though most of the book was depressing and sad, it was still very interesting and knowledgeable. I enjoyed looking at some of the photos my book provided because it helped me understand things better and get a better visual perspective of the book. I recommend this book to anyone from the ages of seventh grade and up and someone who is wiling to learn a lot about government and life in interment camps.  
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago