The United States Army formally apologized Saturday for the wrongful conviction of 28 black soldiers accused of rioting and lynching an Italian prisoner of war in Seattle, Washington, more than six decades ago.
Dozens of soldiers were injured in the melee that started with a scuffle between an Italian prisoner of war and a black soldier from the segregated barracks near the POW housing. A POW, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanged at the bottom of the bluff the next day.
Forty-three black soldiers were charged with rioting and three also were charged with murder. Two defense lawyers were assigned to the case and given two weeks to prepare without ever being shown an Army investigation report.
At least two soldiers were threatened with lynching by Army detectives. When one witness said a “Booker T” was present at the riot but could not give any more detais, the Army charged two men by that name. A third soldier was charged with rioting although white, black and Italian POW witnesses all said he tried to quell the disturbance.
In the ensuing trial, 28 men were convicted.
The convictions were overturned in October 2007 at the prodding of Rep. Jim McDermot, D-Seattle, largely based on the book On American Soil, published in 2005 by Jack Hamann, a CNN and PBS journalist, and his wife Leslie about the riot on the night of Aug. 14, 1944, and subsequent events at Fort Lawson.
The apology came too late for most of the soldiers-all but two of the soldiers are dead. One, Samuel Snow of Leesburg, Florida, planned to attend the ceremony but wound up in the hospital instead because of a problem with his pacemaker.
Relatives of the soldiers joined elected officials, military officers and one of the defense lawyers to hear Ronald James, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, apologize for the convictions.
“We had not done right by these soldiers,” said James. “The Army is genuinely sorry, I am genuinely sorry.”
The soldier’s convictions were set aside, their dishonorable discharges were changed to honorable discharges and they and their survivors were awarded back pay for their time in prison.
Snow’s son, Ray Snow, told the gathering his father felt no animosity for the long-ago injustice.
“He was so honored” by the tribute, Ray Snow told news sources. “We salute you for remembering a travesty that took place.”