‘Consequential’ and ‘transformative’ study of Crystal City’s WWII incarceration


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
By Jan Jarboe Russell (New York: Scribner, 2015, 416 pp., $30, hardcover, $14.99 e-book)
During World War II there existed eight Department of Justice-administered internment camps. Three states had a single facility: Montana (Fort Missoula Internment Camp); North Dakota (Fort Lincoln Internment Camp); and Idaho (Kooskia Internment Camp). Each are represented by a book: Carol Van Valkenburg, “An Alien Place: The Fort Missoula, Montana, Detention Camp” 1941-1944 (1996); John Christgau, “Enemies: World War II Alien Internment” (1985); and Priscilla Wegars, “Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp” (2010).

One state, New Mexico, housed two DOJ camps: the Santa Fe Internment Camp and the Fort Stanton Internment Camp. Neither has gained book-length treatment.

Another state, Texas, accommodated three DOJ camps: the Kenedy Internment Camp, the Seagoville Internment Center and the Crystal City Internment Center. Only the last has spawned a book — in fact, two books: Karen L. Riley, “Schools behind Barbed Wire: The Untold Story of Wartime Internment and the Children of Arrested Enemy Aliens” (2002); and the book by Jan Jarboe Russell here under review.

While all these estimable volumes deserve the conscientious attention of general and academic inquirers into the World War II Japanese American imprisonment experience, in my considered opinion, “The Train to Crystal City” is the most comprehensive, compelling and consequential of the lot.

Russell’s capacious 416-page book — replete with aptly-chosen historical photographs, useful chapter sources and notes, and an inclusive bibliography — is comprehensive in several respects and for multiple reasons. On the one hand, the author uses a wide-angle lens to portray the World War II era of the Crystal City camp (located 110 miles southwest of San Antonio and 50 miles north of Mexico). This not only permits her representation to include richer detail about people, places, and situations, but also allows her to render selected foreground topics more pronounced and arresting while simultaneously capturing extensive contextual information. On the other hand, Russell employs a panoramic perspective to encompass the full chronological sweep of the Crystal City camp’s evolution from pre-war origins to post-war denouement.

The rationale driving the study’s extraordinary depth and breadth stems from the camp’s special nature: Officially named the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility and administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it was the largest of the World War II DOJ compounds with some 6,000 inmates; its longevity was the greatest, operating from 1942 until 1948; it was the only overtly family camp within (and even outside) the DOJ constellation of wartime internment units for “enemy aliens;” and its confined population was the most profoundly diversified among DOJ camps, given that it included multi-generational inmates of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry drawn from the mainland United States, the Territory of Hawai‘i and numerous South and Central American nations.

What accounts for the book’s compelling quality is Russell’s journalistic flair for ferreting out interesting and revealing stories and her literary capacity for relating them with the power and grace of an imaginative writer. Also contributing to making her book such compelling reading is Russell’s strategic decision to pivot the larger Crystal City camp story upon the shifting fortunes of two teenaged inmates, one a Los Angeles Nisei daughter of Japanese nationals ineligible for U.S. citizenship (Sumi Utsushigawa), and the other an American-born U.S. citizen female from Strongsville, Ohio (outside of Cleveland), whose German-ancestry parents had failed to secure their U.S. citizenship in a timely prescribed manner. This device imparts “face” and “personality” to an account that might otherwise have taken on the pale cast of a standard-issue institutional history, which however effectively managed would have been far less affecting and transformative for its readers.

But what of the book’s consequentiality? In a very real sense it is prefigured in the book’s title, which is both descriptive and metaphorical. While many of the camp’s imprisoned population traveled to the Zavala County, Texas complex by train, a large number of them, lured by the seductive prospects of family unification and hemispheric security, were “railroaded” by the U.S. government in one or another venal way to jettison their freedom, property, civil rights, and dignity and to accept the crushing confinement of high-security imprisonment and forced repatriation to an Axis nation as part of an international exchange for “more important Americans.” Moreover, the adult inmates at the Crystal City camp involved in this exchange were obliged in advance of their departure to sign an oath promising never to disclose details either of their imprisonment or their exchange.

Insofar as I have criticisms about such an altogether excellent book as “The Train to Crystal City,” they fall into two categories: erroneous facts and overlooked opportunities. With regard to the first category, Russell notes that the Geneva Convention agreement (of 1929) was “signed by many countries, including Japan” (p. 154), but Japan was not a party to this agreement. Also, in discussing Issei Yoshiaki Fukuda’s life in post-war San Francisco, Russell observes that “despite all that he endured during the war, Fukuda became a U.S. citizen in 1951” (p. 319). However, naturalization was not extended to Issei until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1952.

As for missed opportunities, I thought that Russell should have accorded greater attention to the experience of the Latin Americans (and not only Peruvians), both of Japanese and German ancestry, as well as those Japanese Americans from Hawai‘i, and the few inmates of Italian ancestry from wherever, all of whom get slighted or neglected. Finally, I feel that Russell missed the boat in the case of her discussion of Crystal City Nisei inmate Edison Uno. While she does a magnificent job depicting his stalwart role as school-aged spokesman for constitutional rights and characterizing him as “the first Japanese American from inside an internment camp to ask for official redress” (p. 145), she should have availed herself of the chance to celebrate at least some of the signal progressive actions Uno took in the post-war years (and delineated by Alice Yang in her Densho Encyclopedia entry on him) that catalyzed the successful Japanese American movement for redress and reparations.

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