Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp
Originally the internment camp was intended to be populated by people of Japanese ancestry and their immediate families. However, on December 12, 1942, the camp’s first internees to arrive were a mix of German Americans and German Enemy Aliens. On February 12, 1943, the first group of Latin Americans arrived––also Germans––deported from Costa Rica. On March 17, 1943, the first group of Japanese American internees arrived. The Immigration and Naturalization (INS) planned to transfer all German internees to another camp, but the German spokesman asked camp officials if they could remain because their living conditions here were far better than at previous confinement sites they were held at.
From its inception in mid-1942 through June 1945, Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp interned 4,751 (this included 153 people born in the camp). The camp’s population peaked at 3,374 on December 29, 1944, more than two thirds of which were of Japanese nationality or ancestry. Approximately 11,507 German Americans were interned in the U.S. during the war, accounting for 36 percent of the total internments under the DOJ Alien Enemy Control Unit Program. In addition, an estimated 4,500 ethnic Germans and Italians from Latin America were brought to the U.S. during the war, as part of the Department of State’s Special War Problems Program, with many held at Crystal City. Millions of native-born Italians––later naturalized––and their American-born children lived in the U.S. when the country went to war with the Axis in 1941. In addition, there were also many Italian Enemy Aliens residing in the U.S., estimated at nearly 600,000. However, the percentage of Italians, classified as Enemy Aliens and interned during the war was far smaller than those interned from the Japanese and German American communities. Following the surrender of Fascist Italy in 1943, most Italian American and Enemy Alien internees were paroled or outright released by the end of that year. A few Italian Latin Americans, held in very small numbers at Crystal City, remained well after the end of the war.
By late 1942, the U.S. Army realized it needed to focus the efforts of it's Provost Marshal General's Office on the expected task of guarding hundreds of thousands of Axis Nations [Japan, German, and Italy] prisoners of war. In response, the DOJ gave the INS further authority to house potentially dangerous Enemy Aliens (including U.S. citizens) at internment camps throughout the U.S. Early in the war, many detained Enemy Aliens were fathers, and the INS faced an increasing number of requests from wives and children volunteering to be interned so they might be reunited with the head of their households. This need to house families together was the genesis of Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp, and part of this Texas site’s national significance as the only INS camp established specifically for families; housing all three Axis nationalities. In April 2013, the THC conducted a low-invasive archeological survey in an effort to gain a better understanding of the camp’s history. This survey is funded through a 2012 grant from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, and will aid the THC with its National Register of Historic Places nomination for the confinement site.
What Did The Confinement Site Look Like?
In Crystal City, the INS looked for a site that was removed from important war production facilities and had good existing water and electrical services. Noting the pressing need for the camp to open, the INS looked at Crystal City, where the U.S. Government already owned a large portion of land. During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration acquired land on the outskirts of this small southwest Texas town and built approximately 150 buildings to house migratory agricultural workers. In early 1942, the U.S. military reviewed the facility as a potential location to establish a training site, but that never materialized.
When the internment camp opened in December 1942, the site was approximately 240 acres in size, with 41 small three-room cottages and 118 one-room shelters (measuring 12x16 feet). Twelve of the original cottages were left outside the “fenced area” (100 acres in size) for use by official personnel and their families. With an expected increase in population and need for more housing, the DOJ confiscated an additional 50 acres to the south of the “fenced area,” dug a water well, and constructed a self-contained sewer system.
The INS purchased the camp’s utilities from the City of Crystal City, Central Power and Light, Texas Gas, and the Del Rio and Wintergarden Telephone Company. Within the fenced area, the INS constructed with the assistance of the initial German internees and the support of Japanese American internees––housing units consisting of 61 duplex, 62 triplex and 96 quadruple design barracks, and 15 additional three-room cottages for internees. As more and more internees arrived, the INS added 103 “Victory Huts” around the camp.
The Third Geneva Convention––Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929)––also applied toward the treatment of Alien Enemies interned in INS camps, monitored by the International Red Cross. These provisions applied to the amount of food, living space, and clothing that each internee received, often better than the housing and living conditions of the rationing public in Zavala County, Texas. To comply with international law and promote as positive an environment as possible, the INS designed the internment camp much like a small community with numerous buildings for food stores, auditoriums, warehouses, administration offices and a 70-bed hospital, places of worship, a post office, bakery, barber shop, beauty shop, school system, a Japanese Sumo wrestling ring, and a German beer garten. Internees printed four camp newspapers: the Crystal City Times (English), the Jiji Kai (Japanese), Los Andes (Spanish) and Das Lager (German).
Crystal City Family Internment Camp was staffed by local civilian employees in secretarial and clerical positions, civilian nurses and doctors, a professional cadre of INS administrators and Border Patrolmen. Later in the war, the INS employed local men from Crystal City as guards. J. L. O’Rourke was the officer in charge. Under O’Rourke internment camp functions were allocated to several key divisions: the Administrative Service, Surveillance, Internal Security and Internal Relations [originally called the Liaison Division], Maintenance, Construction and Repair, Education, and Medical.
The “fenced area” had a 10-foot high barbed wire barrier around the internee section, six guard towers with one located on each corner and half-way down the west-to-east axis, an armed guard who patrolled the fence line, and an internal security force patrolling both the Japanese and German sections of the camp.
In accordance with the Third Geneva Convention, no internee had to perform manual labor against their will. For those who wanted to work, they could earn 10 cents per hour up to a maximum of $4 per week. Jobs ranged from store clerks, hospital staff, librarians, laundry workers, shoe repairmen, furniture and mattress factory positions, janitors, barbers, and beauticians. Select internees worked in the INS administration offices. Internees with agricultural experience worked in the camp’s internal orange orchard, vegetable gardens, and the surrounding agricultural fields dedicated to the camp. In an effort to prevent internees from stockpiling cash in the event of an escape attempt, camp scrip was issued to internees. The camp scrip was pressed paper and plastic tokens that resembled coins or poker chips, but were not legal tender. There were no reported escape attempts, successful or otherwise, from Crystal City Family Internment Camp.
Schools in an Internment Camp
One of the most beneficial programs for internees established at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp was an accredited education program. Robert Clyde “Cy” Tate was hired to supervise the school system. Prior to joining the staff in 1943, Tate had served as the Crystal City High School principal. One of Tate’s initial objectives was to recruit qualified teachers to move to Crystal City and work in the camp’s schools. This was no easy task due to the uncertainty of the work’s duration and the remoteness of Crystal City. Challenged by the fact that each student was a transfer, Tate strived to meet state regulations concerning proper textbooks, teaching materials, and classroom space requirements per pupil.
Tate established three types of schools, the American (called Federal) School, the Japanese School, and the German School. Each school provided an elementary, junior high, and high school education. The Federal School offered an American-style education; the Texas State Board of Education inspected the schools and granted full accreditation for all courses taught. Some graduates eventually went on to U.S. colleges. Both the Japanese and German schools provided students with a background in their ancestral culture and language. Both Japanese and German American and Latin American internees served as teachers for non-federal schools and designed their own curriculum. While meeting the cultural needs of internees, the Japanese and German School systems assisted future voluntary and non-voluntary repatriates for life––after they were exchanged for U.S. and Allied personnel––in their ancestral home lands.
Federal High School, and its feeder school, Federal Elementary, provided students with both academic and athletic opportunities. Multiple softball and basketball and two football teams formed between 1943 and 1946, the year the school system closed. In 1944-1945, Federal High School students produced their own yearbook, the Roundup; published a school newspaper, the Campus Quill; held a prom; and participated in commencement exercises.
Recreation in an Internment Camp
A source of recreation and community, the camp’s Swimming Pool/Irrigation Reservoir was the camp’s largest defining feature (minus the security fence) and today is the most extant resource left of this nationally significant site. The 250-foot-wide-pool was designed by Italian-Honduran civil engineer Elmo Gaetano Zannoni. With German internees providing the labor, a former swamp was drained, cleared of snakes, expanded and paved over.
The German and Japanese bathhouses were built separately to allow Japanese internees and their German and Italian internee counterparts separate and equal access to the community swimming pool in congruence with the U.S.’ obligation as a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention, which was applied toward Alien Enemies and reads, “The Detaining Power shall assemble prisoners of war in camps or camp compounds according to their nationality, language and customs …”
The pool was enjoyed by children throughout the internment camp, and was a welcome relief from the hot summer sun. The pool’s deep end was filled-in with dirt after the war and today is distinguishable as a grass half-circle. The deep end of the pool facilitated three diving platforms. Between the deep end and shallow end are the metal piling remains of a safety cable that extended across the diameter of the pool, separating deep water from shallow. Tragically, in 1944, two Japanese Peruvian girls drowned while swimming in the pool when they slipped past the safety cable. Former Japanese American internee, Bessie Masuda from California (whose family was reunited with her father at Crystal City), commented in an oral history interview with the Texas Historical Commission on the tragic drowning of two young Japanese Peruvian girls who ventured into the deep end of the pool, “… I was wading with my friends in the pool and we actually saw the girl drowning in the deep end of the pool. We all grabbed hands and tried to reach them, but the floor was too slippery for us. It was so sad that we couldn't help…”
To the north of the Crystal City Family Internment Camp pool was the temporary Victory Hut section of the camp (see photo above) where mostly Japanese Peruvians were first quartered upon arriving at the camp. Victory Huts were four sided wooden walled military tent structures, purchased inexpensively, and erected rapidly for temporary emergency housing. Internee housing for the most part offered families individual cooking facilities, cold running water, and oil stoves. This section of the camp served as temporary housing for newly arriving internees as current residing internees were processed out for parole or repatriation. Many Latin American internees, regardless of nationality, primarily spoke Spanish and had difficulty communicating in the camp through English, Japanese, and German.
Japanese, German, & Italian Enemy Alien Internment & Repatriation
The interment camp’s population expanded throughout the war, and ultimately consisted of Japanese (Issei), Japanese Americans (Nisei), German American citizens, German nationals, Italian nationals, as well as Latin American Japanese, German and Italian, and a small group of Indonesian sailors.
During the war, the chartered Swedish ship, the SS Gripsholm sailed from the U.S. with internees from INS camps across the U.S. Two massive movements from Crystal City took place in February 1944 and December 1944/January 1945. Many of the internees held at Crystal City were now forced with trying to make a life in Germany or Japan on the brink of collapse as World War II wound down. By June 30, 1945, with Germany and Italy knocked out of the war, and Japan less than two months away from unconditionally surrendering to the Allies, Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp still had an internee population of 3,316. As the war drew to a close, U.S. authorities were faced with the problem of managing the internees still confined across the country. Part of the problem lay in how the internees should be designated. Those who voluntarily agreed to be sent back to their country of national origin were considered for possible return to the U.S. in the future. Included in this group were the American-born children of Axis nationals. The internees who did not volunteer or who were considered dangerous were classified as deportees and could not return to the U.S. permanently. By December 1945, approximately 1,260 Japanese Peruvians were exchanged out of Crystal City––600 to Hawaii and 660 to Japan––because Peru would not take them back after the war. Many Japanese Peruvians had to wait nearly two years after the war ended, caught in a legal limbo before their release. To that end, the INS encouraged remaining Japanese internees to find a sponsor after parole. A canning and farming company at Seabrook Farms, New Jersey sponsored and hired the majority of the remaining internees.
The Crystal City Family Internment Camp closed on February 27, 1948, nearly 30 months after the end of the war on September 2, 1945. In November 1948, the Crystal City Independent School District purchased 90 acres of the camp, primarily within the fenced area, from the War Assets Administration. To the north and east of the fenced area is where the camp’s athletic fields were located during the war. In 1952, the city purchased this portion of the camp to establish an airfield.
Today, eight distinct panels––dedicated by the Texas Historical Commission and the City of Crystal City in November 2011––make up an interpretive trail at the former confinement site. Heritage tourists looking to learn more about the site should stop by the Crystal City Memorial Public Library located next to City Hall at 101 E. Dimmit Street and request a copy of the free brochure that accompanies the interpretive signage project.
To learn more about Texan involvement in World War II please visit the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.
Oral History Interviews
THC historians have conducted a number of oral history interviews with former Japanese, German, and Italian (U.S. citizen and Enemy Aliens) interned at the Crystal City confinement site, as well as a number of U.S. citizens that worked at the camp or lived in Crystal City during World War II. Below is a list of oral history abstracts. Please contact the THC directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an in person appointment to review oral history interview recordings and transcripts.
U.S. citizen and former War Relocation Authority internee who visited his family while they were held at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war.
Heide (Gurcke) Donald
Former German-Costa Rican whose family was arrested and deported by the Costa Rican government during the war. Her family was held at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp beginning in 1943.
U.S. citizen who was born in Texas during World War II. The Howell family was taken into custody in Fort Worth in December 1941, and was reunited in Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war.
U.S. citizen from New York City, New York who along with his family was held at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war. During the war his family was exchanged/repatriated to Germany, eventually returning to the U.S. after the war.
Japanese American internee from California, who along with her family was held at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war.
Japanese American internee from California, her family was reunited with her father at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war.
Audrey Moonyeen (Neugebauer) Thornton
Born in London, England, she and her British mother and German father left Venezuela during the war for Costa Rica, where they were arrested and deported to the U.S. Her family was interned at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp during the war.
U.S. citizen who was born in Texas, she lived and worked in Crystal City during the war and commented on the confinement site from the perspective of, “the other side of the fence.”
U.S. citizen that grew up in post World War II Crystal City. Interview comments on the confinement site's post war use and physical landscape.
U.S. citizen whose family moved to Crystal City during the war when her parents took employment at the confinement site.
U.S. citizen that lived at the former confinement site after World War II when the camp was sold to the city and converted into small family housing.
- The first two of eight interpretive markers are located at the corner of E. Holland Dr and 7th Avenue.
- City of Crystal City
- Phone: 830-374-3478
- Website: N/A
Map & Directions
View Crystal City Family Internment Camp in a larger map.
Located in Zavala County, part of the Hill Country Trail. Stop by City Hall at 101 East Dimmit to obtain permission to walk the site (which is a public school today). Guide brochures are available next door to city hall at the Crystal City Memorial Public Library.
Top: Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp, Courtesy of Texas Country Reporter
Bottom: War Relocation Authority, 1943