February 12, 2015
“I am completely loyal to the
United States. My children are citizens of the United States. I only want to
make a good and decent life for them.”
plea failed. He, along with his wife and three children, were interned.
was a war on, and Germany, Japan, and Italy were the enemy. A nefarious
sequence of federal thuggery -- illegal snooping by the FBI, the Alien Registration Act,
presidential proclamations, and Executive Order 9066
-- put more than 100,000 U.S. residents behind barbed wire. Many were born here.
Other were naturalized citizens. Some were legal immigrants. It didn’t matter.
Civil liberties lost to hysteria and bigotry, in a real-life version of “The
Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
Jarboe Russell’s The
Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s
Only Family Internment Camp During World War II
(Scribner; 393 pages; $30.00) tells the story of Eiserloh’s
daughter Ingrid, as well as another teen, Sumi Utsushigawa. Along the way,
readers learn how “the vast machinery of internment … sputtered to a
start” and what it did to the families it seized.
was from Ohio, while Sumi lived in Los Angeles.
They, and several thousand like them, were confined to Crystal City due to
bogus accusations of a parent’s “disloyalty.” But the Roosevelt administration
had another justification for its kidnappings. The State Department, Russell
writes, “estimated that, as of January 1, 1939, 80,428 U.S. nationals resided
in Europe, 12,111 in the Near East, and 17,138 in the Far East.” FDR intended
to transfer American-based people of politically incorrect ancestry to the Axis
powers, in exchange for diplomats, businessmen, and prisoners of war.
City was located in Texas -- hot, dry, rattler-infested, and not far from
Mexico. It was a place for “voluntary internment,” where women and children
could be reunited with their husbands and fathers, in preparation for
Ingrid’s and Sumi’s fathers agree to leave? Hindsight makes the decisions seem
beyond insane. But in 1942 and 1943, who knew how long the war would last, or
which side would ultimately triumph? There was little doubt that the families’
American dreams had been snuffed. As the Eiserlohs’ patriarch wrote -- in vain,
of course -- to U.S.
Attorney General Francis Biddle, he was not “in the slightest degree guilty
of ever having done, or having any thoughts of doing, anything against the
interests or safety of the United States,” yet his family had “been totally
deprived of any means of a livelihood and left alone and isolated.”
waiting for repatriation, Crystal City’s prisoners did what they could to make
camp life bearable. Order was maintained. Cleanliness was the norm. Kids minded
their elders, for the most part. To its credit, the government provided
adequate food and healthcare. German and Japanese industriousness elevated the
standard of living. Fruits and flowers were grown. A swimming pool was dug. A
homemade tofu industry developed.
City, “the largest and busiest internment camp of the war,” benefited from
having the right man at the top. Joseph O’Rourke, a career INS agent, was named
officer in charge in 1943. Humane and honest, with particular affection for the
camp’s youngest captives, O’Rourke would later conclude that internment had
been a mistake. So, too, did Biddle, who admitted that the camps were
“ill-advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.” Tom Clark, who succeeded
Biddle as attorney general, publicly apologized for his role, averring that
internment did not serve “any purpose at all.”
The Train to Crystal City takes a turn for the horrific
when Ingrid and Sumi, along with their parents and siblings, return to Germany
and Japan. Starvation awaited them, as did leveled cities and “dead bodies
stacked several feet high.” Ingrid was raped by a GI. Sumi’s father had
convinced himself that Japan won the war. He never recovered from seeing the
place of his birth obliterated.
Eiserloh and Utsushigawa clans eventually returned to America. Some members prospered,
others didn’t. Sumi became a chiropractor, and had six children. Ingrid never
worked in music, her childhood love. She gave birth to three children, but
after being named the commandant of Crystal City, O’Rourke walked past a group
of detainee children playing “war.” Passing the group later in the day, Russell
writes, he noticed that they “were seated on the ground, looking glum.”
happened to the war?” he asked.
ended,” came the reply. “Nobody wanted to be the enemy. We all want to be the
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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