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

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

Texas is hardly the first state to come to mind when people -- even hard-core history buffs -- think about the internment of  more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. People are -- or should be -- familiar with Manzanar in the California Sierras and other camps throughout the West, but one of the biggest was in the tiny town of Crystal City, Texas, southwest of San Antonio and only a few miles from the Mexican border.

San Antonio-based author Jan Jarboe Russell tells the story of the nation's only family internment camp in '"The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II" (Scribner, 446 pages, illustrations, sources and notes, index, $30.00). 

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

Based on four years of research and beautifully written, the book had its genesis more than 40 years  ago when Jan Jarboe, a University of Texas at Austin student, from the East Texas town of Cleveland,  interviewed Alan Taniguchi, a Japanese-American professor of architecture at the university.

She asked him how he got to Texas and he replied "My family was in camp here." Puzzled, she suggested "Church camp?" He laughed and told the young reporter for the university's newspaper "Not exactly!" And explained how his father Isamu Taniguchi, was interned in 1942, following enactment of FDR's Executive Order 9066. Isamu Taniguchi was an innovative farmer in California's San Joaquin Delta and his entire family, including Alan, was interned at the Crystal City Internment Camp. Along with Japanese-Americans -- many of them U.S. citizens -- the camp's inmates included German and Italian aliens and Japanese and Germans from several Latin American countries. Because of the virulent racism of California and other Western states, Isamu Taniguchi, born in Japan, was denied citizenship. His children were American citizens under the nation's birthright policy.

Russell tells how the camp's site was chosen. Basically, it was developed as an internment center because it had railroad service. In a nation that traveled by train -- the nation's highest passenger count train travel year ever was in 1945 -- the isolated town was perfect for an internment camp.

From 1942 to 1948, trains delivered thousands of civilians from the United States and Latin America to Crystal City. The trains carried Japanese, German, Italian immigrants and their American-born children. The only family internment camp during World War II, Crystal City was the center of a government prisoner exchange program called “quiet passage.” During the course of the war, hundreds of prisoners in Crystal City, including their American-born children, were exchanged for other more important Americans—diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians, and missionaries—behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany.

Focusing her story on two American-born teenage girls -- one Japanese-American, the other German-American --  who were interned, Russell recounts  the ordinary day-to-day 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.

The book blends big-picture World War II history with a little-known event in American history that has long been kept quiet and 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 how the definition of American citizenship changed under the pressure of war.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt opposed the internment policy of Executive Order 9066, as did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Russell doesn't go into detail about Hoover, but I had long known of his opposition to internment. Hoover was a detail oriented man and he expected people to believe him when he said his agency had located and arrested the really dangerous enemy aliens. It's revealing to note that the Japanese-Americans of the Territory of Hawaii were never interned. For more about Hoover's stance:

An article on Executive Order 9066, which references FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's opposition to mass internment:

A passage in Conrad Black's biography of Richard Nixon on Hoover's opposition to Japanese internment:

I did find one error in the book, thanks to my years of living in West Virginia. On page 57 she locates Hot Springs, VA, home of the Homestead resort, in West Virginia. Japanese diplomats had been interned at the resort, which had been requisitioned by the U.S. government. They were later transferred to The Greenbrier resort, similarly requisitioned, in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County,  West Virginia. People are alway confusing West Virginia and its parent state, Virginia!

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. This book would make a wonderful Ken Burns documentary! I can't recommend it too highly.

Jan Jarboe Russell
Jan Jarboe Russell

About the Author

Jan Jarboe Russell is a Nieman Fellow, a writer at large for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She is the author of Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson and has also compiled and edited They Lived to Tell the Tale. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr.