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South Texas History You Didn't Learn In High School

Author Jan Jarboe Russell has gotten a lot of national attention for her most recent book. Now she’s appearing at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday to talk about it. I caught up with her recently.

"This is the history you do not know."

She's talking about The Train to Crystal City—a World War II story that didn’t make your history books.

“The seeds of this book were sewn about 42 years ago when I was a young reporter for the Daily Texan at the University of Texas in Austin.”

She got to know the Architecture School’s Dean Alan Taniguchi.

“I was from East Texas; I’d never seen an Asian person before. And so I asked professor Tanaguchi ‘where did you come from?’”

He revealed that he and his family were moved from California to the camp in Crystal City. She asked if he meant church camp, and was told no, an internment camp.

“I was stunned; I’d never heard of anything like that before.”

A career and family followed for Russell, but the revelation stuck with her. Then 5 years ago she got back to the idea of writing a book about it. By then though, she faced a major obstacle.

“I unfortunately learned that he had died. And I was so devastated because I thought ‘my gosh, I’ve lost the chance to tell this story.’”

But she hadn’t. She started her investigation with Alan Taniguchi’s son, who found a listing of children from the camp, now in their 80s and 90s.

“And I started calling them the next day. Then I started getting on airplanes, visiting them. And so slowly the secrets of the camp revealed themselves.  As children they did not have any context for why they were living on a 290-acre site with barbed-wire fence under armed guard. It was like landing on the moon.”

She interviewed more than fifty of these surviving children. But other sources of information were revealed.

“The big thing that helped was getting all their father’s FBI files de-classified, working in the national archive, to understand what made Crystal City different.”

For one: German, Japanese and Italian families were actually allowed to live in one camp, united as families.

“But there was a secret reason that Crystal City was established.  Roosevelt’s internment policy was much more extensive than we’ve been led to believe.

Roosevelt’s secret is also kind of a dark one.

"He was engaged in negotiations with Tokyo and with Germany for prisoner exchanges. Part of the job of Crystal City was to bring this giant pool of people together so they could be used for exchange for missionaries, businessmen, some prisoners of war, that were caught behind enemy lines in Germany in Japan.”

Japanese, Germans and Italians were held behind barbed wire for use in exchanges for Americans.  Most of these people were actually Americans with the misfortune of being born to parents of foreign descent.

“Just by the un-luck of the draw, some of the American-born children—thousands of them—were traded into war.   There were six trades from Crystal City over the course of the war.”

And there was a law which made all this possible.

“The Enemy Alien Act of 1798 says that in times of War, the American government has the authority to arrest any person that was born in the country that we’re at war with.”

The Act stated that government had no obligation to tell anyone why they were arrested or how long they would be incarcerated.

“It’s on our books and it’s the way we do things.”

“But it’s not a part of our self-concept,” I noted. 

“It’s not a part of our self concept and very few of us realize that is the law.  The camp opened in 1942 and it did not close until 1948. Three long years after the war was won.”

On a less serious note, Jarboe Russell presents at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday.

“Oh I’m so excited about the San Antonio Book Festival!  The best thing about the Book Festival is that it’s got something for everyone. It’s got a kids section, it’s got a cooking section, it has fiction, it has non-fiction.”

Not only is she presenting; she plans on being a fan, too, going to see other authors whose books she has read.

"I’ve got my list of people I want to go hear."

We've more on the San Antonio Book Festival here

We've more on Jan Jarboe Russell here

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii