World War II Internment Camps

By: Emily Brosveen

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: July 24, 2020

Although many Americans are aware of the World War II imprisonment of West Coast Japanese Americans in relocation centers, few know of the smaller internment camps operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Under the authority of the Department of Justice, the INS directed about twenty such facilities. Texas had three of them, located at Seagoville, Kenedy, and Crystal City. Prisoners included Japanese Americans arrested by the FBI, members of Axis nationalities residing in Latin-American countries, and Axis sailors arrested in American ports after the attack on Pearl Harbor. About 3,000 Japanese, Germans, and Italians from Latin America were deported to the United States, and most of them were placed in the Texas internment camps. Twelve Latin-American countries gave the United States Department of State custody of the Axis nationals. Eighty percent of the prisoners were from Peru, and about 70 percent were Japanese. The official reasons for the deportations were to secure the Western Hemisphere from internal sabotage and to provide bartering pawns for exchange of American citizens captured by Japan. However, the Axis nationals were often deported arbitrarily as a result of racial prejudice and because they provided economic competition for the other Latin Americans, not because they were a security threat. Eventually, very few Japanese ever saw Latin America again, although some Germans and Italians were returned to their Latin American homes. The majority of Texas internment-camp prisoners were Axis nationals from Latin America.

The Seagoville internment camp, built by the Bureau of Prisons as a minimum-security women's reformatory in 1941, held prisoners from Central and South America, married couples without children from the United States, and about fifty Japanese language teachers from California. The facilities at Seagoville made it the most unusual camp operated by the INS. Twelve colonial-style, red-brick buildings with cream limestone trim were surrounded by spacious lawns. Paved sidewalks and roads connected the buildings, and visitors remarked that the camp resembled a college campus. Nevertheless, a high, woven-wire fence surrounded the camp, which had a single guarded entrance. A white line painted down the middle of the paved road that encircled the camp marked a boundary that internees could not pass. The six dormitories had single or double rooms and were furnished with chests of drawers, desks, chairs, and beds. Communal laundry, bathing, and toilet facilities were located on all floors. Each dormitory had a kitchen with refrigerators, gas stove, and dishwasher, as well as a dining room with four-person maple tables, linen table coverings, cloth napkins, and china. Internees prepared their own food under supervision. Other facilities at the Seagoville camp included a hospital and a large recreation building. A female doctor directed the hospital and supervised a staff of six physicians, ten registered nurses, a dentist, and a laboratory technician. The recreation building provided a variety of activities, such as ballet and stage productions performed by internees in the auditorium. In addition, the recreation building had orchestral instruments, twelve classrooms for English and music instruction, a multilanguage library, and sewing and weaving rooms. Outside activities included gardening, farming, tennis, baseball, badminton, and walking around the prison grounds. Although conditions at the Seagoville camp were unusually comfortable for a prison environment, the internees did have some complaints. Many resented being held at a penal institution, which was still administered by a warden, Amy N. Stannard. The prisoners also disliked the censorship of their letters and the limit on their outgoing correspondence. In late summer of 1942, the INS planned to reunite Japanese men from other internment camps with their families already at Seagoville. Anticipating this transfer, Seagoville received fifty one-room plywood enclosures known as "Victory Huts" from the INS detention camp at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a large building was constructed as a kitchen and mess hall. Laundry rooms and separate male and female communal toilet and bath facilities were built. The largest population interned at Seagoville was 647. In June 1945 the Seagoville alien enemy internment camp was closed and detainees were repatriated, paroled, or moved to other INS internment camps.

In contrast to Seagoville, the Kenedy Alien Detention Camp housed only men. Before World War II, the site was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp; Kenedy business owners, in an effort to increase local prosperity, lobbied the INS to use the camp as an internment station. The camp received its first large group of prisoners on April 23, 1942, and during the course of its existence housed more than 3,500 aliens. The United States Army took over the operation on October 1, 1944, and from then until the end of the war it housed wounded and disabled German prisoners of war.

Crystal City was the location of the largest internment camp administered by the INS and Department of Justice. To reduce hardships during internment and to reunite families, the INS originally intended to detain only Japanese at Crystal City, especially the many Latin-American Japanese families brought to the United States for internment pending repatriation. Germans and Italians, however, were also held in Crystal City. In the fall of 1942 the INS assumed ownership of the Farm Security Administration's migratory farmworkers' camp on the outskirts of Crystal City. Existing facilities were forty-one three-room cottages, 118 one-room structures, and some service buildings. Eventually, the INS spent more than a million dollars to construct more than 500 buildings on the camp's 290 acres. Warehouses, auditoriums, administration offices, schools, clothing and food stores, a hospital, and many housing units were built. Like the camps at Kenedy and Seagoville, the Crystal City internment camp provided jobs and revenue for the town. The first German internees arrived in December 1942. The first Japanese arrived from Seagoville on March 10, 1943. In addition, prisoners were taken to Crystal City from other INS internment camps in Hawaii and Alaska (not states at the time), the United States, Puerto Rico, the West Indies, and South and Central American countries. The population of the Crystal City camp peaked at 3,326 in May 1945. Languages spoken at Crystal City included Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, and English; ages of internees ranged from newborn to elderly. The variety of prisoners added to the complexities of camp organization and administration. Camp officials tried to arrange housing so that similar races and nationalities would be together, but even so, strong differences emerged between those who wanted repatriation and those who wanted to stay in the United States or return to the country they were expelled from. The camp was divided into separate sections for Germans and Japanese. Though no physical boundaries separated the two groups, they did not interact often. They had separate auditoriums, community centers, schools, and stores. Housing units consisted of triplexes and duplexes that shared toilet and bath facilities, three-room cottages with indoor toilet and bath, and plywood huts with central latrines and baths. Except for the huts, all housing had cold running water, kitchen sinks, and oil stoves. Administrators assigned housing and set food allowances based on the age and size of families. Token money was issued accordingly, and families purchased food at a large grocery store. Two separate, large canteens were called the German General Store and the Japanese Union Store; these stores took tokens like the central grocery. The majority of store positions were held by internees, including cashiers, store clerks, butchers, and warehouse workers. The Japanese were provided with special foods, such as soy sauce, tofu, seaweed, dried shrimp, and large quantities of rice. Internees could participate in a paid-work program. Workers were paid ten cents an hour and employed in all aspects of camp organization. They planted vegetables, tended orange orchards and beehives, raised pigs and chickens, washed laundry, repaired clothes and shoes, manufactured mattresses, furniture, and clothes, and made sausage and bakery items. Others worked in the stores, administration offices, hospital, or schools. Employment kept the internees busy and lessened the frustrations of internment. In many ways, the Crystal City camp resembled a bustling small town.

The Crystal City internment camp had four schools to educate the numerous children detained there. The children of Germans and Japanese who desired repatriation were sent to language schools taught by internees. The Federal Grammar and High School provided an American-style education for a mostly Japanese student body. Gaining accreditation from the Texas State Department of Education was a challenge because of teacher and school-supply shortages, as well as the difficulty of organizing classes when all students were transfers. Team sports were very popular: thirty-two softball teams were divided into two leagues with a schedule of games and tournament play-offs. A chapel with more than thirty internee priests and ministers provided worship services. Also, camp officials granted many requests for picnics by the Nueces River, which was not far outside the internment camp boundary. At Crystal City, the INS administrators tried to make camp life as normal as possible, but security constantly reminded detainees of their lack of freedom. A ten-foot fence, guard towers, and floodlights surrounded the camp. Mounted guards patrolled the perimeter of the compound, a small police force was inside the camp at all times, and incoming and outgoing vehicles were searched at the gate. Officials kept dossiers on each internee and conducted head counts every day in the housing units. All letters were censored. Prisoners met visiting friends or relatives under surveillance, although college students and American soldiers on vacation were allowed to stay with their parents. Security was a priority; Crystal City did not have any escape attempts. With so many internees, camp officials realized a need for medical services. In December 1942 the medical division was composed of two nurses and a twenty-five-cent first aid kit. By July 1943 a seventy-bed hospital and clinic operated twenty-four hours a day. Internee doctors performed more than a thousand major and minor operations, and a Japanese pharmacist dispensed more than 30,000 prescriptions. Hundreds of babies were born at the detention station. By July 1945 hundreds of Germans and Japanese had been repatriated from Crystal City. More than a hundred had been released or paroled, seventy-three had been transferred to other camps, and seventeen had died. In December 1945 more than 600 Peruvian Japanese left for Japan because the Peruvian government would not allow them to return to Peru. That same month, a similar number of Japanese were allowed to go home to Hawaii. Some prisoners resisted repatriation to Japan and were not allowed to return to Central and South America. In late 1947 the United States determined to let them stay. November 1, 1947, more than two years after the end of World War II, the Crystal City internment camp closed-the last facility detaining alien enemies to do so.

Roger Daniels et al., eds., Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986). Thomas Connell, America's Japanese Hostages: The World War II Plan for a Japanese Free Latin America (Westport: Praeger, 2002). Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993). C. Harvey Gardiner, Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981). Houston Chronicle, December 8, 9, 10, 1941. Houston Post, December 9, 10, 1941. Jerre Mangione, An Ethnic at Large: A Memoir of America in the Thirties and Forties (New York: Putnam, 1978). Dorothy Swaine Thomas and Richard S. Nishimito, The Spoilage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946). U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Washington: GPO, 1983).

  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Military
  • Japanese
  • World War II
  • Internment Camps
Time Periods:
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Emily Brosveen, “World War II Internment Camps,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

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November 1, 1995
July 24, 2020