Pilgrims gather at former family reunification concentration camp in Texas

MARKING THE PAST — The Crystal City Internment Camp Memorial Monument (R) was unveiled Oct. 28, as was a new street signed (Aiko and Sachiko Street in English), dedicated to two 10-year-old Japanese Peruvian girls who drowned in the swimming pool. photos by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei News

CRYSTAL CITY, Texas — They came from across the country and over the Pacific to a small town in Texas, seeking to make a connection with a site that incarcerated their families during World War II.

Crystal City, Texas was the site of a Department of Justice “internment camp” that not only housed Japanese Americans, but also Japanese Latin Americans virtually kidnapped from South America, as well as German Americans and Italian Americans.

“Crystal City was a really important camp in that it was a family reunification camp,” said Hiroshi Shimizu, 80, co-chair of the Crystal City Pilgrimage. “And then when Tule Lake closed, all of the renunciants who the government was going to deport and whose deportation was stopped by Wayne Collins got sent here. Even though this place started as a family reunification camp, at the end, it was just a regular concentration camp for single men and a number of single women.”

According to Shimizu, who was three years old when sent to Crystal City from the Tule Lake detention site, there were three main groups of Japanese descent at Crystal City.

“(The) three main elements of Japanese that landed here were aliens who were separated from their families right after Pearl Harbor and put into (Department of Justice) camps; Peruvian, Latin American Japanese that they put here; and then finally the third element are the Tule Lake renunciants.”

On a weekend in October 2023, families reunited at the site of the former family reunification camp, many grasping for memories of their youth, and some in honor of their parents and loved ones who could no longer make the journey.

There, they found a welcoming city, a far cry from the prejudice and racism that led to their forced relocation and incarceration during a period of wartime hysteria.

Department of Justice Camps
On Dec. 7, 1941 the FBI rounded up 1,173 persons of Japanese ancestry, as well as noncitizen Germans and Italians from Hawai‘i and the mainland. About 10 percent of adult Issei men and a few women were picked up by the FBI as “potentially dangerous” and incarcerated by the Department of Justice. This effectively robbed the community and families of their leadership.

According to Densho, the Immigration and Naturalization Service operated the Crystal City internment camp from 1942 until 1948, holding as many as 4,000 internees. By August 1944, the camp held 2,104 persons of Japanese descent, nearly half from Latin America, and 804 persons of German descent.

About 400 renunciants and their families were sent by the Department of Justice from the Tule Lake detention site in Northern California to Crystal City on March 20, 1946. Tule Lake was closed a few days later, making Crystal City the last remaining concentration camp in the country.

The DOJ was to deport this group of renunciants to Japan, but attorney Wayne Mortimer Collins prevented their deportation by filing a habeas corpus suit.

Spinach Capital
The small town of barely 6,300 in Zavala County, Texas is a mere 40 miles from Uvalde, Texas, the site of a horrific mass shooting in May of 2022. Nearly 80 years ago, a mass violation of civil liberties occurred in the region, as the Crystal City camp was among dozens of confinement sites where forcibly removed persons of Japanese descent were held.

The city prides itself as the “Spinach Capital of the World,” complete with an annual Spinach Festival and a local statue of Popeye, the cartoon character who popularized the vegetable. Today, Crystal City is 95% Latino, which Crystal City Pilgrimage organizers say plays a role in the acceptance of Japanese American returnees.

“Crystal City is so welcoming to us, as opposed to most of the (War Relocation Authority) camps, which are put in rural places populated by rednecks,” Shimizu said. “We get love.”

“The largely Hispanic community in Crystal City, they understand issues of racism, discrimination, issues that they had to fight over because as the majority population … they had no political power because of the way that voting was manipulated in Crystal City,” said Crystal City Pilgrimage board member Victor Uno of Oakland, Calif. “They understand what happened to the Japanese and Japanese Peruvians in a way that as a community, they feel very closely aligned with.”

“They’re part of the history, too,” said former Crystal City incarceree Kiyoshi Ina, 81, of Concord, Calif. “They’re helping to tell our story. … The local people are getting involved, and they’re supporting our cause.”

One of those local supporters is Crystal City High School history teacher Ruben Salazar, who inherited an exhibit of photos that he presented at the pilgrimage. Pilgrimage attendees carefully peered at the images, trying to find familiarity in the faces of then-Crystal City incarcerees.

“The government tried to cover it up for a long time,” he said. “It’s just recently that more people have been interested.”

German Internees
Before a welcome lunch at the Crystal City High School, Teresa Van Hoy, Ph.D., a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, was passing out sheets amplifying the stories of former German incarcerees to all who would listen.

While the Japanese American, Japanese Latin American and Italian American incarcerees of the camp received some sort of governmental recognition over the years, the German Americans have yet to receive any.

“They were just ordinary people. What happened was that (FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover was trying to collect bodies to exchange for Americans who were being held by Hitler,” Van Hoy explained, noting some 1,117 German Americans on one ship manifest alone in 1943 en route to Germany for such exchange, including “hundreds of children, many of them born in the United States.”

“So that’s the heartbreaker. They’re dying now. Those children are now the people I’m representing, and they are in hospice,” Van Hoy said. “No one was ever able to help get official recognition for German Americans and German Latin Americans.”

American-born kids had to go to Germany, a country they did not know, and endure wartime bombings. Van Hoy recalled one returnee who was raped in Germany. Only three remain in Texas that she knows of.

“They love America, but their heart still hurts,” she said.

Van Hoy said the story of the Japanese American incarceration is widely taught in Texas schools, but the experience of German Americans is much less known.

History, she pointed, has its irony.

“The Mexican Americans outside … used to hang on the fence, wishing that they could be inside (the Crystal City camp), because inside they had better food than the poor Mexican American kids. …,” Van Hoy added. “They had a swimming pool. It gets to be 110 (degrees) down here for months. … Their fathers and uncles and brothers were dying in the service of the U.S. And still they had less food, less medical supplies, less fun than those who were supposed to be the enemy.”

A chance meeting as a museum docent to a Japanese American attendee led to Gertrude “Trudy” Werner, 85, to reconnect with the detention camp she spent part of her childhood in. That led her to the first Crystal City Pilgrimage in 2019.

Werner was one of many German Americans incarcerated at the site. Her father had been interrogated by the FBI for going to the German Consulate, although he was trying to renew the family passports. The FBI interviews continued, and in March of 1943, Hoover signed a letter saying her father should be interned.

Werner’s family was sent to Crystal City in April of 1943. She doesn’t remember details, but recalled the transportation to the site.

“It was a long train ride, and for me, it was an adventure,” she recalled. “It was very hot in the summer. I mean, this was in the days before air conditioning.”

Their parents worked “very hard to make it a normal experience for us,” she recalled.

And then when they left the camp, they were told to keep it hush-hush. “When we were released, they said, just go home, live your life, but don’t tell anybody where you were.”

Werner doesn’t remember any Italians, but did recall the Japanese living in separate neighborhoods. “We didn’t interact that much,” she said. “My mother told me that every once in a while the Japanese would want to trade meat for fish. … But we did not really interact on any social level.”

In the 1980s, Werner went to the National Archives to do research on the camp, and found out that Japanese Americans have been having reunions for years. “And my reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding. Who would want to remember that awful experience? But then I came to the pilgrimage and found the reasons why (it’s important to keep) the history alive and making sure it’s not repeated.”

She, like many others, found community in pilgrimage, and continues to give voice to the German American experience at Crystal City.

Japanese Latin Americans
During the war, the U.S. government virtually kidnapped more than 2,200 persons of Japanese ancestry in 13 Latin American countries in the name of “national security.”

More than 80 years later, many have yet to receive redress and reparations, and continue to fight for it.

Mirako (Ohashi) Ogata was a child when she and her family left her native Peru by boat, voyaging through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, before eventually landing in Crystal City.

“I used to see the flying fish, and I was fascinated,” she recalled of the trip by boat. “I loved being out there.”

She intended to attend the pilgrimage with her brother, but he got sick, so she came with his kids instead. “Going to these reunions really opened my eyes,” Ogata said.

“The more times that I come, I learn new things that I never knew.”
Victor Uno of the Crystal City Pilgrimage board of directors noted a “real emotional connection” to the site by Japanese Latin Americans.

“I mean, they endured kidnappings, internment, and then they were released. And the (Japanese Latin Americans), really, of all the groups that were interned, they had the hardest time after they were released,” said Uno. “They were very resilient people.”

Uno said Japanese Latin Americans suddenly found themselves “stateless.”

“It was horrible,” he said. “If you think about getting kidnapped, having no legal status here, and then being told by the power that’s holding you you’re illegal aliens, you’re illegals here. And it was this country that made them illegal. It’s an astounding story, really. … And that status kind of prevents them from getting redress.”

A Family Affair
Going to Crystal City was especially moving for families. Four siblings of the Yamasato family in the Hawaiian Islands — ranging from Margaret Hashimoto (75) of Kauai, Fumiko Crowley (78) and Rosa Yamogida (80) of Honolulu, to patriarch Maurice Yamasato (81) of Hawai‘i — gathered surrounded by family. Spanning three generations, down to a two-year-old, some 13 members of the Yamasato family made the trip from the island of Hawai‘i and Las Vegas.

“For me, I wanted to see how our parents … experienced here,” said Yamasato.

“The first time I came here, I think it’s more curiosity just to see where I was born,” said Crowley, who was born in Crystal City in 1945. “But this time, I think I paid more attention to what the stories that people had about their life here or their recollections of their parents, and certainly makes me think about my parents and what they went through.”

Another family, Satoshi Kojima (78) of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. and his sister Sachiko Gotanda (80) of Montebello, Calif., also made the journey in search of spiritual and emotional ties.

“I’m here to see my birthplace and then to honor not only my parents, but to all families that were interned in Crystal City,” said Kojima, who was born on Dec. 24, 1944 at the site. “It’s an emotional journey for us.”

“When my brother first told me he was going to come, I thought I’d come and support him because I was there,” said Gotanda, whose father passed away in 1971 followed by their mother in 1983.

“I think if she knew we were here, she’d be crying,” said Kojima.

“I kind of feel that she knows that you’re here,” said Gotanda. “And I feel that she’s kind of happy too, that we’re going back.”

Kojima recalled seeing a photo of a kindergarten class on the Crystal City Pilgrimage Website.

“The difference between those kids and other kids living in America is that they couldn’t leave,” Kojima said. “They couldn’t go to a park, they couldn’t go to visit relatives, and so on, because they were incarcerated. People have to realize that it was no fun to be in a place where you lost your civil liberties, you lost your freedom.

If there’s anything that brings me to tears, that does.”

Miko Dyo, 22, attended the pilgrimage with her father. Her grandfather and great grandfather were incarcerated at the camp.

“I think it’s important to visit any of the camps and learn the history behind them,” said Dyo, a recent theater graduate from California State University, Long Beach. “… learning that history and then using that knowledge and that voice to speak out when we see our government doing wrong things like that.”

The budding actress mentioned how there was talk about concentration camps for Muslims being discussed after 9/11, and how the Japanese American community was vocally against it given their own past experience.

“It’s important to know what we went through, what our parents went through,” said Ina, who arrived at Crystal City with his sister and mother, later to be reunited with his father there. “And the kids need to know how we suffered, how our parents suffered, and the discrimination that we had to live through, the housing, the jobs and stuff.”

Monument Unveiled
The pilgrimage organizers, in conjunction with local officials, unveiled the Crystal City Internment Camp Memorial Monument Oct. 28 commemorating those who passed away while imprisoned at “the largest U.S. Department of Justice multinational family concentration camp during World War II.”

One side of the monument conveys the significance of the swimming pool to the camp and remembers the two Japanese Peruvian 10-year-old girls, Aiko Oyakawa and Sachiko Tanabe, “who tragically drowned in the pool on August 15, 1944.” The other side of the monument describes the population — men, women and children of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry from the United States and Latin America — who were “unjustly imprisoned” at the camp.

MARKING THE PAST — The Crystal City Internment Camp Memorial Monument (R) was unveiled Oct. 28, as was a new street sign (Aiko and Sachiko Street in English), dedicated to two 10-year-old Japanese Peruvian girls who drowned in the swimming pool. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei News

Each of the 33 incarcerees who passed away at the camp is memorialized.

“All of the quotes are firsthand information,” said monument designer Kazumu Julio Cesar Naganuma, who also serves as the president of the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee board of directors. “That was the best part of this.”

Naganuma decidedly made the design of the long-lasting porcelain enamel memorial “simple.”

“It was a round pool, formerly a reservoir. And because of that, I made the top part round,” he explained. “It’s really the story of Crystal City as a whole.”

Naganuma said some acquaintances do not believe that this happened in America.

“It’s not even a forgotten story,” he said. “It’s like, never told.”

Naganuma, 81, is the youngest of eight children who were forcibly removed from Callao, Peru and sent to Crystal City. He was 20 months old when he and his family were kidnapped at gunpoint by the FBI.

His father was a successful businessman who had three laundries back home, but by the end of the war, he was just doing odds and ends for work.

“The worst part was when we got out of camp,” Naganuma recalled. “That’s when we had no food. We couldn’t afford to buy underwear. My father … used to make our underwear out of old rice sacks.”

Some eight historical markers created by the Texas Historical Commission surround the former camp site, covering facets of life at the camp, the different groups at the site, and a detailed map.

After a formal unveiling of the memorial near the swimming pool, there was the unveiling of a street sign nearby, as the street was dedicated as “Calle Aiko Y Sachiko” (Aiko and Sachiko Street), dedicated to the two girls who drowned in the pool. This was arranged by the locals.

Crystal City, and its people, have made a lasting impression on pilgrimage attendees.

Together, they will carry the story of the concentration camp into the future.

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