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Crystal City: A Call To Recognize German-Americans Sent To Internment Camps

Carson Frame / TPR News
Lindsey Wieck, a professor at St. Mary's, addresses a crowd outside of St. Louis Hall. Adolf Wesselhoeft, his wife Shirley, and relation Scott Harrison look on.

St. Mary's University students honored 81-year old veteran Lt.  Col. Adolf Wesselhoeft Thursday. He was of one of 139 American children of German descent interned in Crystal City during World War II.

Wesselhoeft was just six years old when he and his family were put on a train from Chicago down to Crystal City internment camp, which opened in 1943 to house families of Japanese, German, and Italian descent during World War II. Most of them were native-born American citizens.

Credit Carson Frame / TPR News
Carson Frame / TPR News
Students from St. Mary's gather to watch the tribute. Some held yellow pinwheels representing the many childhoods altered by internment at Crystal City.

Described as an “internal security” measure at the time, Crystal City has since been acknowledged as racially-motivated violation of civil liberties.

Shortly after Wesselheoff arrived at the camp, he and 138 other American-born children were deported to Germany, an active war zone that was totally foreign to them.

He remembers the American and British bombings in his suburb outside of Hamburg.

“They never changed their plan of attack. We knew exactly when they were coming because the sirens announced it,” he said. “We knew how many minutes we had to get out of the way. Then we just waited until the raids were over, daytime and nighttime.”

The barrage of attacks made it so that Wesselhoeft’s schooling was irregular. Even when he managed to attend, he faced a language barrier.

“In Crystal City, I learned German, supposedly,” Wesselhoeft said. “But I didn't learn it very well. So when I got into Germany I went back to first grade again. It took me three years to get through first grade.”

Nicole Johnson, a freshman, has spent the last several months studying the legacy of the Crystal City internment camp — and the life of Wesselhoeft.

“He has given me a totally different facet of history,” she said. “Everybody knows about the German side of WWII but nobody knows about this. It’s my chance to get the story out from a German-American’s perspective.”

Johnson said Wesselhoeft “is the epitome of a true American.”

“This man never gave up on his country,” she said. “He was born here in the U.S., then sent to Crystal City and then exchanged for other war-wounded Americans. He paid his way to come back to the U.S. and then immediately joined the Air Force.”

Credit Carson Frame / TPR News
Carson Frame / TPR News
Nicole Johnson is a freshman at St. Mary's. A German-American herself. Over the last few months, she's been studying the life of Adolf Wesselhoeft. But the legacy of Crystal City has interested her since she was in 8th grade.

There he served 22 years, deploying to Vietnam, where exposure to Agent Orange rendered him blind.

On Thursday, St. Mary’s University, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Texas Historical Commission co-sponsored a tribute event, honoring Wesselhoeft and others held at the Crystal City internment camp.

Wesselhoeft received a yellow floral wreath from St. Mary’s students, which he laid in Crystal City Friday.

“Yellow symbolizes the remembrance of war service and well-being. Baby’s breath symbolizes the internment of children,” said Lindsey Wieck, graduate director of the public history program at St. Mary’s.

Wesselhoeft and Johnson plan to hold other public commemorations throughout the year, including Chicago and New York. The “year of remembrance” will conclude on Feb. 19, 2019, the anniversary of when he was sent to Germany as a child.

The campaign seeks to encourage the U.S. government to formally recognize German American internment. President Ronald Reagan recognized Japanese American internment in 1988, and President Clinton recognized Italian-American internment in 2000.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame

CORRECTION: Lindsey Wieck was misidentified in the main photo.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.