THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY
By Jan Jarboe Russell
Published in 2015 by Scribner.
Reviewed by Ron Hunka.
The regrettable history of the WWII Crystal City Internment Camp in South Texas has been addressed before in commendable books such as Nazis and Good Neighbors by Max Paul Friedman, but not to the degree of compassionate, richly- researched detail that Ms. Jarboe Russell has produced here. At times, this book is so intriguing that it reads more like a novel than a history.
The book largely follows the real-life stories of two young girls in different families, one Japanese, Sumi Utsushigawa, and the other German, Ingrid Eiserloh. After Pearl Harbor, the fathers of both families were arrested on shallow pretexts and jailed for indeterminate sentences. (In the case of the Eiserloh family, their American next door neighbors sold them out by providing false and misleading information to the FBI.)
Left with little means of support and to keep the families together, the remainder of the family members eventually ended up joining the fathers inside the fence in Crystal City in voluntary internment, at the cost of agreement to repatriation to Axis countries of their origin. The book follows the family members not only through the war but long after, even into old age and eventual death in some cases.
In the Crystal City camp, Japanese, Germans, Italians, and a few other nationalities made up the internee population–at the highpoint about 3,300 men, women, and children. Not all the camp population came from inside the U.S. In fact, President Roosevelt’s administration pressured some South American governments to give up Japanese and German descent persons viewed as possible Axis sympathizers to use for internee exchanges, which our government carried out with Germany and Japan, a practice kept from the American public at the time.
While it is to the discredit of the United States government that the internment camp at Crystal City housed persons who were largely loyal to this country, who had committed no offenses, it is laudable that the Crystal City camp was administered as humanely as it was. For example, Joseph O’Rourke, the camp administrator, treated the internees compassionately and fairly, and “often said that he wanted the children in camp to have happy memories of Crystal City.” However, O’Rourke’s fair play administration of the camp was not always returned in kind, particularly by the camp’s Nazi sympathizers, who were frequently as disruptive as possible, harassing and intimidating other camp Germans.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the account of what the exchange internees experienced upon return to Germany and Japan. In the camp, news that the internees received was heavily censored. In some cases, the exchanges took place when Germany and Japan were losing the war, but the internees did not know this. Even after the war ended, Japanese internees did not know that Japan had lost the war. Those returning to Japan assumed that the American government was lying to them. Upon return to Japan, incredulous former camp residents were appalled to hear from locals that, yes, they had lost the war. Of course, they also witnessed for the first time the terrible devastation from the bombing.
Some members of the Utsushigawa and Eiserloh families were eventually able to make their way back to the United States after the war. Some of them harbored a deep distrust of the American government and lived the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders. Ingrid Eiserloh said that her father, in his later years, repeatedly asked, “Why did this happen to us?”
In addition to historical book reviews, Ron Hunka writes about history in general. He has published over a dozen articles on castles and monasteries in the German-speaking world, and he has documented the fraudulent careers of notorious Texans Billie Sol Estes, Frank Sharp, and James Bowie. Other subjects include the Spanish shipwrecks of Padre Island and the financial difficulties of the Republic of Texas.