After years of uncomfortable silence on the topic, there is suddenly a national wave of interest in the Japanese American internment experience.
Later this year a new Broadway musical entitled "Allegiance," based on the childhood experiences of "Star Trek" actor George Takei, will explore love in an internment camp.
In addition, two well-received books about internment have been published in recent months.
Award-winning journalist Richard Reeves takes a broad, highly critical look at the internment experience in his book "Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II."
Meanwhile, in "The Train to Crystal City," Jan Jarboe Russell writes about the titular Texas camp which was the only one that housed entire families. (And not just Japanese; German and Italian parents and their children were also detained at Crystal City.)
As unlikely as it might seem, one of the key characters in Russell’s book is a Brooklyn-born Irish American named Joseph O’Rourke. In a camp that severely restricted the freedom of many native-born Americans, that strained ties between parents and their children, and that held Japanese, Germans and Italians, it seems that only an Irish American could not only lead the operation, but make it at least manageable for all involved.
“In Crystal City, his staff and others described O’Rourke as a ‘jolly Irishman’ who paid particular attention to the children, who followed him like a pied piper,” writes Russell.
O’Rourke had moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York, after serving for two years in the Army during World War I.
In 1924, he became an INS immigration agent, which eventually took him to the border state of Texas.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked O’Rourke ended up in several “enemy alien” internment camps – controversial operations which, critics claimed, unfairly detained American citizens deemed “disloyal” simply because of their ethnic heritage.
A much higher percentage of Japanese Americans, for example, were viewed with suspicion or accused of disloyalty when compared to German or Italian Americans, who were present in great numbers in the U.S., but detained in much smaller numbers.
One of the fascinating things about Crystal City – the camp which O’Rourke eventually came to supervise – is that it not only detained people of different backgrounds: It also held entire families.
“In Crystal City, O’Rourke’s experiences in dealing with Japanese, German and Latin American internees, and his knowledge of how to manage people, would serve him sell,” Russell writes.
But there was a dark side to this “jolly Irishman.” Some of it was personal, and some of it had to do with the difficult nature of his task.
“Despite his record and his charismatic personality, O’Rourke was lonely when he arrived in Crystal City to assume control of the camp. He was separated from his wife, Loretta, a strict Irish Catholic woman, who lived in their small house on Cleveland Street in Buffalo with their only daughter Joan,” writes Russell.
Meanwhile, though he tried to make the camp as positive an experience as possible – especially for the children – there was no ignoring the fact that O’Rourke was charged with limiting the freedom of these “enemies.”
The “teenagers in camp knew the fence meant that they were regarded as criminals,” Russell writes. When they confronted O’Rourke, all he could say was, “You’re victims of a lousy war.”
According to Russell, as well as some children in the camp, O’Rourke turned to drink to ease his conflicted feelings about his work.
“Many readers have told me that Joseph O’Rourke…is one of their favorite characters,” Russell wrote in a recent Facebook post, which also discussed a new happiness O’Rourke found when the war ended.
He married a Texas woman named Mary and “stayed in touch with many of the former internees in Crystal City,” Russell writes, adding, “In the end, Joseph O'Rourke seems to have exorcised whatever demons he had before he arrived in Crystal City.”
* Contact Sidewalks@tdeignan.blogspot.com.