First of three parts

They arrived by train in the small, southwest Texas town. Men and women carried suitcases or boxes of personal belongings, with some balancing a toddler on a hip or a baby in their free arm. Children followed, watching and hoping for a smile on the face of their parents. From the train, they were taken to a new home. A place called Crystal City Family Internment Camp.

By late 1942, the U.S. Army realized it needed to focus the efforts of its Provost Marshal General's Office on the expected task of guarding hundreds of thousands of Axis Nations (Japan, Germany, and Italy) prisoners of war. The Department of Justice authorized the Immigration Naturalization Service to house potentially dangerous Enemy Aliens (including U.S. citizens) at internment camps throughout the U.S. Many wives asked that they and their children be interned with the men, so that the family could stay together.

The intended internment of people of Japanese ancestry and their immediate families changed on Dec. 12, 1942. The first to arrive was a mix of German-Americans and German Enemy Aliens. On Feb. 12, 1943, the first group of Latin Americans arrived and also Germans deported from Costa Rica. The first group of Japanese Americans arrived March 17, 1943.

The INS had looked for a site that was removed from important war production facilities and had good existing water and electrical services for housing the families. The United States government owned 240 acres with 150 buildings at Crystal City. It was constructed by the Farm Security Administration for migratory agricultural workers during the Great Depression, then abandoned. In 1942, the U.S. military had reviewed the facility as a potential location to establish a training site, but that never materialized.

When the internment camp opened in 1942, the housing consisted of 41 small three-room cottages and 118 one-room shelters, measuring 12-by-16 feet. Twelve of the original cottages were left on 100 acres outside the “fenced area” for use by official personnel and their families. Speculating the need for more housing with the growth of population, the DOJ dug a well and confiscated a self-contained septic system on 50 acres, also confiscated, outside the fenced camp.

In operation from mid-1942 through June 1945, the camp interned 4,751 people, of which 153 were born in the camp. The highest population was 3,374 on Dec. 29, 1944; more than two-thirds 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.

(To be continued)

“Genealogy is not only names and dates; it is also the history of the time and place of your ancestors.”

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Southern Arizona Genealogy Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at, where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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