Army overturns WW II convictions

SEATTLE — The U.S. Army has overturned the convictions of several black soldiers who were court-martialed in 1944 after a riot that resulted in the death of an Italian prisoner of war at Seattle’s Fort Lawton.

The decision, released Friday, said the trial was “fundamentally unfair” to the soldiers, who were denied access to their attorneys and investigative records.

The ruling was made by the Army’s Board of Corrections of Military Records, which had been asked by U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., to investigate the matter.

The decision also grants the soldiers honorable discharges, back pay and benefits.

The formal decision affects the cases of four of the soldiers who petitioned for review, but would also be applied to another 24 who were convicted, if their families petition, said Jack Hamann. He is a Seattle journalist who wrote a book about the case, “On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II.”

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed with joy. You don’t often get a chance to pursue justice on behalf of something that happened (63) years ago,” McDermott said.

Only two of the 28 soldiers are believed to be alive, Hamann said.

On Aug. 14, 1944, a riot broke out on the post in what is now Seattle’s Discovery Park. Black soldiers in segregated barracks were accused of sparking the violence because of resentment over treatment of Italian prisoners of war they believed had better living conditions than their own. POW Guglielmo Olivotto was later found hanging on wires in a post obstacle course.

Forty-three black soldiers were tried in the largest court-martial of World War II. Of those, 28 were found guilty of rioting and sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison.

Three were also convicted of manslaughter. Two of them — Luther L. Larkin, of Searcy, Ark., and William G. Jones, of Decatur, Ill., both deceased — were among the four petitioners, and those convictions were also thrown out in the ruling, Hamann said.

The other petitioners were Samuel Snow, now 84 and living in Leesburg, Fla., and Booker W. Townsell, of Milwaukee, also deceased.

Hamann said the ruling also will give the deceased soldiers marble headstones for their graves, and their families will be entitled to American flags.

“My first thought is, what a shame it is that the folks who this injustice was done to are not around to see this,” Hamann said. “And yet I’m so elated that their families will finally know that these men did not commit these crimes.”

Snow said he was “elated” by the decision.

“It just knocked me off of my feet,” Snow said from his Florida home.

He said the extent of the ruling surprised him.

“I didn’t expect to get that much,” he said, adding, “I think I totally should.”

Snow spent a year in prison, and did janitorial work after his release. He said he was not bitter.

“No, I don’t have no resentment over it,” he said. “I’ve just kept myself clean up to this present moment.”

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