D. Dowd Muska

 

Honoring FDR’s Forgotten Victims

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.”

Mathias Eiserloh’s plea failed. He, along with his wife and three children, were interned.

There 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.”

Jan 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.

Ingrid 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.

Crystal 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 “repatriation.”

Why did 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.”

While 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.

Crystal 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.

The 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 divorced twice.

Not long 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.”

“What happened to the war?” he asked.

“It ended,” came the reply. “Nobody wanted to be the enemy. We all want to be the Americans.”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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