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New Book Reveals The U.S.’s Secret WWII Prisoner Exchange Program

by Tasbeeh Herwees

January 22, 2015
Aerial photo of the Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility. Image via the Texas Historical Commission.

Anyone who’s been through the fourth grade is probably familiar with the U.S.’s dark history of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. A much lesser known story, however, is being brought to light in a new book called The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell which details how the U.S. secretly kidnapped thousands of Japanese-, German- and Italian-Americans to use in a clandestine prisoner exchange program called “quiet passage”. The Roosevelt administration repatriated people of Japanese, German and Italian descent, many of whom were born in the U.S., in swaps for American prisoners held hostage during and after wartime. In the meantime, the kidnapped civilians were interned at Crystal City from 1942 to 1948, when the internment camp was shut down.

“In the run-up to the war, the president realized that Americans would be tracked behind enemy lines in Germany and in Japan, especially,” said Russell to NPR. “And he charged the Special War Problems Division with creating pools of people that he could trade for important Americans - soldiers, diplomats, businessmen, journalists, missionaries.”

Russell interviewed about 50 people who were children when they were interned at the camp, but focuses the story on two teenage girls—Ingrid Eiserloh and Sumi Utsushigawa—who were born in the U.S. but were repatriated to Germany and Japan, respectively, with their families.

“The Germans thought that these American-born kids were spies,” said Russell. “And despite all of that, these people - Ingrid and Sumi and a lot of other kids that were in the Crystal City camp traded with their families into war became astonishingly resilience American loyalists and made their way back to the United States after the war was over, even though their country had betrayed them.”

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New Book Reveals The U.S.’s Secret WWII Prisoner Exchange Program