Open land and a warm climate marked Texas as prime real estate for prisoner of war camps during World War II. In fact, by 1944 there were more than thirty POW camps in Texas, about twice as many camps as any other state in the U.S. At the end of the war, Texas was “home” to more than 78,000 enemy prisoners.
The reasoning behind such an accumulation? The Geneva Convention of 1929, which requires that prisoners of war be held in a similar climate to that in which they were captured. Since many Germans and Italians were detained in North Africa, it was decided they would be taken to Texas because the region was considered similar in climate. With an influx of able-bodied men and women, it didn’t take long for the state to get the POWs to work (more than 750,000 Texans went to war leaving behind farms and ranches) picking fruit, harvesting rice, and baling hay.
A few of the camps were run more like small communities or college campuses than POW camps. Among the most extravagant were Seagoville and Crystal City, internment camps or relocation areas that were operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Justice. At first glance, the camp at Seagoville, which held mostly women prisoners from Central America and South America, looked more like a campus, with colonial-style redbrick buildings, rolling lawns, and paved sidewalks. Inhabitants lived in single and double dormitories that included kitchens with a refrigerator, a gas stove, a dishwasher, and dining rooms with linens and china.
Crystal City was the largest INS internment camp. At its peak, in May 1945, the camp held 3,326 prisoners. It was so large that it operated more like a small town, with internees filling jobs and working to keep the community on its feet. The city had four schools, including language schools where internees taught; two softball leagues; a chapel with more than thirty internee priests and ministers; and a 24-hour hospital and clinic where internees performed more than a thousand operations. Today, the old Crystal City camp is part of the Crystal City Independent School District—there are remnants of buildings, swimming pools, streets, and a monument that Japanese Americans built in memory of this somewhat forgotten piece of Texas history.