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Riot involving African American soldiers occurs at Fort Lawton and an Italian POW is lynched on August 14, 1944.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7378 : Printer-Friendly Format

On August 14, 1944, several dozen African American soldiers riot at Seattle’s Fort Lawton against Italian prisoners of war, and the next morning one of the Italians, Guglielmo Olivotto, is discovered hanged. Newspaper accounts in the coming days attribute the riot to the resentment of the black soldiers toward the Italian prisoners of war due to the seemingly lenient, congenial treatment of the Italian soldiers.  This is the story that receives nationwide attention, that Seattle officials and citizens react to, and that goes down in history. It is the story related in an earlier version of this essay. What actually happened was suppressed at the time: the Army classified its investigation, and contemporary newspaper accounts were based on hearsay gathered in a bar days later and on similar dubious sources. The ensuing court martial results in the conviction of 28 African American soldiers, including two for manslaughter. Sixty years later the Army’s investigation conducted by Brigadier General Elliot D. Cooke is declassified, and researcher Jack Hamann discovers that what was alleged to have happened was not what really happened. This new essay is largely based on his book, On American Soil. As a result of Hamann's book, four of the soldiers will petition the Army to reconsider their cases, and in October 2007 Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records will overturn the four convictions. Eventually the convictions of all 28 will be overturned. On Saturday, July 26, 2008, at Seattle's Discovery Park near the former Fort Lawton chapel, the "Fort Lawton 28" will be publicly exonerated, given honorable discharges, and their families awarded their lost back pay. At the time, two of the veterans are still alive.

Fort Lawton: 1944

Fort Lawton, in the Magnolia Bluff neighborhood of Seattle, was an Army training base and staging area for combat in the Pacific. In 1944, a group of Italian prisoners of war were stationed at the fort to perform labor and maintenance duties. These particular Italian soldiers were carefully selected -- in general they had been drafted into the war and had been unenthusiastic soldiers, unlike other prisoners of war who were committed fascists and difficult to handle. The Army was highly concerned with treating prisoners of war humanely in order to conform to the Geneva convention and because any poor treatment would likely be paid for by American prisoners of war in Europe. But some local citizens and military men objected to the lenient, congenial treatment this selected group of POWs received in Seattle. After all, a year and a half before, they had been battling U.S. troops in Africa. These Italian prisoners enjoyed supervised visits to area homes, taverns, and to the movies.

Also stationed at Fort Lawton were several segregated Port Companies of the Transportation Corps, composed of African Americans trained to unload ships in combat areas. According to contemporary newspaper reports of the episode, these troops resented Fort Lawton's Italian POWs who visited local taverns, which excluded black enlisted men. Among the resentments were allegedly that local women lavished attention on the Italians. "[G]irls come out to service dances and make a big fuss over the Italians," a Seattle Times article dated August 18, 1944, reported. "They find 'em romantic. You know, speaking a foreign language and all that." 

Also present at Fort Lawton were white Military Police (MP) and some 10,000 other soldiers.

The Event

On August 14, 1944, the black troops were notified that the next day they would be shipped overseas. That night there was a big party in their mess hall. Late in the evening, three Italians returning from town encountered three African Americans. All had been drinking. The groups clashed, supposedly leaving one black American unconscious. A particular MP, a private, came by and took the unconscious man away to the hospital. This MP claimed that one of the soldiers blew a whistle and trouble then started. Supposedly angry at the injury of one of their group, a number of black soldiers entered the Italian bunkhouse and orderly room and began severely beating and stabbing the Italians along with the four American translators present.

Italians ran out of bed, hid under furniture, and ran out to hide in nearby woods. The barracks and orderly room were wrecked. Thirty-two men were later hospitalized; a dozen sustained severe injuries including three fractured skulls, penetrating knife wounds, and shattered bones (Hamann, p. 142). The following morning the same MP who had transported the supposedly unconscious black soldier to the hospital, along with another MP, discovered the body of Italian POW Guglielmo Olivotto at the foot of Magnolia Bluff, hanging on wires that were part of the obstacle course.

Questions and Odd Occurrences

  • The MP who transported the unconscious black soldier later testified concerning the trouble starting and the whistle blowing, but at the time he drove right past the guardhouse without stopping to report trouble. He drove past the nearby hospital with the injured black soldier, taking him instead to a hospital on the far side of Fort Lawton. Another witness reported that there was no whistle.
  • After the attack started, several panicked phone calls were made from the Italian quarters, but there was a remarkable lapse of 30 to 45 minutes before Military Police arrived on the scene.
  • At least one white man was seen among the rioters, hitting Italians with a baton (p. 96).
  • A black soldier, among those detained after the riot, wrote to a friend in Washington D.C., giving his version of events. The white MPs, he said, had been harassing the Italians for days at the PX, “and trying to get the colored troops involved.” In general, he said, it was the whites who resented the Italians, far more than the blacks (p. 113).
  • Either through remarkable incompetence or a cover-up, all evidence of the identity of particular black rioters was destroyed. The Italian barracks were repaired and repainted with dazzling speed -- within 24 hours. Not a single fingerprint was taken, though they were everywhere. None of the white MPs could recall exactly who the black rioting troops were, claiming “you can’t tell one from another.”
  • All the black troops of both companies, whether or not they were involved in the riot, were herded into a stockade but allowed to keep their weapons. When their weapons were finally confiscated they were not tagged or in any way treated as evidence. They were thrown in a heap (p. 140-141).
  • There were no signs of struggle on Olivotto’s body. (However, there were superficial abrasions on his legs.) An important fact is that Olivotto was extremely fearful of black people.  He was last seen leaping in terror out of a window next to his bunk. A possibility is that he was driven away from the riot by someone he felt safe with, i.e., a white MP (p. 146-147). Most evidence at the scene of the hanging crime, including clear footprints and the rope, was destroyed. Dominic Moreo, in his Riot at Fort Lawton, 1944, points out that shoes, apparently belonging to Olivotto, were found in the nettles some distance away. This might suggest that he was dragged through the nettles, face down, probably by two people. But the evidence is too sketchy to draw a firm conclusion.
  • Whatever happened, the Army’s investigator, Brigadier General Cooke, was scandalized at the large amount of obvious lying under oath by many MPs and officers at Fort Lawton.

Aftermath

The death of an Italian prisoner of war became an important issue to American military and diplomatic officials. U.S. Forces were then battling German forces in France and Italy and any perception that the U.S. mistreated prisoners had important repercussions with world opinion and with the treatment of U.S. prisoners in German and Japanese hands. There was immediate and intense pressure to solve the crime apparently perpetrated by African Americans.

After a hasty review of the facts, 44 African American soldiers were charged with a variety of counts including riot and murder. Four of the defendants faced the death penalty.

The charges were prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Leon Jaworski, a Texas prosecutor in civilian life and later Watergate Special Prosecutor. The defense was handled by Major William Beeks, a Seattle maritime law specialist and later U.S. District Court Judge. Beeks was given two weeks to prepare a defense for 44 clients, including four accused of capital murder. In the end, two soldiers had charges dropped, 13 soldiers were acquitted, and 28 were convicted, two of manslaughter. It was the largest Army court martial during World War II.

After the war, the longer prison sentences were reduced by a clemency board, although some soldiers served as long as 25 years. Guglielmo Olivotto was buried at the cemetery at Fort Lawton in an area away from the American graves.

A Death Far from Home

Of Guglielmo Olivotto, Jack Hamann writes:

“Olivotto was a quiet man, well read and devoutly religious. He was lean, five feet ten inches and just 150 pounds. His eyes were dark; his hair was black and thick, except for a bald spot on the crown of his head; he wore a dark mustache. A thin scar slid down the right side of his scalp at hairline. He was never married and had no children. He didn’t drink or gamble. He had no interest in being a soldier” (p. 11).

Sixty-three Years Later

In late October 2007, the Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records, after a year of deliberation, ruled that the black soldiers court-martialed in the death of Olivotto were unfairly denied access to their attorneys and to investigative records and should have their convictions overturned. This ruling applied to four soldiers who petitioned military investigators (three of them, represented by their families, are no longer living).

The soldiers petitioned after the publication of Jack Hamann's book, with the aid of Congressman Jim McDermott, Democrat from Washington state, and Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican from California. The four soldiers who petitioned were Booker W. Townsell, of Milwaukee, Luther L. Larkin, of Searcy, Arkansas, William G. Jones, of Decatur, Illinois, and Samuel Snow (1923-2008), of Leesburg, Florida. 

After serving a year in prison and being dishonorably discharged, Snow returned to his home in Leesburg, Florida, to raise two children and to work as a church janitor. He lived for decades with the dishonorable discharge and was denied benefits of the GI Bill and veterans' health care. Snow was convinced that the conviction was a racial injustice but nevertheless burned his Army paperwork in order to hide it from his children.

Restitution would include honorable discharges and back pay for the soldiers who petitioned.

Snow told a reporter, "I'm rejoicing today. I'm not mad at nobody. I'm just as satisfied as can be"  (Martin). 

Eventually the convictions of all 28 of the veterans were overturned. On July 26, 2008, a ceremony was held at Seattle's Discovery Park near the former Fort Lawton chapel. The United States Army, represented by Assistant Secretary of the Army Ronald James, gave the men a formal apology, and presented the families with honorable discharges (all but two of the veterans were no longer living). Their families also received the soldiers' lost back pay. Also present to honor the veterans were an Army band and color guard. Speakers included U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and King County Executive Ron Sims.

Samuel Snow died of congestive heart failure at Virginia Mason hospital, on July 27, 2008, 13 hours after the apology and honorable discharge.

Sources:
Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005); Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); "3 Deny Guilt at Ft. Lawton Trial," The Seattle Times, November 16, 1944, p. A-6; "More than 50 Soldiers in Riot," Ibid., August 18, 1944, p. 2; Dominic W. Moreo, Riot at Fort Lawton, 1944 (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004); Jonathan Martin, "63 Years Later, Army Exonerates Black Troops," The Seattle Times, October 17, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nowsource.com); "Army: Black Soldiers Wronged in POW Case," Associated Press, The New York Times, October 27, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com); William Yardley, "1944 Conviction of Black G.I.'s Is Ruled Flawed, Ibid., October 27, 2007; Keith Irvin, "Army Apologizes to Soldiers  Convicted After 1944 Fort Lawton Riot," The Seattle Times, July 27, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/);  Lisa Stifler, "Court-Martialed in 1944, Fort Lawton Veterans Formally Exonerated, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 27, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Jack Hamann website accessed August 14, 2008 (http://www.jackhamann.com/).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier file on the same subject. It was updated on July 15, 2005, and expanded on October 28, 2007. It was corrected on April 17, 2008, to state that 28 of the soldiers were convicted, two of them for manslaughter. It was again updated on August 14, 2008.


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The Seattle Times, August 18, 1944



Grave of Guglielmo Olivotto, Italian prisoner of war killed August 14, 1944, 2001
Photo by David Wilma


 
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