‘Train to Crystal City’ Tells Story of Secret Prisoner Exchange Program


“The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II” by Jan Jarboe Russell has been released by Simon & Schuster.

train to crystal cityThe book tells the dramatic and little-known story of a secret American internment camp in Texas during World War II, approved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where thousands of families — including many U.S. citizens — were incarcerated.

From 1942 to 1948, trains delivered thousands of civilians from the United States and Latin America to Crystal City, a small desert town at the southern tip of Texas. The trains carried Japanese, German, Italian immigrants and their American-born children. The only family internment camp run by the Department of Justice during World War II, Crystal City was the center of a government prisoner exchange program called “quiet passage.”

During the course of the war, hundreds of prisoners in Crystal City, including their U.S.-born children, were exchanged for other, “more important” Americans — diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians, and missionaries — behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany.

Focusing her story on two American-born teenage girls who were interned, Russell uncovers the details of their years spent in the camp; the struggles of their fathers; their families’ subsequent journeys to war-devastated Germany and Japan; and their years-long attempt to survive and return to the U.S., transformed from incarcerated enemies to American loyalists.

Their stories of day-to-day life at the camp, from the ten-foot-high security fence to the armed guards, daily roll call, and censored mail, have never been told.

Combining big-picture World War II history with an event in American history that has long been kept quiet, “The Train to Crystal City” reveals the wartime hysteria against the Japanese and Germans in America, the secrets of FDR’s tactics to rescue high-profile POWs in Germany and Japan, and how the definition of American citizenship changed under the pressure of war.

A Neiman Fellow and a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, Russell has written for The San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. She is the author “Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson” and also compiled and edited “They Lived to Tell the Tale.” She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell Jr.



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