The Legacy of Crystal City’s Internment Camps
If you drive into Crystal City from the north, avoiding the oilfield traffic from the Eagle Ford Shale, the first major landmark you’ll see is the correctional facility’s guard tower. Below it, the prison’s white, windowless walls and barbed wire nestle right up against the highway. Prison area, the sign reads. Do not pick up hitchhikers.
Opened in the 1990s, the modern detention center, a provider of jobs in an area that desperately needs them, is a fraction the size of one that employed Zavala County residents in the 1940s. During World War II, Crystal City was home to the largest “enemy alien” internment camp in the United States. Its remote location southwest of San Antonio and 50 miles from the Mexican border made it ideal for the task. Today, save for a few historical markers, all that remains of the camp is a few ruins and an enduring question about the balance between freedom and security.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, fear of saboteurs within U.S. borders prompted the government to incarcerate thousands of people connected to Axis powers by citizenship or ancestry. Citizens of Germany, Italy and Japan—enemy aliens—and U.S.-born or naturalized citizens with ancestral roots in those nations were rounded up. By Dec. 7 and 8, 1941, when President Roosevelt issued proclamations authorizing their detention, the FBI and State Department had already compiled lists of potentially dangerous residents in both groups. Law enforcement began arresting them and placing them in temporary detention centers on Dec. 7.
Approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them living on the West Coast, were moved by the War Relocation Authority to domestic internment camps. The majority were U.S. citizens and immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for many years, though Japanese were legally barred from citizenship between 1924 and 1952.
The Crystal City camp was part of a separate program called the Enemy Alien Control Unit, run by the Department of Justice and administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The program was designed for Axis citizens, people who had renounced their U.S. citizenship, and those who had been deemed particularly dangerous—a broad description that fit many pillars of immigrant communities, including religious leaders, martial arts instructors and members of cultural organizations. German- and Italian-Americans who had come under FBI suspicion, as well as Japanese-Americans considered too dangerous for the War Relocation Authority, were sent to Crystal City. The first detainees arrived in December 1942.
It was the only internment camp in the country designed to hold families, an accommodation the INS made after realizing that detention of male breadwinners often left the rest of the family destitute. Wives and children, many of whom were American citizens, often opted to intern with the men, for emotional and economic reasons. Such choices were considered “voluntary” internment, a term Gene Kazuo Ideno calls a euphemism.
Ideno, a retired Chicago schoolteacher, was interned at Crystal City with his family from 1943 to 1945, when he was a small child. His father, a bookkeeper in San Francisco, was taken by the FBI to San Diego and then Lordsburg, New Mexico, when the war broke out. After being held for a year, the elder Ideno was sent to Crystal City. Ideno’s mother—a U.S. citizen—moved the rest of the family in with her parents and then to Crystal City to join him.
“There were no real hardships; the treatment was pretty civil and very nice,” says Ideno, who remembers the camp swimming pool and being allowed to leave the compound for picnics near the Nueces River. “You just didn’t have freedom to move. The sensation I had as a 5- or 6-year-old was that we were in jail or prison, and therefore we must have done something wrong.” Ideno thinks his father was detained because he taught Kendo, a Japanese form of fencing.
Ideno says the Japanese community thought there were economic motives behind the detentions, a suspicion historians say was often correct. Farms and businesses relieved of their German, Japanese or Latin American owners could be taken over by other entities. Detainees were also used as currency in the ongoing repatriation process, in which the U.S. sent Axis nationals back to those countries in exchange for Americans who’d been detained there. “Back to those countries” was sometimes a misnomer, as in the cases of U.S.-born children who spoke no German but were nonetheless sent to Germany along with their immigrant parents.
The Crystal City camp, one of five World War II detention centers in Texas, was converted from a former migratory labor camp. During the war years it held an average of 2,800 internees, a population almost half the size of the surrounding town.
The camp functioned like a city within a city—100 acres surrounded by guard towers, floodlights and a 10-foot-high barbed-wire fence. The camp’s 500-plus structures included a hospital, shops, schools, basketball courts, a sumo wrestling ring and cabin-like single-family houses. While children went to school, adults had the option of doing paid work like building furniture or growing produce on the fields outside the compound. Purchases were made in camp scrip—tokens that had value only inside the fence.
In interviews and oral histories, many internees fondly remember cooling off in an irrigation pond that prisoners converted to a giant swimming pool. The pool features prominently in a 1945 INS-produced film that depicts smiling internees and a camp reminiscent of a resort, as long as viewers overlook the bit about the mail being censored.
In Art Jacobs’ opinion, the film was basically accurate. Jacobs’ time at Crystal City was peaceful compared to what happened before and after his stay. An American citizen, 10-year-old Jacobs watched FBI agents ransack his family’s Brooklyn home in 1943, after which they arrested his father at work. The family reunited at Ellis Island, which was then being used as a detention center, before being sent to Crystal City in 1945. Jacobs was later repatriated to Germany, where, despite his U.S. citizenship, he was treated as a Nazi sympathizer and imprisoned by the occupying American forces. Eventually Jacobs was able to return to the U.S., where he went on to serve in the Air Force for 23 years.
“Crystal City, to me, was a fun place,” Jacobs, who now lives in Arizona, says, emphasizing his youthful naivete and relief at being back with his father. He visited the swimming pool daily and remembers trying sushi in the Japanese mess hall and offering sauerkraut and hot dogs to Japanese friends.
The student-edited 1945 Roundup yearbook from the camp’s Federal High School gives an impression of typical teenage life. Photos chronicle the activities of the student council, pep squad and football team, as well as parties, the junior-senior banquet and a “senior Ditch Day.” The foreword concludes: “In future years may this annual help you to recall the many pleasant memories of Federal High School.”
The camp was also a holding place for Latin Americans of German, Italian and Japanese citizenship or ancestry, who were collected under the auspices of the Special War Problems Division.
In 1942, says William McWhorter of the Texas Historical Commission, the Allies were losing the war and feared a Japanese invasion of Latin America. In an agreement with—or under pressure from—the United States, 13 Latin American countries agreed to send their residents of Axis nationality or descent to facilities like Crystal City.
Allowing the U.S. to hold these detainees ostensibly improved security for the Latin American countries, and again, the U.S. had another motivation: Latin American detainees expanded the pool of people to exchange for Americans in the repatriation process. Some historians suggest that the deportations also benefitted U.S. and Latin American entrepreneurs, who took over farms and businesses the deportees left behind.
Heidi Gurcke Donald, now a retired nurse in northern California, was born in Costa Rica to a German father and American mother; she began life with three citizenships. As suspicion rose against Germans, her father was first blacklisted, then arrested and imprisoned in Costa Rica, and finally sent to Crystal City for internment. Donald and her mother and sister were forcibly taken to join him at the camp. The family was among more than 4,000 German Latin Americans brought to U.S. camps during the war. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans, most of them from Peru, were also interned.
When Donald and her family were forced to board the ship to the United States, their passports and documents were confiscated by the U.S. military. Upon the ship’s arrival in California, the passengers were charged with entering the country illegally—because, of course, they had no documents.
The Crystal City camp officially closed in February 1948, nearly two and a half years after the end of the war. Throughout the war, prisoners had been released, paroled or repatriated—voluntarily or not—to their country of citizenship or ancestry. Many who remained after the war ended were Peruvians of Japanese descent who weren’t allowed back by the Peruvian government.
“There had to be someplace to hold these folks that can’t go back to the countries they started from,” McWhorter says. “The U.S. is not going to let them stay there because we’re not at war with those countries anymore, so we don’t have to hold them as enemy aliens.” A company in Seabrook Farms, N.J., offered some of them employment—an option Gene Ideno’s parents accepted.
Infrastructure and resources from the camp site—cottages, lumber—were sold after the war, sometimes to returning soldiers. Much of the land was purchased in 1948 by the local school district, which used the facilities for a migrant school and housing for school staff. Today, school buildings and athletic facilities for the Crystal City Javelinas cover most of the camp site. Only the much-altered German elementary school building and a few concrete foundations remain.
In 2007, under McWhorter’s leadership, the Texas Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker at one corner of the site. It stands next to a granite monument erected in 1985 by Japanese-American internees and their families. That marker reads, “World War II Concentration Camp 1943-1946: Due to circumstances beyond their control and consequences of a war between the United States and Japan, people of Japanese ancestry, both nationals and U.S. citizens alike, were arbitrarily and without justification incarcerated in a concentration camp at this location during World War II.” (The marker’s dates are inaccurate; the camp was open from 1942 to 1948.)
Some organizations, including the Japanese American National Museum, refer to War Relocation Authority camps as concentration camps. Jacobs bristles at the use of a phrase that for most Americans conjures images of the Holocaust.
“I took my grandson and children to concentration camps after the war, and I said, ‘Don’t ever forget this,’” Jacobs says. “The birds don’t sing at Dachau. If you go through that place, you’ll understand what a concentration camp is. Crystal City was not a concentration camp.”
He says he fears that contemporary embarrassment over the practice of internment will paint the past with too broad a stroke. The teachers and staff at the camp were “lovely people. They took care of us, they worried about us. That 4×4 piece of granite that says ‘concentration camp’—that’s a disservice to people that kept us there.”
Missing from the 1985 monument is any mention of German, Italian and Latin American prisoners. The omission is consistent with national trends: While Japanese-Americans received a formal U.S. government apology and reparations in 1988, the same has not happened for the smaller camp populations of other backgrounds. The Japanese-American internment is documented in history textbooks, the 1994 bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars and a musical starring George Takei.
Donald, who cofounded the German American Internee Coalition in 2005, has testified before Congress, asking unsuccessfully for a commission to investigate the group’s internment. “I feel like we’re being written out of history, ” she says.
Even the money that funded the most detailed markers at the site—eight interpretive panels installed in 2011—came from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program. Historians at the program encouraged McWhorter to apply for a grant, approving his inclusion of the additional groups. The Texas Historical Commission subsequently won a second grant to commemorate the other four detention sites in Texas (at Kenedy, Seagoville, Camp Dodd Field at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and Fort Bliss in El Paso). McWhorter is drafting a nomination for the Crystal City camp to be included in the National Register of Historic Places; he expects a decision by late summer.
Of course these recent preservation efforts come too late for those who were housed at the camp as teens or adults. But postwar priorities, McWhorter says, didn’t include preservation for tourists or researchers decades hence. People who had just endured World War II, in whatever capacity, wanted to move on with their lives. “It’s hard to know, in the moment,” he says, “if something is going to be historic.”
Today, the camp swimming pool is dry, a grass-invaded sunken circle of broken concrete. Flanked by the final two panels of interpretive trail signage, it lies down a one-lane gravel road at the edge of school property, nearly half a mile from the first panels. A visitor who follows the trail gets a sense of just how vast the camp was. Walking to the pool’s edge requires careful steps to avoid mesquite thorns, big red ants, biting insects, snakes—the same hazards many former internees found daunting.
A 2002 reunion drew former internees from across the country. Heidi Gurcke Donald, her sister Ingrid, and their husbands came to town the day before the reunion. Donald wanted to see the site without other people around. “I just wanted to sense it,” she remembers. As the golden November light slanted across the ruins of the pool, the sisters sat on its edge and listened to breeze ruffling the grass. They both started crying.
More than 10 years later, she still chokes up remembering it. “There’s damage, unfortunately. One is damaged by these experiences.”
The legacy of the internment camps poses a difficult question about the balance between national security and personal liberty. When a country is under attack, what should its policy be toward citizens of the enemy force inside its borders?
Donald’s renewed interest in her family’s history was sparked by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“I realized that the clampdown that was happening after that—taking people off the streets, or supposedly off battlefields in the Middle East—was being done without any kind of supervision or legal authority,” she says. “I thought, ‘Some of these people probably are guilty, but some of them aren’t, because my father wasn’t.’” She mailed every member of Congress a card protesting the Guantanamo Bay detentions.
Historians say a small percentage of those interned during the war may have sympathized with the enemy. But most of the detainees weren’t aware of any specific allegations against them, much less the supposed crimes of their neighbors.
“My father is looking at, let’s say, Hans’ father, and wondering what Hans’ father did to get in here,” Jacobs explains. “[He thinks] ‘I didn’t do anything, but I know in America we don’t just lock up people for no reason.’ You know what Hans’ father is thinking? ‘I wonder what Mr. Jacobs did; we don’t lock up people in America for nothing.’”
Yet despite the trauma of his father’s arrest and his own overseas imprisonment, Jacobs says he understands why the camps were put in service.
“The president has an obligation to protect the safety of the country,” he says, “and I guess President Roosevelt thought the best way to do that was lock up certain German-Americans and Japanese-Americans and Italian-Americans.” If only, he says, there had been a more accurate method of determining who posed a threat.
“I can’t figure out what happened to us,” Gene Ideno says. “We didn’t do anything, and that was true for most of the Japanese who were incarcerated.”
A trip to Crystal City isn’t complete without a visit to the statue of Popeye, the town’s “patron saint,” in front of city hall. The self-described Spinach Capital of the World hosts an annual festival celebrating its mainstay crop, and a Del Monte cannery still operates on the north side of town.
Beyond agriculture, the town lacks major industries. The Eagle Ford Shale boom hasn’t affected Crystal City as much as neighboring communities. Empty storefronts line the dusty roads into downtown and homemade signs in residential areas offer cash for aluminum cans.
The correctional center outside of town is one of the area’s biggest assets. The private prison holds Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates: foreign citizens who’ve entered the country illegally and are awaiting deportation. Once again, a fence in Crystal City separates Americans from the aliens in their midst.