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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

ALIEN CAMP

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Crystal City librarian Annette Guerrero Lehmann pointed to a large patch of grass.

"That's where the swimming pool was," she said. "Two little Japanese girls drowned there on the same day."
Crystal City Texas Japanese Interment Camp
Remains of the Japanese Interment Camp in Crystal City
TE photo, 2005
What happened in Crystal City during World War II in no way compares with the horrors perpetrated overseas, but some who have studied this little-known aspect of U.S. history think the federal government went too far in the interest of what today is known as homeland security.

When the U.S. entered the war following the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, officials understandably had serious concerns about domestic sabotage, espionage or a possible "fifth column" movement. The government quickly rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and put them in camps. That operation has received a considerable amount of attention in recent years, but the government also established internment camps for Japanese and German civilian aliens. (Prisoner of war camps are another story.)

Of 20 alien family camps operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service across the nation, three were in Texas. Crystal City, 120 miles southwest of San Antonio, had the largest camp. A group of German internees expelled from South American countries were the first to arrive on Dec. 18, 1942. The first Japanese came the following March.

The camp reached its peak population of 3,325 internees in May 1945. Two-thirds of the people were of Japanese heritage, the next largest group being German. They lived in 41 three-room cottages, 118 single-room structures and 694 other buildings covering 500 acres.

Behind the 10-foot wire fences and under the guard towers, life went on. Children received their education in schools segregated by ethnicity. Women had 255 babies. On the darker side, in the view of some, selected internees were shipped out in exchange for Americans held in Axis camps.

The last of the detainees left in 1947, and on November 1 that year the camp closed. It was the last alien facility in the U.S. to do so.

Today, few traces of the camp remain - a scattering of concrete slabs and certain sections of wire fencing. Most of the buildings, including two schools, had been razed by the 1970s. The last building went down in 1985. In addition to the double drowning of the Japanese girls, 15 other internees died at the camp during the war. Six of those persons were buried in the city's Edgewood Cemetery, but only four of the graves are marked.

An historical marker telling the story of the WW II facility was dedicated near the camp's old water tank on Nov. 9, 2002. Present at the ceremonies were 76 former German and 50 Japanese internees, who had their first-ever reunion in Crystal City that weekend.

The events last year coincided with the annual Crystal City Spinach Festival, which is coming up again Nov. 6-9. (For more details, visit www.spinachfestival.com) The festival celebrates the area's principal cash crop, which in a way ties to the story of the internment camp since it was located where the government had established a facility for migrant farm workers prior to the war.

Zavala County historian and newspaper columnist Richard G. Santos is trying to acquire oral histories of those who spent time at the camp and hopes to see a museum opened someday. Besides being good for a county with considerable economic woes, a museum would be a way to teach some important lessons.

"The Crystal City internees were civilians and not military personnel," he said. "Yet, some of the internees and their families were sent to Germany or Japan in prisoner of war exchanges. It is important not to forget that many of the children held at the camp were [naturalized] U.S. citizens."

No one has said that internees were physically mistreated, but whether it was right for the government to round up and hold alien civilians simply because they were of Japanese or German heritage is a matter of ongoing debate. In fact, a bill - the Wartime Treatment Study Act - has been introduced in Congress calling for creation of two commissions to look into the way the government handled the alien issue during the war.

War can threaten a Democracy in more ways than one.



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 28, 2003 column

Related Topics: Texas | Crystal City, Texas | WWII

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