Finding Crystal City, Texas – WWII German Concentration Camp

Crystal City, Texas at dawn

Ongoing research for my upcoming novel led me to visit the remote and isolated town of Crystal City, Texas, the site of the largest World War II German concentration camp on U.S. soil. I won’t spoil all the reasons why, but I needed to see this place for myself and get a grasp on just how massive this place was back in 1944. I wasn’t disappointed

You may be familiar with the internment of 120,000 Japanee in camps throughout the west, but did you know that over 11,000 German-American immigrants, Italian Americans, and German American citizens were arrested and detained by the Department of Justice? The largest “concentration camp,” (officially known as “internment camps”) was this one in Crystal City. There are a few other camps scattered around the country, including at Ellis Island. These aren’t prisoners of war, these people were civilian political prisoners, not enemy combatants.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but before America had declared war on Germany, President Roosevelt issued an executive order, declaring that many Germans, Italians, and Japanese were now declared as enemy aliens under the Department of Justice (DOJ) Alien Enemy Control Unit Program.

Children play at Crystal City
Guards protect the perimeter of the camp, No prisoners ever attempted to escape.
Irrigation pond/ pool

All ethnic Germans came under suspicion. Many innocent American citizens were arrested, declared “enemy aliens” and stripped of their constitutional rights, not to mention their homes and property, and were eventually brought to places like Crystal City. Because all the men detainees were breadwinners, the DOJ allowed families to move into the camps and live in cottages that would accommodate an entire family. Crystal City had a German elementary and high school, playgrounds, daycare, a hospital, grocery store, meat market, and a large irrigation pool that was later converted to a swimming pool. While the camp met all requirements under the Geneva Convention, guards and barbed wire kept the people inside against their will.

Aerial view of Crystal City, with the Federal High School in the foreground

It took a “Freedom of Information” (FOI) request to discover the reason why so many innocent Germans were detained. It related to a secret plan by the DOJ to trade these German-Americans for American civilians being held by the Nazis. Lacking enough prisoners to exchange among those from the U.S. the DOJ put pressure on Latin American governments to send their German nationals to the United States. In all, an estimated 4,058 people were expelled and sent to the United States as part of the prisoner swap. They came from Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, in addition to a few from Haiti. A small number of these were believed to be Nazi party members. but only a few were ever convicted of any subversive behavior.

On two occasions, over a thousand Germans and their families were forcefully deported back to Germany in a one-for-one prisoner swap. These German-Americans were forced to find refuge in war-torn Germany, many who had no families there. They were refugees. People without a country. They were considered spies by the Germans, spies by the Americans. Some were imprisoned by the Gestapo.

Remnants of the Crystal City irrigation pond / pool
An old water tank near the pond/pool reads: ‘And justice for all. 1st National reunion, World War II internment camp. Historic swimming pool 1943-47. November 8-12, 2002. United We Stand.”
This interpretive marker using the terms “Family Internment Camp” was installed to contrast to the “concentration camp” marker below.

What I found were the concrete remnants of cottages, fences, and the massive irrigation pond that was painstakingly cleared of mud, muck, debris and hundreds of snakes.  The internees were paid ten centers per hour to pour concrete in the pond, to prevent algae from blooming and ruining the water for irrigation. It was seconded as a swimming pool with diving boards and a shallow end. The deep end of the pool was filled after the camp closed, but the cement remnants remain.

Many concrete foundations remain from homes and cottages

Several interpretive markers have been installed, explaining the purpose of the camp, the vast community it became, and the bitter memories that occurred. Former prisoners want people to know what happened here, hoping to get official recognition from the government. But all legislative efforts have failed, and it appears nothing will ever happen to compensate the victims, most of whom have already died.

Original marker installed by the families of detainees

Crystal City wasn’t closed until November 1947, more than two years after the war. Most German detainees were allowed to go free, as long as they signed an oath of secrecy, promising not to discuss their detention or deportation. Most of these Germans didn’t break that oath until 50 years after the war, which is why most people aren’t aware of Crystal City, or the injustices faced by over 11,000 German-Americans.

In 1988, the US government gave all living Japanese internees $20,000 and an official apology. As of today, no Germans have been compensated or offered an apology or given any redress for this injustice. If you’d like to check my sources and learn more, the German American Internees Coalition is a great resource. ( I would also recommend Janice Jarboe Russell’s New York Times Bestseller, “The Train to Crystal City.

This little known episode in American history is dark and full of intrigue. I’ll share more information as I get closer to the release of my book.

Finding Stalag 17

March 11, 2020

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