State Senator Judith Zaffirini talked about the historical context that led to the establishment of the World War II camp.
“The fact of the matter was that the United States government reacted with great shock to the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Zaffirini said. “This reaction included creating these camps and protecting our citizens from internal sabotage – that was their purpose.”
“But when they picked up those who came to the detention camps, they not only treated them with respect, they protected them from curiosity seekers and those who wished them harm,” Zaffirini added.
Zaffirini expressed thanks to state and local leaders who have worked to keep this history recorded and remembered.
“The local leaders who understand their own history better than anyone else, and will do their part to ensure that the lessons we have learned through our experience and the experience of generations before us will always be remembered and we will always remember the negative and the positive, but always with great hope,” Zaffirini said.
Texas Historical Commission Military Sites Program Coordinator William McWhorter welcomed guests to the event.
“Today, we have gathered to dedicate a special historical marker, show this brochure, and talk about the history of the Kenedy Alien Detention Station during World War II,” McWhorter said. “Under different names, organizations and even two world wars, Camp Kenedy has had a long and storied life here in Kenedy.”
“During World War I it was the site of an army training post,” McWhorter added. “During the Great Depression it was a civilian conservation corps. To start World War II it was housing enemy aliens and before the war was over it would be a German prisoner of war camp followed by a Japanese prisoner of war camp.”
Historian and Karnes County native Dr. Tom Kreneck told the story of the camp and how many innocent people were imprisoned there, caught up in a wide web cast by allied governments in the interest of national security.
“Civil liberties are always the first casualties of war,” Kreneck said. “It really is. It doesn’t matter whether it is here in the United States or in Germany or Japan or wherever, whatever liberties those countries had at the time went out the window.”
“This marker commemorates a very significant part of Kenedy and Karnes County’s history because it recalls its World War II alien detention camp,” Kreneck said. “It was one of those things in a very real and meaningful way brought the United States wartime participation to the home front.”
Kreneck explained that the camp operated for 30 months between 1942 and 1944 and at one time housed between 600 and 800 detainees. Over the entire period, over 3,500 detainees called Camp Kenedy “home.” He referred to “Camp Kenedy, Texas” - a book about the history of the various camps in Kenedy written by former Karnes County Judge and noted historian, Robert Thonhoff.
“There is much, much more to the story of this camp,” Kreneck said. “If you want to learn all about it, the mother load, the real source is this book here, and that is Camp Kenedy, Texas written by our own former judge Robert Thonhoff, published in 2003. It provides all the details.”
“Everything I know about it except my stories, I really got from Bob,” Kreneck said. “We really ought to be thankful to Bob for recording this episode in Texas and Karnes County history for future generations. He has done it better than anybody. This is the definitive work.”
Brochures have been published by the THC about the history of enemy alien internment camps in Texas are free and available in limited supplies at the offices of The Karnes Countywide, located at 111 S. Second Street in Kenedy.
Below is the text recorded on the new historical marker at Clinton and Hillside Streets in Kenedy:
Kenedy Alien Detention Station, Wold War II
Shocked by the December 7, 1941, Empire of Japan Attack om Pearl Harbor, Hawaii that propelled the U.S. Into World War II, one U.S. Government response was the incarceration of more than 120,000 Issei (first generation, Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (second generation, U.S. Citizens) in war relocation authority camps across the country. Through separate confinement programs, thousands of Japanese, German, and Italian citizens in the U.S. (and in many cases, their U.S. Citizen relatives), classified as enemy aliens, were detained by the Department of Justice (DOJ) through its enemy alien control unit, and, in Latin America, by the Department of State’s Special War Programs Division. Enemy aliens were held until paroled or exchanged for U.S. And allied citizens seized overseas by Axis nations.
Texas hosted three DOJ confinement sites, administrated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at Crystal City, Seagoville, and here, as well as two U.S. Army temporary detentions stations at Fort Sam Houston and Fort Bliss. Previously Camp Kenedy served as a World War I training camp and later as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp. In March, 1942, the site transferred from the CCC to the INS.
On April 21, 1942, the confinement site’s first detainees arrived – primarily adult males from Latin American republics. The site had accommodations for 1,200 internees and a staff of 84; However, the population averaged closer to 600 internees per month. Detainees had access to large athletic fields and a garden outside the fence.
The INS ceased operation of the facility in September 1944 and the remaining internees were transferred to other camps, paroled, or repatriated. After the enemy alien detention station closed the site became a German, and later a Japanese enemy prisoner of war camp.