Preserving Second World War Internment History


Dr. Lila R.: I�m a World War I and early
modern siege warfare specialists, so I’d like to talk to you about World War II.
Sorry about that. The internment of… sorry about that. Thank you. The internment of thousands
of Japanese Americans is one of the most recognized aspects of the home front during World War
II. In contrast, the role Texas played in World War II civilian internment is less widely
known among the general public, even within the state. Internment arguably continues to
be seen as something that happened elsewhere, in the abstract, or else on the West Coast
and divorced from its Texas connections. Equally problematic is the general lack of
recognition of other aspects of the internment program, that ethnic Germans and Italians,
foreign as well as American-born, were also impacted. That some were removed from Latin
America and brought to the United States against their will, despite no evidence that they
were a danger to American national security. And that some of these same individuals, including
American citizens, were deported to Axis countries in exchange for Americans held in Germany,
Italy, or Japan. Over the last 20 years, commendable efforts
have been made to combat this general lack of awareness. Texas-specific works, such as
those produced by Robert Thonhoff and Jan Jarboe Russell, have both drawn much needed
attention to two Texas sites. These have served as a good historical backdrop to some of the
firsthand accounts produced by former Texas internees. In the last decade, these attempts
to publicize the mass internment that took place here 75 years ago has only intensified.
Notably, the Texas State Historical Association added an entry on Texas World War II internment
to its popular digital resource, the Handbook of Texas Online. And over the last couple
of years, the subject has received increased scrutiny by Texas journalists, as well as
serving as the focus of both a young adult novel and documentary short.
As the primary state agency tasked with historic preservation, the Texas Historical Commission,
or THC for short, has played a unique role in helping to amplify this history. It has
done this through a variety of its established government programs, but particularly through
its Military Sites Program. This paper will summarize the key activities carried out by
THC within the last 15 years, and the partnerships that formed in the process with former internees
and their families, local communities, federal agencies, and other government entities at
the state, county, and local level. It will also highlight THC’s three main objectives
in all its internment-related projects to date: improving onsite and local interpretation,
disseminating information to a wider audience, particularly through digital means, and preserving
the current tangible and intangible heritage while carrying out new investigations. The
achievements here are modest but ongoing, and I think reflect the realities often faced
by historic preservationists when confronted with challenging sites. We do what we can,
where we can, with what we have. So in 2008, the Military Sites Program was
contacted with an unexpected offer. Two years prior, the 109th Congress had passed Public
Law 109-441. Its purpose was to provide for the preservation of the historic confinement
sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II, for the purpose of identifying,
researching, evaluating, interpreting, protecting, restoring, repairing, and acquiring them in
order that present and future generations may learn and gain inspiration from these
sites, and that these sites will demonstrate the nation’s commitment to equal justice under
the law. The resulting program, the Japanese American Confinement Sites, or JACS, was placed
under the administration of the National Park Service. For the right kind of project, funds
might be available. The partnership that followed from that phone
call would span over a decade and include four separate JACS grants. These grants were
applied to a variety of projects, created and executed by THC staff and its contractors,
with the help of private citizens, local communities, and other institutions. One behind the scenes
group that I would like to mention here for special mention is the Friends of the Texas
Historical Commission. Incorporated in 1993, this 501(c)(3) and 509(a)(3)
tax exempt nonprofit organization supplements the agency’s biannual budget by obtaining
private sector funds to support THC program initiatives. The diverse activities they have
helped fund include digital and print publications, the creation of web pages, workshops, internships
for university students from underrepresented groups, the placement of monuments, archeological
investigations, and the collection and curation of oral histories. The Friends, as they’re
known, also fundraise for capital projects such as the new museum at the San Felipe de
Austin State Historic Site, and play a crucial role in securing donations after major disasters.
More recently, the Friends have been especially active in fundraising to repair the damage
caused by Hurricane Harvey to Fulton Mansion State Historic Site, and the nearly complete
destruction of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site by a tornado in April of this year. Their
administrative oversight of the JACS funds and the projects that resulted was the cornerstone
of THC’s commitment to internment-related projects over the last 15 years.
So the last few decades have been marked by growing global commitment to recognizing,
preserving, and providing interpretation for what had been termed “places of pain and shame.”
Examples include massacre sites, sites of internment and/or extermination, civil and
political prisons, asylums, and other places associated with exploitation, conquest, and
cultural genocide. One related aspect of this has been the simultaneous development of what
John Lennon and Malcolm Foley have coined “dark tourism.”.
In the United States, the effort to acknowledge our shameful history of World War II civilian
internment, especially at the site level, is relatively new. A major turning point was
the formal government apology and financial compensation that occurred during the Reagan
and Bush administrations. The establishment of Manzanar National Historic Site in California
in 1992, followed by Minidoka Internment National Monument in Idaho in 2001, quickly established
the National Park Service as leaders in this field.
In the minds of many Americans and certainly many Texans, this increased visibility of
Japanese American World War II internment, and the preservation efforts of some of the
western sites connected to it, provide further reason for them to associate World War II
internment as a primarily West Coast phenomenon. Japanese ancestry, an estimated 120,000, and
the majority of these individuals… sorry about that, let me rephrase. President Franklin
Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9006 had disproportionately impacted those of Japanese ancestry, an estimated
120,000. And the majority of these individuals were dispersed through 10 confinement sites
administered by the War Relocation Authority, most of which were located in the western
third of the country. But over 31,000 additional civilians, roughly
11,500 ethnic Germans and 3,000 ethnic Italians, were interned by the US Department of Justice
with the involvement of additional government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Immigration and Naturalization Services, and the Wartime Special Defense Unit.
So Texas contained five World War II Civilian Confinement Sites, none of which were administered
by the WRA. Instead, three were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice’s
Immigration and Naturalization Services, or INS, and were located at Seagoville, near
Dallas, and Kenedy and Crystal City in South Texas. Two additional temporary detention
stations were run by the United States Army, one at Fort Bliss, and the other Dodd Field
at Fort Sam Houston. From the outset, all five Texas sites have
posed significant preservation challenges. One of the most difficult for the THC to navigate
was site access for tourists, and the potential for visitor engagement. Fort Bliss in El Paso
and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio are two of the busiest military installations in the
nation. Onsite interpretation would be further inhibited by current military use of the grounds
and buildings, restricted entry inside both bases, and an already in-place interpretive
narrative established by the federal government, which would put limitations on the heritage
tourism measures THC could and should seek. Similar complications applied to Seagoville.
After the war, it was converted into a federal prison, and is currently a low-security federal
correctional institution. The two remaining former detention sites, Kenedy and Crystal
City, suffer from accessibility and engagement issues of a different type. Both are located
in rural areas of South Texas. Kenedy has about 3,500, population of 3,500, Crystal
City, about double that. Both have suffered the loss of majority of
their wartime structures. With these challenges in mind, THC staff gave serious thought to
both the desirability and feasibility of what could be delivered to improve the preservation
and interpretation of these five sites. So I just want to share with you, before I
get into the specifics, this is a list of what I’m calling the deliverables that THC
produced during this period through four successive JACS grants. If any of you would like to add
anything to this list, please come and talk to me. But I’d like to talk a little bit more
about some of these in greater depth. And the first of the three primary objectives
that I mentioned earlier was onsite and local interpretation. And this fits into THC’s model,
which stresses heritage tourism and getting local partners engaged in the process.
So those of you who are familiar with Texas, and those of you who like to mock Texas for
it, one of the things that we are known for is our State Historical Marker Program. In
Texas, this commemoration goes back as far as the 1850s. In the decades that followed,
various government representatives sporadically would continue to commemorate sites within
Texas, often working in conjunction with groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution
to install granite monuments and plaques at sites deemed to be important to Texas history.
In 1962, this process was formalized by the creation of the current State of Texas Historical
Marker Program, first administered by the Texas State Historical Survey Committee. To
date, more than 16,000 of these iconic markers have been placed throughout the state’s 254
counties, now under the authority of the Texas Historical Commission.
A major transformation came in 2006 when the THC initiated its Undertold Marker Program.
The Undertold Marker Program prioritizes marginalized and underrepresented histories, and for the
first time, allowed applications to originate outside of a county historical commission.
So with the creation of the Undertold Markers, this allowed us to, within a period of a few
years, establish markers at each of these sites. So THC has placed State Historical
Markers at all five internment sites and in addition, Kenedy has the added distinction
of having a designated Historic Texas Cemetery within its boundaries. And you should be able
to see it on the far right. It’s slightly different in look to the others.
So I’m going to talk a lot about Crystal City. Crystal City arguably has a disproportionate
amount of deliverables associated with it for reasons that I’ll talk about. But as you
can see from this slide, this is an aerial representation, modern, and the red stars
mark the locations where we placed historic panels, not our State Historical Markers,
but interpretive panels. THC chose to build on the momentum of markers by obtaining a
second JACS grant that provided additional interpretation to aid visitors in better understanding
the site. This was considered especially necessary due to the sprawling size of the former camp,
which was approximately 300 acres in size. It began much smaller, but over time the US
government acquired more land. It has also changed drastically since the
1940s, the near total loss of its original structures and also the addition of new buildings
into the landscape. So for these panels, content was assembled by THC staff for a total of
eight. They were thematic, and as you can see, we tried to place them throughout the
camp at sites that would be particularly meaningful. So for example, the site of a former swimming
pool, which I believe is there, it’s there. The intended audience for these panels was
residents from the adjacent housing development, students from the school that occupies part
of the former camp site, and also former internees and their families who periodically make return
visits to the site. These thematic panels contain a variety of information pertaining
to work and leisure time within the camp. For children, because this was a family internment
camp, school and play time. Other darker aspects that were covered include the removal of people
of Japanese and German descent from Latin America, and in some cases, the deportation
of German and Italian descent individuals during the war in exchange for Americans held
abroad. So these were some of the topics covered in the panels.
So we acknowledged… Oh, and here I’ve included all eight panels, so that you can get a sense
of what the panels look like. These panels were dedicated in November of 2011. And you
can see on the left, this is the day of the dedication. And some of the individuals that
are gathered around it are actually former internees and their family members. So we
were very fortunate that several of them were able to actually join us for the dedication.
We also continue… oh, it’s just… oh, there it is. We’re also very fortunate in that its
proximity to the school means that schoolchildren continue to have access to this. And I took
the picture on the right on the day of a much later dedication. And what was particularly
gratifying is that the children ran straight over, started looking at the panels. And their
teacher confirmed that they had actually been covering a World War II internment that very
day. So he might’ve just been saying that for my benefit, but I choose to believe him.
We also recognize, however, that not all individuals would have the ability to go to the former
camp site or traverse over all of the acreage, some of which is in private property or private
hands. So we created five pop-up banner stands and donated them to Crystal City officials,
and also the local school there, so that they could actually use them. And it was very important
to us that, with them being pop-up banner stands, they’re very portable. So they can
used and reused at events. They can also be loaned to other organizations such as civic
groups. So one of our priorities was also to get this
information to a wider audience outside of the local community. And one of the easiest
ways to do that, I say easiest, it’s not easy, is through digital content. One of our JACS
grants actually paid for the creation of six new web pages for THC. So once the web pages
were complete and went live, we actually went from having virtually little to no information
about Texas internment on our website to having arguably one of the best sources, certainly
for Texas public history websites at that time on the subject of Texas internment. So
much so that if you continue to do Google searches on internment camps, Crystal City,
Texas, we’re routinely one of the top two or three hits that you will get.
We also created, with the JACS grant, two brochures, which, one of those I passed out
to you today. It’s a testimony to how, I hesitate to say popular, but we’ve actually run out
of the Crystal City brochures. Inquiries regarding the Crystal City Family Internment Camp are
fairly steady at certainly my program within Texas Historical Commission. So the Crystal
City Site continues to be one of the sites that people are particularly engaged with.
We also run a mobile app tour. And this was already in existence at the time that we received
our grant for digital content. In particular, we were creating the World War II on the Texas
Homefront Texas Time Travel Tours. The Texas Time Travel Tours, if you’re not familiar
with them, they are place-based navigation. And they allow travelers to visit the sites
grouped by select themes. So of course this theme was World War II, but we have other
themes as well. One of our more recent ones is on World War I, but we also have African
American heritage in Texas and various other topics. So I encourage you to check that out.
Most recently, in 2017, the Lone Star Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts
and Sciences recognized THC with a Lonestar Emmy Award for its World War I and World War
II digital content. So we were very, very proud of that.
And finally, the third priority, recognizing that we had limited resources to achieve this,
was what new information, beyond interpretation, could we perhaps generate for future generations?
And one of the ways that we did that was quite ambitious. So one of our last two JACS-funded
projects, we had been alerted to the existence of a mural at Seagoville Prison that was thought
to have been painted by one or more Japanese American internees. It was located in one
of the light wells. And it’s very difficult to make out, but this is the light well looking
down. So there’s a mural here, and here, and here. And they are in very poor condition.
Our working hypothesis was that the pastoral mural scenes might have been created as a
form of visual escape for internees wanting to take a break from their immediate landscape
of guard towers and barbed wire. Past Matters was hired to provide a condition assessment
and provide recommendations for potential future preservation efforts. In May of 2017,
staff traveled to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC in
College Park. But unfortunately, we failed to turn up any smoking guns, so to speak,
of the identity of the individual or group of individuals who might have painted the
murals. So due in part to security concerns, this
is after all, a working prison, what we decided here is that we weren’t going to be able to
install permanent interpretation panels like we had at Crystal City. So again, we went
for the pop-up banner stand route. And these are five that are being completed as we speak.
And they will be handed over to Seagoville Public Library and the warden of the prison.
And again, for use as they see fit. And the second ambitious project that we set
upon was a five-day archeological survey at Crystal City, which was carried out in April
of 2013. Due to time and money constraints, the decision was made to focus on two areas
with a high chance of yielding information. The former location of two bath houses near
the camp pool, as well as the below-ground remains of the Japanese elementary school.
Once again, we were disappointed. No artifacts dating to the site’s World War II period were
found. However, the excavation did have an unexpected silver lining. The final report
highlighted the potential survival of archeological features in other parts of the site as yet
uninvestigated, which provided crucial in establishing a much desired designation for
the site on the National Register of Historic Places. So we’re hoping that a follow-up archeological
investigation might take place at some point in the future.
And finally, one byproduct of our years of networking with former internees, their families
and friends, and groups such as the German American Internee Coalition, was the incredible
resource of having firsthand eye witnesses to internment. Consequently, between 2009
and 2011, 13 individuals agreed to donate an oral history interview to the THC. Five
were civilians who had either lived in the shadow of the camp or worked inside one. The
rest were former Texas internees of Japanese or German descent, all of whom were either
American-born or brought to the United States from Latin America and held in Crystal City.
The original recordings are held by the Texas Historical Commission in Austin. But in December
of last year, transcripts for most of these interviews were made available on our web
pages. The interviews often reveal intimate, more reflective observations about internment.
One common recollection, for instance, was of parents attempting to shield their children
by making their immediate environment less dreary. Former internee Art Jacobs recalled
his parents’ efforts soon after their arrival. “The first thing that my dad did, my mother
went into our quarters. And they were tarpaper shacks, you know, roughly. They were tarpapered
on the outside and there was no finishing on the inside. So my dad got some sort of
wallboard. I don’t know where he got it from. And then he painted the inside of our house.
And he had all kinds of techniques that he used, rags to roll colors down, to make it
look like what have you. So he made our quarters look like real quarters, you know what I’m
saying? He spruced them right up.” Internees recalled the gardening efforts taking
place in their midst, and of catching or being terrified of the snakes they sometimes stumbled
upon. Due to the severe South Texas heat, the camp pool was another topic that came
up frequently. A young Art Jacobs learned to dive in it. His fond memories were matched
by fellow internee Moonyeen Thornton, who recalled pretending to be a mermaid in its
waters. Bessie Masuda’s memories of the pool, however,
were much darker. �The deep end was roped off, but if you went near it, it was very
slimy. It sloped to a point where if you did go down, you would slip and go to the deep
end. We were playing, and somehow this friend of mine, she decided, we didn’t even know
she was to go to the deep side. But I guess she wanted to know what it was like. And so
she slipped, and started splashing around and yelling. I thought, ‘Oh my God, she might
be drowning.’ I got all my friends, because there were, I don’t know how many, maybe six,
seven of us. We held hands, tried to reach out to her. But it wasn’t easy, because we
were slipping too. Finally, I just gave up. I said, ‘No, no, no, pull me back.’ I said
to them, ‘I can’t reach her. By that time, someone had called for help. It was too late.
The first time I’ve experienced something like that, you know. I had nightmares for
the longest time. Today I don’t like water.” Collectively, the 13 oral histories cover
too many topics to adequately cover here. The anger and helplessness of an American
teenager and his family, sent to a country that viewed them with suspicion. Multinational
family rounded up in Costa Rica, sent to a remote place in Texas, and facing the possibility
of being separated and deported to different nations. Children too young to understand
what was happening, but impacted for years by the scars inflicted on their parents and
older siblings. So I’d like to leave on a higher note or a
more positive note. As THC’s association with Texas World War II internment history became
solidified in the public consciousness, or at least in people’s Google searches, a surprising
development occurred. People assumed we were an archival repository and offered to donate
internment-related artifacts, documents, photographs, and other items. True, as a state agency with
certain regulatory and records retention responsibilities, we are a repository of sorts. But beyond our
statutory duty to preserve and maintain the 22 State Historic Sites already in our care,
we simply were not equipped to acquire and properly store, display, and otherwise make
available to the public the various documents that were occasionally offered to us.
To address this problem, the Texas Historical Commission and Friends of the THC forged a
partnership in 2018 with the Research and Collections Division of the Dolph Briscoe
Center for American History in Austin. THC agreed to transition three internment-related
collections into their permanent care: the Ben Sira Construction Company photographs,
and you can see some images from that collection here; the Fossati Family Correspondence; and
the James O’Rourke Crystal City Internment Camp papers.
So the collection that would come to be known as the Fossati Family Collection arrived on
my desk in April of 2018. And you can see at the bottom there what it came in. It consisted
of 12 handwritten and typed letters in three different languages, sent between various
members of the Fossati family. Some interned in Crystal City, the rest back in California.
The donor was unrelated to the Fossati family, but revealed an interesting backstory to how
he acquired the letters. He described living next to “two elderly Italian sisters” in the
1980s. And when the last one died, their possessions were thrown into a nearby alley. He saw the
unusual return address, Crystal City Internment Camp, and thought they looked “historical.”
So he saved them from the alley and stored them away, and 30 years later, they found
their way to me. My favorite of that collection is the patriarch
of the family is complaining to his relatives in California about the location he’s in being
dry. And in this case, he means his inability to get access to wine. So I thought that was
quite funny. The final group of Crystal City-related documents
that came into our temporary custody is truly special. It includes the official government,
as well as personal post-war correspondence of the Camp Commander Joseph O’Rourke, as
well as photographs of him and internees and others, and a copy of his personal diary.
Of particular interest are the numerous letters to O’Rourke from internees during their internment,
but even more intriguingly, for years afterwards. And so I’ve included a photograph of a visit
that O’Rourke and his wife made to California at the request of a former interned family.
And so by all accounts, he was considered to be a fair man given the circumstances that
he was working in. But those are in the process. All three of
those collections are in the process of being digitized by the Briscoe Center. And I’m pleased
to report that they will be made available to the wider public later this year.
So at that, I can take any questions. Mary Striegel: Anyone have the first question?
Audience 1: Well that was fascinating. I wondered if you have had contact with or made any connections
between any of the POWs who are buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery and Fort Sam
National Cemetery. Dr. Lila R.: I have not. If you have information
to share, I would love to speak with you afterwards. Oh…
Audience 1: I’m fishing. Dr. Lila R.: Unfortunately… I will add to
that that, sadly, the Fort Bliss and Dodd Field sites are grossly underrepresented in
our catalog of information. And it’s not for lack of interest on our part. A lot of it
is just serendipitous. The contacts that you make have a particular connection to a site,
and you have to follow that lead. And it just worked out that Crystal City kept coming up
again and again. And so that was sort of what we did. But it’s definitely something that
I want to pursue, those two sites in particular. Mary Striegel: Who else has a question? Okay,
coming. Audience 2: Since my facility in Arizona is
only about 60 miles south of Poston, I’ve done a lot of research and done a presentation
regarding Poston and the War Relocation Authority. Today, now this is the second time I’m seeing
camps that apparently had nothing to do with the WRA. So I’m wondering under what authority
and whose jurisdiction were these people being interned.
Dr. Lila R.: So it was the Department of Justice, administered through different federal agencies
associated. It also changes over time a little bit, so it’s a difficult question for me to
answer. I can speak with you afterwards if you’d like.
Audience 3: Since the internment camps are governed, or were set up by a law, a federal
law, I think, I understand- Dr. Lila R.: Yes, executive order.
Audience 3: Does that provide somehow for ongoing maintenance funds? How do you go…
You’ve done an amazing job in the immediate time. How do you go forward and maintain this
level of commitment to interpreting the site? Dr. Lila R.: We would like to continue to
apply for funding from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program. It’s simply a matter
of prioritizing which projects and deciding what we want to go forward on. But as long
as that program continues to be funded, we’re going to continue to put together projects
and ask for funding. Mary Striegel: Okay. Well if you all can catch…

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