Review: The Train to Crystal City

The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell

Reviewed: Scribner, 2015.  Hardcover, 393 pages.
Also Available: Scribner, 2016.  Trade paperback, 432 pages.Cover: The Train to Crystal City

Many books have been written on the Japanese internment during World War II, and The Train to Crystal City is one of the more recent additions.  I remember first being introduced to this topic when I read Farewell to Manzanar in middle school.  Later, in high school, when the topic was addressed it never went beyond naming the order and what it did; even then, it was never fully explained.  I remember learning from my own research that Order 9066 also affected those of German and Italian ancestry.  Just a few weeks back, I read the novel The Translation of Love, which included the fictionalized account of two Japanese-Canadians who were repatriated to Japan after the war ended, one of whom was Canadian-born.  And I did not understand why that repatriation was able to occur.  The Train to Crystal City provides an answer.

The Train to Crystal City has two main goals.  First, is to tell the story of the internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, and the second is the even lesser known story of the secret prisoner exchanges.  Threaded through each are the stories of several individuals, including Ingrid Eiserloch and Sumi Utsushigawa, both whom were American born and repatriated.  Like many books on this subject, it opens with the initial arrests and the climate at that time.  The men were taken while the women and children struggled at home.  Soon, the story bridges into why the men were taken.  Some were because of their careers; others because of their loyalties to their homeland.  Then the book goes into why the Crystal City Concentration Camp was created and how, including all the behind the scenes work by government officials.  As part of this, those involved were also profiled, including the man who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Earl G. Harrison, and the man who was in charge of the camp at Crystal City, Joseph O’Rourke.  Next, it discusses how the German internees arrived first and built the camp.  Then the daily life in the camps is profiled, much of which centered around the children’s school days and leisure.  One major point that often led to conflict was that the children saw themselves primarily as Americans while the parents saw themselves as belonging to their original nationality.

The book’s other focus was on the secret prisoner exchange.  I never knew until reading this book that our government rounded up those of German, Italian, and Japanese origins in Latin and South America as well and brought them to camps within the United States, many from Peru.  The idea was that these individuals could be held and traded for Americans trapped in the now-enemy nations as well as prevent the war from spreading within the Western Hemisphere.  The book also tells how many of those living in America were pressed to repatriate.  Most who agreed did so either because they thought they had no choice or it was the only way to reunite their families.  Then as the war winds down or after it is over, the book follows those who were repatriated, including Sumi’s life in post-war Japan and Ingrid’s being tossed into war-torn Germany in February 1945 as part of a prisoner exchange.  This part of The Train to Crystal City tells the conflicts this caused within the families and the following struggles. It also tells the stories of those who were exchanged for these individuals, including prisoners-of-war and Holocaust survivors.

Overall, I thought the book was a worthy addition to the literature on World War II.  While not written by an academic (Russell is a journalist), The Train to Crystal City was well-researched.  She went beyond other books by examining the FBI files of the internees and she made extensive use of videotaped and in-person interviews and oral histories provided by those who were children when they were interned and a couple of individuals who worked at the camp.  In fact, this work of history is more of a narrative history, as it makes use of many quotes and stories from those interviews and oral histories.  I do think this book fills a gap in scholarship while also being accessible to all who are interested in the topic.

On a more personal note, while I knew that all foreign nationals had to register as enemy aliens during the war and that those of German and Italian ancestry were also interned, learning of the use of internees for prisoner exchanges did outrage me.  Why?  That could have been my family.  One set of my great-grandparents did have to register as enemy aliens back then and had to do so until the day they died (one in the 1950s and the other in the 1970s).  My family’s lives could have been very different too.

Did you know about these lesser known details of World War II?  Do you have another book on the subject to recommend? Do you think you’ll read this book to learn more?

I was provided with a copy of this book for review by FSB Associates.


3 thoughts on “Review: The Train to Crystal City

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