On October 22, 1969, fifty students at the University of Texas at Austin climbed into the stately live oaks and cypresses that offered shade on the campus along Waller Creek and then refused to budge. Frank Erwin, the all-powerful chairman of the board of regents, had ordered the trees taken down to make way for an expansion of UT’s football stadium, and a fierce opposition had arisen. In an op-ed published in the Daily Texan, Alan Taniguchi, the dean of the School of Architecture, condemned Erwin’s decision to remove the trees. “Professionally observed, the environmental quality of our campus is bleak,” he wrote. “Buildings have taken precedence over open spaces, things have taken precedence over people.”

On the morning of the protest Taniguchi arrived to show moral support for the students. Erwin called in campus, city, and state law enforcement officers, who pulled the crusading students from the trees and arrested 27 of them. Soon after, Erwin’s bulldozers knocked down the mammoth trees, and the stadium got 15,000 new seats. To this day, people at UT still speak of “the Battle of Waller Creek.”

The Alan Taniguchi I met at a faculty senate meeting two years later was something of a celebrity. He had an imposing demeanor and was still a stalwart opponent of Erwin’s. To the ire of the steadfastly conservative chairman, Taniguchi spoke out regularly on campus and elsewhere against the Vietnam War. On one occasion he asked two FBI agents to leave the architecture building when he saw them photographing anti-war protesters from a window in the men’s restroom. When Erwin found out, he cut funding to the school of architecture to punish Taniguchi. 

I was attending the faculty senate meeting as a reporter for the Daily Texan. I was twenty years old, from a small town in the Piney Woods of East Texas, and had never before met an Asian person. After the meeting, I approached Taniguchi for a brief interview and asked him about his ancestry. He explained that he was Japanese but born in America. 

“How did you get to Texas?” I asked.

“My family was in camp here,” he said.

“Church camp?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” he said with a laugh.

Taniguchi told me that his father, Isamu, had been interned as a “dangerous enemy alien” in Crystal City during World War II. He explained that his family had been among the tens of thousands of Japanese arrested and incarcerated during the war, nearly two thirds of them American-born. As he spoke, his demeanor was calm, without a trace of self-absorption, but he said that the humiliations visited upon his family and thousands of others had left him skeptical about of government power, especially during wartime. He was a man of courage, which showed in the straightness of his posture and his willingness to take on Erwin. 

A year after our meeting, Taniguchi left UT to head the architecture school at Rice University. In the decades that followed, we saw each other occasionally, and the subject of our conversations inevitably returned to the Crystal City Internment Camp. Unlike many of the other camps throughout the country that have been written about extensively, the Crystal City camp is largely unknown. It opened in 1942 for the purpose of allowing German, Italian, and Japanese fathers who’d been identified as dangerous enemy aliens to be reunited with their wives and children. The Roosevelt administration cloaked the camp in secrecy because hundreds of Crystal City prisoners were being exchanged for American diplomats, soldiers, and missionaries who were being held behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany. Over the decades, that veil of secrecy has never really lifted. 

The last time I saw Taniguchi, in 1995, after he had moved back to Austin, he suggested that the story of Crystal City needed to be told, and he urged me to take on the task. I didn’t give his suggestion much thought, but four years ago, when I was in Austin, I decided to stop by his architecture firm, which is located in a 1930’s bungalow on West Sixth Street. I had recently read Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken, which tells the story of the World War II hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini, an Olympic runner who spent two and a half years in several Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. I remembered Alan’s own wartime trials and wanted to talk to him about the book. His son Evan, also an architect, greeted me and told me that Alan had died in 1998. I wondered how I had missed the news.

I asked Evan what he knew about Crystal City. He admitted that he didn’t know all that much—his father never spoke to him about his experiences at length—but he did give me something he thought I might find useful: a small file his father had kept on the camp. I opened it and saw a list of names of children who were incarcerated there. The children were now old men and women, who lived all over the world. The next day, I started calling them. 

The place where Earl G. Harrison, Franklin Roosevelt’s new commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stood on the morning of November 6, 1942, was so strange that it might have seemed imaginary. Before him lay a desolate prairie of dusty soil, dry cactus, and a variety of wild, dense shrubs. The small South Texas town of Crystal City was named for a vast stretch of artesian springs, by then dangerously dry because of a drought. The landscape was incongruous with the town’s name. When Anglo settlers streamed into Texas in the 1820’s, most colonists steered clear of this forbidding place. Locals called the region the Wild Horse Desert. It had a between-worlds feeling, not quite Mexico, not quite America. 

Harrison had traveled to Crystal City from his home in Philadelphia to consider the town as a location for what would become the largest INS camp during the war, and the only one dedicated to incarcerating entire families. The isolation of the city was a positive, as Crystal City was not a likely target for sabotage. It had a small train station, and there was a larger station in nearby Uvalde, which would allow families to be easily transported to the camp.

Texas certainly welcomed the idea of incarcerating suspected spies. There were already four internment camps in the state, in Seagoville and Kenedy and at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, and Fort Bliss, in El Paso. Harrison knew that the establishment of a camp in Crystal City would not provoke hostility. Anti-immigrant sentiment was high in Texas among conservatives, such as Congressman Martin Dies, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as liberals, such as San Antonio mayor Maury Maverick, who vowed to arm every officer in his city with a submachine gun to defend against German spies who might cross the border from Mexico. 

Harrison had many practical issues to consider, such as the fact that much of the camp would have to be built from the ground up, at an estimated cost of $1 million. Yet by the time Harrison boarded the train back to Philadelphia the next day, he had made his decision. Crystal City would be the location of the camp. 

On December 12, 1942, the first internees—35 German families—arrived in Crystal City. From 1942 to 1948, approximately 6,000 more joined them, mostly Japanese, German, Latin American, and Italian immigrants and their children. The 290-acre Crystal City Internment Camp was not just the only internment camp established for the purpose of reuniting families; it was also one of the few to house multiple nationalities. 

A ten-foot-high barbed-wire fence surrounded the camp. Guards with long rifles were positioned in six towers at the corners. Other guards, who wore cowboy hats and cowhide chaps, patrolled the perimeter on horseback. At night, the searchlights from the camp could be seen from across the border in Mexico. 

The Taniguchi family’s path to Crystal City began in Brentwood, California. Isamu, Alan’s father, had immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1914, when he was sixteen. He returned to Japan in 1920 to marry Sadayo Miyagi, who was from his village. Twenty-two years later he was a well-respected, affluent farmer who worked more than four hundred acres in the San Joaquin Delta and organized the Brentwood Produce Association, a local cooperative that shipped various crops to the East Coast. 

Around noon on March 7, 1942, Isamu, Sadayo, and Alan’s younger brother, Izumi—were gathered at home for lunch. Another farmer, who was staying with the family, had joined them. Two FBI agents and a local constable pulled up in the driveway. Isamu was not surprised, as most Japanese farmers had been arrested by then. He had already packed his suitcase. One of the FBI agents was young, with red hair and a spring-loaded temper; the other was calm and more experienced.

As the agents searched the house, Alan, who was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, arrived. In an oral history recorded in 1995 for the University of North Texas, he explained what happened next: “The [younger agent] approached me and said that he, himself, came from Ireland when he was six years old, and he was 100 percent Americanized. ‘Here you are, eating fish with chopsticks. You’ll never get Americanized.’ He was kind of nasty about it.” Isamu sat silent during this diatribe, and his family followed his lead. But the other farmer could not contain his anger. “He jumped up and said, ‘Goddammit, you still eat your Irish potatoes!’ ” Alan recalled. “The [agent] drew his gun.” The other agent quickly defused the situation, and the search of the house continued.

By then, Isamu and Alan had already turned in all the contraband they owned—shortwave radios, cameras, and rifles were all forbidden—to the constable’s office. The agents found nothing. Wordlessly, Isamu picked up his suitcase and was taken to the county jail. 

Isamu was quickly transferred to an INS detention facility in San Francisco, where Alan, who was nineteen, and Izumi, who was sixteen, paid him a visit.  In an oral history recorded for the Japanese Amercian Citizens League, Izumi said that Alan was seeking advice on what to do in their father’s absence. “My older brother assumed the responsibility for taking care of things now because my mother was not too proficient in English,” Izumi said. Alan dropped out of college to move home, but there was not much for him to do. A few weeks prior to Isamu’s arrest, President Roosevelt had issued an executive order giving the military broad power to incarcerate citizens, which led to the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese. Alan arrived just in time to join his brother and his mother as they prepared for their departure. He turned over the family’s farm and equipment to a neighbor and sold most of their belongings. 

Isamu was granted the usual hearings, and the accusations against him were both absurd and unsurprising. On the farm, Isamu had an incinerator that he pulled behind a tractor to burn brush. In one hearing, he was accused of sending smoke signals to the Japanese. FBI agents also suspected him of arranging the large muslin sheets that were used to protect tomato beds from frost in arrow shapes that supposedly pointed toward military installations. “Some of the charges were ridiculous and some were comical,” said Izumi. “These are some of the things that hysteria generates in wartime.”

Though he was not officially charged with anything, Isamu was classified as a dangerous enemy alien, and the family was split up. Isamu was taken to the Santa Fe Internment Camp and then transferred to an internment camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Sadayo, Alan, and Izumi were interned in crowded barracks at the Gila River Relocation Center, in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, where temperatures rose to 125 degrees in the summer and dropped to 30 degrees in the winter. The rules of the camp required that all of the 13,000 internees be in their barracks by nine and lights-out by ten. Guards in sentry towers had orders to shoot anyone who came within twenty feet of the fence. 

In February 1943, nearly a year after the Taniguchi family had been torn apart, President Roosevelt announced that he had lifted a ban on Japanese Americans’ serving in the military. “Loyalty questionnaires” were distributed to every internee over the age of seventeen in camp. The purpose of the test was twofold: to identify nisei (people of Japanese ancestry who had been born in America) for military service and to determine the loyalty of Japanese fathers and their American-born sons. The list of questions was long, but the loyalty test came down to two yes-or-no questions. Question 27, distributed only to nisei such as Alan and Izumi, read, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?” Question 28 read, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?” 

Those who answered yes to both questions were known as the “yes-yes” boys and were considered loyal; those who answered no were the “no-no” boys and considered disloyal. Men such as Isamu were asked to give up allegiance to the country of their birth and swear allegiance to a country that had imprisoned them without charges. For Isamu and other Japanese fathers, the prospect of their American-born children fighting against Japan represented a crucible. Sons wrestled with their allegiance to the country of their birth and their duty to their parents. In every family, battles were waged between father and son.

Before filling out the questionnaire, Alan asked for permission for him and his brother to visit their father in New Mexico to discuss them. Permission was granted, and the two young men traveled to see Isamu. During the face-to-face meeting, their father demanded that both of them answer no-no and refuse to join the American military. Alan was old enough to be drafted, and Izumi was just two years away from eligibility. Even though both sons had been born in America, had pledged allegiance to the flag, and had sung the National Anthem, Isamu now expected them to put their loyalty aside and think of themselves as men without a country. Izumi bitterly refused. He told his father that he’d never been to Japan and that his loyalty was to America. Alan was more measured but equally firm: he told his father that he would do whatever was necessary to stay in the United States, his homeland.

When the brothers returned to Gila River, Alan realized that though he wanted to answer yes-yes to the two questions, he could not bring himself to completely defy his father. He told authorities that he was happy to answer yes to the first question but that until his own constitutional rights were restored and his family was released from internment, he would not answer the questionnaire at all. Officially, that made Alan a no-no. 

In the spring of 1943, Isamu asked for a transfer to the Crystal City Internment Camp, where he would be reunited with Sadayo and Izumi. Alan, who was no longer a minor, stayed behind in Gila River and filed a petition for release in order to pursue his education. His no-no status prolonged the process, as he was repeatedly questioned about his loyalty, but after numerous hearings, he was granted permission to leave. He moved to Detroit, where he lived with relatives and resumed his studies, at the Detroit Institute of Technology.

In Crystal City, Isamu made himself useful to the administration. He worked long hours as the supervisor of the carpentry shop, building tables and chairs, repairing walls, and constructing new buildings. In his spare time, he devoted himself to planting gardens. But even though he kept busy, Crystal City was a place of humiliations and deprivations, small and large. Censors read the incoming mail of internees and cut out portions that related in any way to the war effort. Internees were allowed to write only two letters and one postcard per week. These too were censored. Comic books were confiscated for fear they contained coded messages. Officials kept a dossier on each internee. A small police force patrolled the camp. Prisoners met visitors—friends or relatives—in a hut in the presence of surveillance officers. The roll calls seemed endless. Three times a day a whistle blew, and everyone in camp had to run back to their cottages and huts, form lines, and stand still for the count. Absences were noted. 

Isamu despaired at his family’s internment, and in the summer of 1943 he filed repatriation requests for himself, his wife, and Izumi, which meant they would be exchanged for Americans held behind enemy lines in Japan. Alan traveled to Crystal City to urge his father to reconsider, and again the bond between father and son was strained. When Alan entered the camp, a group of Japanese leaders summoned him to a meeting, where they upbraided him. “They told my brother that he was disloyal to his father,” Izumi said in his oral history. Alan, in his memoirs, said that these men told him that his father had authority over the entire family and that Alan was bound to obey him. Alan bristled at these notions and told his accusers that there was no place for him or his brother in Japan. They were American-born, they had their own lives to lead, and they would stay in America. 

After the volatile meeting, Isamu relented. He could not go against both of his sons. He asked to withdraw his application for repatriation. Ordinarily, such a request would have been denied. But Joseph O’Rourke, the officer in charge of the camp, was fond of the family and reliant on Isamu’s skills. He approved the request, and the family stayed. In August 1945, Alan petitioned for his younger brother’s release from Crystal City, which was granted. “I want one thing only,” Isamu told his sons in a letter he wrote shortly after Izumi left camp. “Peace.”

In September, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the news of Japan’s surrender traveled through camp, despite a ban on news of the war. “I could hear grown men crying all over the camp, including my father,” said Yae Kanogawa, who was interned in Crystal City as a teenager. “Many of them didn’t believe Japan had lost the war. They thought it was just propaganda. They couldn’t accept it. All of us kids in camp knew it was true, and we were glad the war was over.”

Isamu continued to tend his plants and craft bonsai trees. He believed the news; indeed, it came as a revelation to him. “It was like watching the world come to an end,” he later wrote in an essay. “The radiation from atomic bombs, which started from Pika-don [the flash and sound of an explosion] over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shines in every corner of our skulls, analyzing right and wrong, flying over our heads with the humming sound, becoming a god-whip to kill instantly, pressing us to act in repentance.”

Isamu and Sadayo were finally released from Crystal City in February 1946. Alan and Izumi, who had been staying with his brother, drove from Detroit to help their parents pack their belongings and take them beyond the barbed-wire fence into freedom. They drove to their old home in Brentwood and attempted to make a fresh start, but the sentiment in California was still hostile to Japanese people. An embittered Isamu soon decided to leave. The couple moved to San Benito, in the Rio Grande Valley, where Japanese farmers Isamu had met during his internment had invited him to settle. Isamu found it to be a much more welcoming place and established a large vegetable and cotton farm. Two years later, on February 27, 1948, Crystal City officially closed. 

With their parents safely settled in Texas, Alan and Izumi were eventually able to get back to the sorts of lives they had expected to lead before their internments. Izumi joined the Army, serving in the fabled Military Intelligence Service in occupied Japan, where he interrogated prisoners of war and facilitated communications between the U.S. military and the defeated Japanese population. Historians have credited the MIS with winning the peace in postwar Japan. After his discharge, Izumi, like his brother, followed an academic path, receiving a Ph.D. in economics and taking a job as a professor at California State University, Fresno. He was also active in the Japanese American Citizens League. 

Alan resumed his education at Berkeley and graduated in 1949; he then married Leslie Etsuko Honnami, who had been interned at a camp in Utah during the war. He went to work for a prestigious architectural firm in San Francisco, where he helped design prototypes for California subdivisions filled with mid-century modern homes. In 1952 he and Leslie moved to Harlingen to be near his parents. Alan designed and built Isamu and Sadayo a large mid-century home in San Benito, the first example of that style of architecture in the Valley. He opened his own practice, which thrived for ten years and won design awards from the Texas Society of Architects four years in a row. He might have stayed in Harlingen longer, but in 1961 he received an invitation to teach at UT’s School of Architecture, which eventually led to his appointment as dean. 

Alan and Leslie, both politically progressive, slipped easily into the liberal oasis that was Austin. As dean, Alan fought to hire the first female and the first black faculty members. Leslie, who had helped organize for John F. Kennedy in the Valley during the 1960 presidential campaign, continued her support of Democrats. “My parents spent their lives as defenders of civil liberties and fought against inequality,” said Evan Taniguchi. “The injustice of internment, which caused grief beyond words, made them sensitive to the rights of others.”

In 1967, after years of prosperous farming, Isamu and Sadayo moved from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin. Sadayo suffered from a respiratory ailment and hoped the climate in Austin would offer relief. Isamu, then seventy years old, had grown even more reflective and philosophical over the years. He said that during his time in Crystal City he’d come to understand that World War II represented what he called the “beast-nature” of mankind. He felt compelled to address this darkness within us by using his talents as a farmer.

Shortly after his move, Isamu told Alan that he wanted to build a Japanese garden dedicated to peace and asked for his help in finding a location. Alan raised the question with Beverly Sheffield, then the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, who suggested three acres of land in Zilker Park, just south of Town Lake. The parks department and the Austin Area Garden Council approved the proposal, and over the course of eighteen months, Isamu, an old man with a weatherworn face who stood five feet two inches tall and weighed less than one hundred pounds, worked almost entirely alone on a plot donated by the city. He worked with no contract, no salary, and without restriction on his designs. In the heat of summer, he moved boulders and shoveled earth. He created intricate pathways lined with manicured plants, a miniature waterfall, and a series of lily pad–laden ponds. 

Today, the Taniguchi Japanese Garden still stands, an enduring symbol of peace that receives more than 100,000 visitors a year. Inscribed on a plaque inside the garden’s teahouse are the words that Isamu wrote, explaining his intentions: “When a man with such pure appreciation in his peaceful mind, tries to compose with stones, grass, and water in order to create one unified beauty—the formation is called a ‘garden.’ . . . It has been my wish that through the construction of this visible garden, I might provide a symbol of universal peace.” The garden is located about two hundred miles from the place where the Taniguchi family and thousands of others experienced terrible suffering and is dedicated to ending such things.

There is one other monument inspired by the shame of Crystal City. It is made of granite and was designed by Alan and placed on the site where the camp once stood. In 1985 Alan, Isamu, and several other former internees traveled to the family’s onetime home to dedicate the monument. The inscription implies that the hard work of peace comes in remembering the mistakes of the past. It reads, in part, “This marker is situated on an original foundation of a two-family cottage as a reminder that the injustices and humiliations suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and discrimination never happen again.” Perhaps the use of granite, one of the hardest stones, symbolizes how the Taniguchi family—and many others like them—emerged from the war unbroken. 

When Evan, Alan’s son and Isamu’s grandson, looks at the monument in Crystal City, he has more questions than answers—he doesn’t even know who wrote the inscription, though he believes it was likely his father. “The dark years of injustice in Crystal City were not discussed much in our family,” he says. “All I know is how proud I am of my family, who overcame their struggles and accomplished great deeds with the remainders of their lives.”

Copyright © 2015 by Jan Jarboe Russell. From the forthcoming book 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, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.