for the July 24-27, 2008 Fort Lawton veterans' tribute
Quick summary of the Fort Lawton riot, lynching and court-martial, including:
The African American soliders | The Italian soldiers | The white American soldiers | The lynching | The investigation | The defense | The trial | The verdicts | The book | The US Congress | The US Army Board for Correction of Military Records | The $725 check
THE FORT LAWTON COURT-MARTIAL
Seattle was the setting for the largest and longest US Army court-martial of World War IIthe only trial in US history where black men were charged and convicted of a mob lynching.
More than six decades later, the US Army’s highest court of appeals overturned the convictions of 28 African-American veterans, declaring that their prosecution had been “fundamentally unfair,” and that Army prosecutor Leon Jaworski (later of Watergate fame) had committed “egregious error” by intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence.
The African-American soldiers
Corporal Luther Larkin (1921-1948) was born in cotton country in the Arkansas delta. Despite attending neglected schools in the segregated South, Luther was an accomplished student and joined the Army hoping to become a medic. Assigned to Seattle’s Fort Lawton, he spent 18 months as a medical apprentice.
During World War II, however, the American armed forces were still segregated. Most African American enlisted menproducts of inadequate segregated schoolswere assigned tasks requiring more brawn than brains. At Fort Lawton, Luther’s medical experience was overlooked as he was attached to an all-black port company, training to load and unload ships in South Pacific battle zones. Three port companies of 200 men each were quartered in the remote northwestern corner of Fort Lawton, officially known as the “Colored Area.”
The Italian prisoners
Private Guglielmo Olivotto (1911-1944) was a conscript in the Italian Army, sent to North Africa to serve as a truck driver. In May, 1943, Olivotto was part of the largest mass surrender of World War II, joining 250,000 Italians and Germans captured by Allied forces in Tunisia. Some 50,000 Italian prisoners were shipped to hastily-constructed POW camps in the United States; Olivotto was sent to a spacious facility in Florence, Arizona.
Italy surrendered in September, 1943. Italians in the US, however, were kept in custody; Italy was still occupied by Germans, and a significant percentage of Italian prisoners were thought to remain loyal to the Axis. Italian prisoners who swore allegiance to the Allies were given the chance to join Italian Service Units, working for wages and wearing military uniforms while remaining under guard with limited freedom to mingle with civilians.
In May, 1944, Olivotto arrived at Seattle’s Fort Lawton, part of a 200-member Italian Service Unit employed as cooks, mechanics, gardeners and janitors. Fort Lawton commander Harry Branson decided to house the Italians in barracks adjacent to the Colored Area.
The white American soldiers
By 1944, Fort Lawton was a major port of embarkation for soldiers and equipment heading to the Pacific. Like America itself, most of the soldiers were white, and most were leaving wives or girlfriends behind.
As the summer wore on, newspapers around the country reported bitter complaints about increased liberties granted to members of Italian Service Units. In particular, many white soldiers grew upset that some American women had enjoyed the company of Italians at dances and other social events. At Fort Lawton, confrontations between whites and Italians at Post Exchange #3 multiplied. Among the military policemen breaking up fights between Italians and his white friends was a troubled white soldier named Clyde Lomax (1923-1999).
The night of August 14, 1944, Luther Larkin’s port company was under orders to head for the war zone, and was preparing to ship out the next morning,. Anxious soldiers packed their bags, wrote letters and read the Bible. Others played cards, shot craps, visited girlfriends and drank beer or bootleg liquor. Just after 11pm, an intoxicated black soldier and his three companions crossed paths with three Italians, who may have also been drinking. Words were exchanged, the black soldier rushed forward, and with one punch, an Italian knocked the American out cold.
As the Italians retreated to their adjacent barracks, the call went out: US soldiers had been attacked by one or more enemy prisoners. A small contingent of black soldiers, including Pvt. Samuel Snow, ran after the Italians, but were quickly wounded by frightened Italians wielding boards. Hearing the commotion, dozens of black soldiers poured out of their barracks and saw at least three of their comrades on the ground, each bleeding from the head, each under the care of Luther Larkin. A rumor flew that one of the Americans was dead. Assuming they were under attack, and responding to months of military training, dozens of black soldiers headed into the Italian area, armed with rocks, fence posts and a couple of knives.
Clyde Lomax, the white military policeman, was responsible for patrolling the Colored Area, and was on the scene almost immediately. He loaded the most severely injured American into his jeep, but delayed transporting him to the fort’s hospital. As the melee grew, several menwhite, black and Italianreported seeing Lomax amid the fray. Rather than attempt to bring order or call for reinforcement, Lomax instead encouraged the black soldiers to attack, even handing weapons to some.
More than forty minutes passed before a contingent of military policemen finally arrived. By then, dozens lay injured. The MPs restored order, but chose not to take anyone into custody. Later, every single MP claimed it had been too dark to identify even one of the participants in the riot. After belatedly bringing the injured American to the post’s most remote hospital, Pvt. Lomax disappeared for at least two hours.
At 5:00 the next morning, Lomax drove his jeep to a distant gully at the base of the fort’s Magnolia bluffs. In the dark of the pre-dawn night, he walked through the brush and purported to discover the lifeless body of Guglielmo Olivotto, lynched from a noose tied to an obstacle course guywire.
By sunset on the day Olivotto’s body was discovered, Fort Lawton commanding officer Col. Harry Branson (1890-1963)had ordered all evidence destroyed. No fingerprints were secured, no footprints saved, no weapons properly catalogued. When Branson tried to quickly ship the black soldiers to San Francisco that same day, he was countermanded after a subordinate reported his misguided decision to the Pentagon.
The riot and lynching was front page news in Seattle, and became a major story across the nation. The Army sent its best young prosecutor, Leon Jaworski (1905-1982) of Houston, to conduct a two-month investigation. During weeks of interrogations, several black soldiers were threatened with harmeven with lynchingif they refused to testify against their fellow soldiers. Most did refuse, including Samuel Snow and Roy Montgomery. Five black soldiers agreed to testify, however, in exchange for immunity. All five were later shown to hold unrelated grudges against many of the men they fingered.
Most Italians were unable to identify a single black soldier, citing the darkness and confusion. Two, however, were somehow confident they could clearly identify dozens of the Americans; those two became Jaworski’s star witnesses. Both were later found to have been identified as security risks by Army Intelligence officers.
As reports of the riot and lynching reached the Pentagon, the Army sent Gen. Elliot Cooke (1891-1961) to Seattle, charged with determining whom, if anyone, had failed to prevent the riot and lynching. Cooke was not responsible for helping Jaworski with the criminal investigation, but Jaworski was given access to all of Cooke’s interrogations and conclusions.
In a scathing classified report to the Army Inspector General, Cooke concluded that Fort Lawton commander Col. Branson had utterly botched the initial criminal investigation, and demanded Branson’s demotion and/or reassignment. He characterized Pvt. Lomax a “coward,” and ordered that he be court-martialed for abandoning his post during the riot and lynching.
After weeks of investigation, Jaworski decided to charge 43 US soldiersall of them African Americanwith rioting, a crime with a maximum penalty of life in prison. Three of the menLuther Larkin (1921-1948), Arthur Hurks (1921-1991) and William Jones (1924-1992)were also charged with the first-degree murder of Guglielmo Olivotto, and faced death by hanging if convicted. It was the largest number of defendants in a single US Army trial during all of World War II.
The 43 defendants were forced to share just two lawyers between them, and those lawyers were given just ten days to prepare their cases. The lead defense attorney, William Beeks (1906-1988), was a brilliant Army lawyer who would later become a renowned Seattle federal judge. He was assisted by Howard Noyd, a former football player from Iowa who is still alive and living in Bellevue, WA.
With barely enough time to learn the names of their clients, the defense lawyers decided to focus most of their energies on trying to keep all the soldiers from the gallows.
The nine-member panel of court-martial judgesall officers, all whiteconvened on November 16, 1944. Trial was held six days a week and all day on Thanksgiving. Beeks and Noyd raised dozens of objections; most were overruled.
On December 8, 1944 Beeks discovered for the first time that Jaworski had access to Gen. Cooke’s lengthy confidential report. Citing concerns about wartime security, Jaworski repeatedly refused to turn the report over to the defense, despite a prosecutorial obligation to do so, and the court refused to intervene. Beeks never learned about Cooke’s blistering attacks on Branson, Lomax and others, information which would likely have discredited most of Jaworski’s central witnesses.
After five weeksthe longest US Army court-martial of World War IIthe court found 28 of the defendants guilty of rioting, and twoLuther Larkin and William Jonesguilty of manslaughter. Sentences ranged from six months to 25 years at hard labor. All but one defendant were issued dishonorable discharges at the completion of their prison sentences.
Because it was a capital case, an automatic appeal was sent to the US Army’s Board of Review. Despite the huge trial record and dozens of Beeks’ objections, all appeals were summarily rejected without elaboration.
In 1945, at war’s end, President Harry Truman was eager to help heal the nation’s wounds. Because so many servicemen were behind bars, he began issuing annual “Christmas clemencies,” reducing the sentences of thousands of soldiers, including the Fort Lawton defendants. By 1949, the last Fort Lawton defendant left prison, although it remains a mystery why Luther Larkin and William Jones were released long before the term of their remaining sentences.
In 1986, journalist Jack Hamann came across Guglielmo Olivotto’s headstone in the Fort Lawton cemetery. After months of research, most of it relying on secondary sources, Hamann helped produce a one-hour special program for Seattle’s NBC affiliate, KING-TV. The program raised some questions about the prosecution, but offered no substantial evidence to refute Jaworski’s case.
In 2001, Hamann and his wife, Leslie Hamann, began a four-year effort to locate primary sources, including documents and witnesses. During several weeks of research at the National Archives in College Park, MD, the Hamann’s came across Gen. Cooke’s newly-declassified report. The revelations in that report became the basis for their book, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II. In 2006, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE) named On American Soil the nation’s best investigative book of the year.
The US Congress
On July 1, 2005, U.S. Rep Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced HR 3174, a bill demanding that the US Army reopen the Fort Lawton case, based on the evidence disclosed in On American Soil. The bill, with dozens of co-sponsors, languished in the House Armed Services Committee until the chairman of that committee, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) received a letter from constituent Julianna Hamann, mother of author Jack Hamann. After committee staff vetted the book, Rep. McDermott and Rep. Hunter agreed on June 8, 2006 to exercise a Congressional privilege allowing them to insist that the US Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR) review the decades-old convictions.
The US Army Board for Correction of Military Records
On October 26, 2007, the ABCMR ruled unanimously that Leon Jaworski had committed “egregious error” in his prosecution of the Fort Lawton case, particularly by refusing to make the Cooke Report available to the defense. The court, calling the trial “fundamentally unfair,” overturned the convictions and ordered that defendants be issued retroactive honorable discharges. In addition, the surviving defendantsor the estates of those who have since diedwere deemed entitled to “all rights, privileges and property lost as a result of the convictions,” including “all due pay and allowances.” By all accounts, it was an extraordinary remedy.
The $725 check
Of the 43 defendantsincluding the 28 who were convictedthe authors of On American Soil have only been able to locate two living defendants (Samuel Snow of Florida and Roy Montgomery of Illinois), and the families of ten others who have since passed. All have been invited to apply to the ABCMR for the back pay and allowances described in the opinion.
On November 29, 2007, Samuel Snow received a check … for a mere $725. An Army spokesman explained that current Army regulations make no provision for payment of interest or adjustments for cost of living increases. The small check spurred a flurry of stories in the national media about the unfairness of the remedy.
On January 23, 2008, Rep. Jim McDermott introduced HR 5130 in the Houseand Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced S 2548 in the Senate. The bills would authorize the US Army to pay interest on the Fort Lawton awards. A further amendment would prohibit state officials from claiming the awards as reimbursement for previous Medicaid allowances.
As of July 14, 2008, the bills had passed out of their respective Armed Services Committees, and been including in HR 5658, the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2009. The bill has passed the full House, and is waiting for a vote in the US Senate.