Friday, November 8, 2002


A monument put up by Japanese Americans and concrete foundations are all that remains to mark the entrance to the Crystal City Internment Camp, shown here in July.


Editor's Note: Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima visited Crystal City, Texas, this summer in search of his family's history. The city is the site of the World War II internment camp where his father and other family members were held.

By Craig Gima

... thousands were imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. Germans. Japanese. Italians. Latin Americans. All were held without formal trials. Many, including some from Hawaii, will relive the experience tomorrow.

CRYSTAL CITY, Texas >> My father doesn't remember much about the train ride that brought him to this rural Texas community when he was a child during World War II.

Most of the time, the shades were drawn on the windows because the guards didn't want people to see that there were Japanese Americans on board.

My father, my grandmother and aunt left Honolulu for an internment camp for families in Crystal City to be reunited with my grandfather, who was arrested by the FBI shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you've never heard of Crystal City, it's probably because like the train ride my father took, the shades have been drawn on the history of this type of internment camp.

That may begin to change this weekend when a reunion is held that will bring together for the first time Japanese and Germans who were interned here.

"It was a unique place," said Kay Kaneko, a Kona resident who was interned at the camp with her family. "I've got lots of memories of Crystal City. Some of them were lots of fun, and some are difficult to talk about."

Many people know about the relocation camps, like Manzanar and Tule Lake, where more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were interned under Executive Order 9066. Less known, however, are the stories of the roughly 50 internment camps, like Crystal City, where perhaps as many as 30,000 Japanese, Germans and Italians from the United States, the territory of Hawaii and Latin America were held.

Unlike the people held at the relocation camps who were forced to move from their homes but not necessarily arrested, the internment camp internees had been arrested and held without trial, some as long as three years after the war's end.

About 150 former internees and their families will recite the Pledge of Allegiance and march in the city's annual Spinach Parade tomorrow. Crystal City, the self-proclaimed "Spinach Capital of the World," holds an annual Spinach Festival, which attracts about 60,000 visitors. This year's theme is "And Justice for All," the last words of the pledge.

While the setting may seem slightly surreal -- amid the carnival, food booths, the Spinach Queen and her court and the spinach cooking contest -- those who are attending the reunion hope there will finally be an accounting of history and perhaps some healing.

A German family posed in front of the water tower inside the camp while it was in operation.

"It's going to be mixed emotions," said Eberhard Fuhr, a German-American former internee. "There are a lot of memories, and some of them are going to be painful."

Fuhr was 17 when the FBI came to his high school in Cincinnati and arrested him.

He reunited with his family at the camp, but they were still behind bars, and he said their lives were forever changed.

Fuhr is going to the reunion, he said, to find some closure and because a Texas state historical marker will be dedicated at what was the entrance to the camp. He said it is the first official recognition that Germans were interned during World War II.

"It's an incredible healing opportunity for the people who are all coming back," said Karen Ebel, whose father was interned in North Dakota at a camp for single men.

She said Germans who were interned during World War II have never had a chance to gather together to talk about what happened to them. "Some graduated from high school (in Crystal City) and have never been back. They've never had a high school reunion."

Internees at camps like Crystal City run by the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had a different status under the eyes of the U.S. government than the Japanese Americans who were put in relocation camps. Under Executive Order 9066, the Japanese were forced to leave their homes and were put in camps because the government ordered them out of the West Coast and other areas.

But most of those held in camps like Crystal City were arrested under the Alien Enemy Act of 1798, a law that is still on the books today.

Those arrested committed no crimes. Most were taken into custody because they were community leaders or because of suspicions, sometimes based on anonymous tips to the FBI.

The internment camps also held Japanese, Germans and Italians from Latin America who were arrested and shipped out of their countries solely because of their ethnicity.

One of the few pictures of the guard tower and fence of the camp.

Many internees believe they were rounded up because the United States wanted to exchange them for Americans trapped behind enemy lines when the war broke out, and several hundred people, including children born in the United States, were sent back to Germany or Japan.

Like Japanese Americans, the interned German Americans, Italian Americans and Latin Americans also lost their jobs, businesses, homes and possessions and suffered the stigma of internment.

Japanese internees from Peru, who are retracing their route from New Orleans to Crystal City this weekend, were not included in the original redress payments that Japanese Americans received.

There has yet to be a full accounting of the number of people taken to Crystal City and other internment sites like it. One estimate is that about 15,000 Japanese, 11,000 Germans and more than 3,000 Italians, many of them American citizens, were detained by the U.S. government.

My father, Alfred Gima, who was only about 10 or 11 at the time, has no desire to return to Crystal City.

"What for?" he asked.

My aunt, Adeline Oandasan, who was 4, mostly remembers being separated from my grandfather for at least a year and a half before they were reunited at Crystal City.

Their memories of the camp are similar to their memories of the house on Vineyard Boulevard where the FBI came to arrest my grandfather Henry Gima in 1942. It was just a place they lived.

My family believes my grandfather was arrested because he was a community leader and had taken trips back to Okinawa before the war.

"I didn't know what was going on. All I know is that we had to go," my father said recently of the internment.

He remembers the communal bathrooms, the large horned toads and the watermelons my grandfather and grandmother grew in their garden. My aunt remembers the snakes, scorpions and skunks. "They had fence all around (the camp)," she said.

There's not much left of the camp, which once covered 500 acres and housed 3,325 internees in 1945.

Concrete foundations stick up from an empty field. There's also the remains of a concrete irrigation tank built by the internees, which was used as a swimming pool. A historical marker will be dedicated there this weekend. The marker notes that two Japanese American girls, ages 10 and 11, drowned in the pool. A Buddhist priest will conduct a short service for them at the dedication.

At the entrance to the camp, a Japanese-American group put up a stone monument to mark the site.

Some of the houses that the internees lived in were sold to whoever wanted them for about $50 and moved off the grounds to locations all over the county. The land under the camp and some of the buildings was used for low-income housing. A middle school and elementary school sit on part of the camp, where the camp schools used to be.

But the children who go to school there are not taught about the history that took place on the ground beneath them. The Crystal City Internment Camp is not in the history textbooks, and so the students do not learn about it.

A grave marker at the campsite, shown here in July, reveals little about two people who died while interned.

Eleazar Salinas, the Crystal City manager, grew up in the area but said he's just learning about the camps now. "I had no idea," he said.

The site was originally a migrant farm labor camp. The population of Crystal City in 1942 was 6,529 residents, of which 5,550 were Mexican American, mostly farm workers. Those workers were evicted from their homes to make room for the internees, said Richard Santos, chairman of the Zavala County Historical Commission.

In meetings with community members about the camp, Santos said he discovered there was some resentment among those who were displaced by the internment camp, especially after the U.S. government produced a film showing how good life was in the camp for the internees as compared with the poverty outside the camp.

"They had cream pies in the movie, cream pies," said Arturo "Turi" Gonzales, a member of the historical commission who is helping with the effort to save what is left of the camp.

Santos calls the film "government propaganda." He cites an old Spanish saying, "It doesn't matter that the cage is golden, it is still a cage."

For the last several months, Santos has been researching and trying to preserve what's left of the camp and the documents that tell what happened there.

"It's a story that needs to be told," he said. He has dreams of turning the area into a national park.

The records that Santos has found indicate 17 people died at the camp, but he can only find four graves.

One of the graves is especially poignant. The marker is in Spanish for Ludwig Schuster Medina and Teofelina Medina De Schuster. It is apparently for a parent and child, Germans from Latin America.

Two years ago, a woman came to Crystal City from Chicago with her mother from Miami to find the grave and laid some plastic flowers and then left the same day.

Untold stories like that frustrate the historian in Santos, who also wonders where the other unmarked graves are.

"There was nothing like Crystal City, Texas. It ought to really be memorialized," says Art Jacobs, a former internee who has been trying to tell the story of Crystal City and German internees for 20 years to whoever will listen.

"It shouldn't be a dark secret. This is what happens during war, and people ought to know about it."

He started his quest while watching a television show on the Japanese internment. Jacobs heard the announcer say that just Japanese Americans were interned during the war.


This monument marks the entrance to the Crystal City Internment Camp.

"That can't be true," he said to himself. "I wasn't just dreaming I was there."

Kaneko also said the story needs to be told and is hiring a video crew to record the memories of the internees during this weekend's reunion.

Jacobs and Fuhr said that while the different ethnic groups lived in separate areas of the camp, the Japanese and German children went to school together and played intramural baseball and soccer.

"There was a lot of interchange between the different cultures," Jacobs said. "There were Japanese taking German (language) lessons and Germans taking lessons from Japanese instructors."

"Crystal City was a happy place because families were able to get together," Kaneko said. Some didn't know if mothers and fathers were alive until they got to the camp. "If they were going to send us to Japan, at least we were together."

The camp was run like a little city. Five languages were spoken: English, Japanese, German, Italian and Spanish. People had jobs and children went to school.

Jacobs said that after the war his family talked openly about the internment, but many others did not. "Some died in shame. They should never have done that," he said.

Ebel has been pushing a bill by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to establish a commission to look into the internment of European Americans, Italian Americans and Latin Americans during World War II.

"I've been instilled with Constitution and civil liberties and freedom. It just rubs me the wrong way," she said.

There are parallels to what is going on today," Ebel said. "Many people are sort of focusing on Arab aliens, stripped of constitutional rights because they are not citizens."

"The Japanese were kind of lucky in a way that we had the hearings, civil liberties hearings," Kaneko said. "We were able to bring it out."

Ebel said German Americans have not been organized enough to push for their stories to be told. The reunion this weekend, she said, may be the start of something bigger.

"We just as loyal as anyone else. We didn't participate in Holocaust, we didn't blow up any bridges and tunnels. We weren't spies," Fuhr said. "We ought to be called good, loyal Americans."

"I don't need any reparations. I don't need any apology. But they (the U.S. government) ought to just state what happened," Jacobs said. "War does a lot of terrible things.

"Unless we teach it, we'll never know how to preclude it from happening again."

View the government's video of the Crystal City (TX)Internment Camp (requires Real Player)

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