On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War IIby Jack Hamann
During the night of August 14, 1944, an Italian prisoner of war was lynched on the Fort Lawton army base in Seattlea murder that shocked the nation and the international community. It was a time of deep segregation in the army, and the War Department was quick to charge three African American soldiers with first-degree murder, although there was no evidence
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During the night of August 14, 1944, an Italian prisoner of war was lynched on the Fort Lawton army base in Seattlea murder that shocked the nation and the international community. It was a time of deep segregation in the army, and the War Department was quick to charge three African American soldiers with first-degree murder, although there was no evidence linking them to the crime. Forty other black soldiers faced lesser charges over the incident, launching one of the largest and longest army trials of World War II.
In this harrowing story of race, privilege, and power, Jack Hamann explores the most overlooked civil rights event in American history. On American Soil raises important questions about how justice is carried out when a country is at war, offering vital lessons on the tensions between national security and individual rights.
While most Americans feel unwavering support for the U.S. forces serving in Iraq, unsettling scandals -- like the abuses at Abu Ghraib -- make us question just how well run our military is. What a perfect time, then, for reporter Jack Hamann to publish On American Soil, a riveting retelling of a historic prisoner-of-war catastrophe that resulted in the largest U.S. Army court-martial of World War II.
The prisoner in question was Guglielmo Olivotto, a captured Italian soldier sent to the Fort Lawton Army base in Seattle in 1944. Following a night of riots within and around the barracks, his body was discovered hanging from a rope. Eager for quick answers, the army appointed Lieutenant Colonel Leon Jaworski to prosecute the African-American soldiers charged with rioting and murder. But had there been a rush to judgment?
Using once-classified documents, Hamann recounts interviews with soldiers and prisoners, and questions the Army's conclusions. Along the way, he exposes the ugly prejudice belying Fort Lawton's peaceful, woodsy surroundings. Equally interesting is Hamann's revelation that the press may have been an unwitting accomplice in whatever cover-ups occurred, by accepting the Army's interpretation of events at face value. In these days of embedded journalists and war stories "tweaked" to look good on television, On American Soil is more than a fascinating piece of investigative journalism; it's a warning to us all. (Summer 2005 Selection)
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PrologueAugust 15, 1944 John Pinkney braced as his jeep pitched along rutted clay and gravel in the blackness before dawn. Beside him was Clyde Vernon Lomax, a skinny white kid from the bayou with long sideburns and an army six-shooter slapping his thigh. Although both men wore the black-and-white brassards of military policemen, Pinkney was a private first class and therefore outranked Lomax, if barely. Private Lomax, however, was in the driver's seat and in control. Pinkney's wristwatch read four forty-five. To the west, the chilly wind-driven waters of Puget Sound flushed across shallow tideflats. Lomax downshifted, eased the jeep to a stuttering stop, but kept the engine idling; Pinkney stared vainly into the abyss. Although the vehicle's twin headlights illuminated perhaps thirty yards of sand and damp grass dead ahead, the eye-splitting glare rendered the rest of the world all but invisible. Lomax tried to gaze beyond the lights to a point near the horizon where the headlands met water. He thought he'd seen a silhouette, or two or maybe three, or at least that's what he told Pinkney. The engine fell silent, headlights dissolved, and the two soldiers sat quietly, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the night. Peering toward the trees, they scanned for shapes in the shadows. Somewhere, tucked among the Oregon grape and red elderberry, or concealed behind trunks of madrone and bigleaf maple, scared soldiers might still be in hiding. Five hours had passed since the first few frightened men scrambled into the woods and slid down slippery paths along the Magnolia Bluffs. It had been even longer since taps had signaled the end of the day at Fort Lawton, a sprawling army post just north of downtown Seattle. Wired on coffee but weary from lack of sleep, Pinkney and Lomax had tried all night to pick up the trail of soldiers still missing from their barracks, on orders to haul them back to their bunks now that the evening's excitement had ended. As five o'clock approached, a chill pressed the back of Pinkney's neck and sunk between his shoulders. Sandpipers squeaked and scurried, while weathered fishing boats slid south, red beacons on bows, white lights trailing on sterns. As the night lifted, the bluffs gradually took form, tall cliffs dotted with bigleaf maples. Suddenly, Lomax snapped to attention: somehow, in this still-gray landscape, he had spotted a suspicious shadow up ahead. Engine and headlights jumped to life, but the jeep slipped once and then twice on wet clay. The road was slick and the thought of getting stuck unappealing, so Lomax parked and both men stumbled out into the damp grass. Picking their way through ever-higher brush, they reached the base of the bluffs without speaking a word. Pinkney would later say that he never even learned Lomax's name. In turn, Lomax would report that his fellow soldier that early morning was simply "this nigger MP." Neither man could later be certain which of them first spotted the lifeless body of Private Olivotto. As Pinkney drew nearer, the sight seemed less real. Strung between two massive maples above a trickling creek, a pair of steel cables stretched above a third. Suspended from the lowest cable was a thin rope, tautly strangling the limp body of a dead man. Pinkney's eyes widened, and for a moment he wondered, or even hoped, that the figure was an effigy, a dummy stuffed with straw. The steel cables were, after all, part of an obstacle course used by Fort Lawton's soldiers. It would have made sense that, there in Seattle, a body on a noose would be fake, part of some sort of training exercise for soldiers headed overseas. Of course, if Pinkney had been home, in Kansas City, a similar silhouette would have meant only one thing: another colored man had been strung up by a mob or the Klan. But with each halting step, the light grew less gray, and the form now ten yards up the hill revealed itself as definitely human, definitely not a black man. He was barefoot, wearing only olive GI boxers, a white undershirt, and a khaki army shirt. On his left shoulder was a round green and white patch, bearing unmistakable bold letters that spelled out Italy. Chapter One Camp Florence
May 1944 The town of Florence is just out of Tucson, past the Superstition Mountains and Picacho Peak, beyond the east riverbank of the Santa Cruz. The road to town drifts northwest across the flat bottom of an ancient inland sea, searing in summer and uncomfortably cold most winter nights. Green fields line both sides of the highway, thanks to a mix of soil, sun, and miles of manmade canals. Cotton farmers here grow some of the finest long fiber this side of Egypt. Just beyond Florence is the Gila River and, past that, a spur for the Southern Pacific Railroad, its tracks dead-ending at what used to be the gates of Camp Florence. Back in 1944, twin fences topped with barbed wire protected the rest of the world from the restless men locked inside what was once the largest prisoner-of-war compound ever built on American soil. On May 17, 1944, Guglielmo Olivotto and his best pals, Imo Nolgi and Bruno Patteri, sweltered in the stuffy heat of a two-story wood-frame barrack. The three Italian prisoners stayed busy at their bunks, fighting the anxiety of the uncertainty ahead. In less than twenty-four hours, they were to be loaded onto a troop train and shipped to an undisclosed U.S. army installation in yet another unfamiliar part of America. Although Camp Florence had its drawbacks, it had proved safe and familiar and much less daunting than the prospect of switching to another strange venue in this never-ending war. Heaped atop each man's canvas cot was a mound of clothing and equipment, all newly issued for their one-way journey out of Arizona. Leather service shoes with new laces and refurbished soles, clean but needing a shine. One garrison cap and two cotton field hats, both a bit frayed. Socks and handkerchiefs, GI drawers and undershirts. Two pairs of pants, one web belt. A toothbrush, shaving brush, safety razor, and five blades. A meat can, canteen, canteen cup, fork, knife, and spoon. Dog tags stamped with name, rank, and prisoner-of-war serial number. Miscellaneous bivouac equipment. Of all the gear spread across each cot, none looked more out of place than a matching pair of worn but clean khaki shirts. Olivotto had been in Arizona for nine months, and the only outer clothing he'd ever been issued was dark blue: surplus U.S. army suntans and olive drabs soaked in vats of indigo dye to distinguish Italian prisoners from their American captors. Until now, all his outer shirts, pants, and jackets had come stamped with the six-inch yellow letters pw on front and back. But this morning, he'd been handed the very same uniforms worn by the U.S. army; only the buttons were different, plain rather than metal. Each pile of clothing included a handful of oval cloth patches, with instructions to sew them on the left sleeves of all outer garments. The patches, green and white, were inscribed in bold letters: italy. Guglielmo, Imo, and Bruno shared mixed feelings about their decision to accept a new assignment. There had been whispers from fellow Italians that it was all a trick and that the Americans intended to stick them back into battle, fighting Japanese and mosquitoes in some godforsaken jungle in the Pacific. There were other rumors too, enough to persuade some prisoners to take their chances in the withering oven of the upcoming Arizona summer rather than travel to an unknown new location, even if it meant missing out on the liberties and privileges promised to those who would be leaving with Olivotto and his buddies the next day. But Guglielmo wasn't about to stay behind while his two closest friends went away. Eight days earlier, they had made the decision together, agreeing to be among the very first enlisted men to volunteer for a quartermaster company called the Twenty-eighth Italian Service Unit. Stuffing his canvas barracks bags with his newly issued gear, there was just enough room for rosaries, playing cards, cigarettes, hard candy, a small statue of the Virgin Mother, and a creased card bearing her image. The world was still at war; he would simply have to take his chances. Throughout history, being a prisoner of war was a fate often barely better than being killed in battle. Capture usually meant humiliation, torture, or starvation; it sometimes meant being worked to death or being used as a human shield on the battlefield. In the uncertain aftermath of the First World War, diplomats from forty-seven nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, determined to inject a measure of humanity into the ugly business of caring for captured soldiers. A long list of requirements and restrictions were drafted, all meant to preserve prisoners' dignity and to minimize the inevitable resentment that had so often launched new wars of retribution. The Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Prisoners of War was a major diplomatic breakthrough, although some countries, including Japan and the Soviet Union, refused to go along. Those nations that did sign the treaty promised to treat prisoners humanely and protect them from acts of violence, insults, or public curiosity. Prisoners of war had a right to clean, safe quarters and to food rations equal in quality and quantity to whatever was served to the detaining power's own troops at its base camps. They were to have access to books, games, and recreation and to be allowed to buy personal items, including tobacco, at military canteens. Captured enlisted men, but not their officers, could be put to work as long as there were adequate protections for health and safety. Prison jobs could never, however, have any direct relation to combat and could not involve the manufacture or movement of weapons or explosives. To ensure the rules were being followed, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross and from neutral nations like Switzerland were to be offered regular access to all prison camps. Americans, however, were hardly experts in the care and feeding of war prisoners in their own backyards. Most battles since the end of the Civil War had been fought on foreign soil, where captured soldiers were usually corralled in large stockades not far from the front lines. During the First World War, only 1,346 enemy troops spent any time in captivity in the United States. In World War II, the military got into the prisoner-of-war business right away when, in the chaotic aftermath of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese sailor accidentally beached his miniature submarine. A few more POWs trickled in during 1942, mostly Germans captured in North Africa by British forces, then redirected to the United States to relieve overcrowding in English prison camps. These first few enemy soldiers were an afterthought, treated as little more than a drain on military money and manpower. The army was made responsible for the care of all foreign prisoners, no matter which branch of the military actually captured them, under the jurisdiction of a newly created post called the provost marshal general. Prison compounds, it was hoped, would be built where surplus barracks or obsolete Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were already available. All camps were to be located in rural areas, far from city dwellers who might be fearful of fugitives and particularly distant from military installations and factories, where the possibility of espionage was a relentless concern. Initial proposals penciled most prisons south of the fortieth parallel, where warmer weather meant lower costs for heating, insulation, and wintertime clothing. Where surplus barracks were not available, Provost Marshal General Allen Gullion was authorized to order construction of entire compounds from the ground up. Early on, eyes turned to Florence, Arizona, a remote town in a sunny climate where a sizable state penitentiary was already part of the community. In January 1942, the army paid four million dollars for five hundred acres of pancake-flat land north of the Gila River. Blueprints were drafted for a sprawling complex, including barracks, a bakery, a 486-bed hospital, a swimming pool, twenty theaters, courts for volleyball and basketball, and guard towers all around. If the United States was to stay true its Geneva Convention commitments, Camp Florence would be the War Department's shining model. The thought of Nazis and Fascists lurking not far from schools and playgrounds did not sit well with town fathers in rural Arizona. On February 17, 1942, the men of the Rotary Club of nearby Superior, Arizona, gave U.S. senator Carl Hayden a piece of their collective minds. "The members of this club, who you know are the heads of businesses, unanimously protest the establishment of an internment camp at Florence, Arizona. We realize that such camps are essential and that selfishness might be [in] back of protests as to where they are located, but we assure you that it is not selfishness in this case." Arizona's unselfish Rotarians felt they were doing their country a huge service by warning Congress that the region's four large copper mines would be threatened by the presence of a POW camp. In a separate letter, E. D. Dentzer, general manager of the Magma Copper Company, explained that relatives and friends of Germans and Italians were certain to move near the prison compound in order to be close to loved ones. "I feel sure a lot of those people would be potential saboteurs and, therefore, a menace to any and all defense industries in this locality." Small-town paranoia, however, was no match for a nationwide military machine demanding sacrifice from citizens and communities everywhere. By April, construction at Camp Florence was well under way, and by fall military police escort companies were living in the barracks, training for the day when Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese prisoners would find their way to the Arizona desert. Events in North Africa, however, soon accelerated their timetable. At 3:40 p.m. on May 7, 1943, British tanks rolled into Tunis. Forty-five minutes later, Americans entered Bizerte, forty miles northwest. Exhausted Allied soldiers had finally conquered both major ports on Tunisia's northern coast, a hard-fought reward after six bloody months battling entrenched German and Italian forces in the mud-caked hills of northern Africa. During the last week of April and the first week of May, a quarter-million Axis soldiers trudged out with their hands up, roughly a hundred thousand Germans and the rest Italians. It would be the largest mass surrender of the war. Almost overnight, Allied commanders around the world were forced to secure shelter for the unexpected swarm of new enemy prisoners. Tens of thousands were shipped to Britain and her colonies in India and South Africa, or as far away as Australia. Thousands more were placed in the ballast holds of vessels bound for the United States, where Pentagon officials scrambled to find somewhere to stow them on American soil. The new camp in Florence was soon filled to capacity. The mass capitulation in Tunisia had been both poignant and surreal. German soldiers, still wearing the uniforms of proud, battle-hardened warriors, had been shocked by their defeat and remained defiant toward their captors. Most Italians, on the other hand, were fairly giddy with relief. Some had labored in Africa for as long as five years, pawns in Benito Mussolini's dream of a new Roman Empire. Ferruccio Umek, captured May 7, 1943, later told the Chicago Tribune that he had been conscripted into Italy's Africa campaign "without training, without uniforms, without weapons. Our shoes were full of holes; we were full of lice." The heat had been fierce; the sand blown by searing winds had sometimes swallowed them whole. Rations had been meager: a typical meal might have been little more than carrots, salted sardines, and moldy black bread. Chased by British general Bernard Montgomery from the south and east, and by British general Kenneth Anderson and American general Omar Bradley from the west, the Italians had struggled for weeks without adequate food, water, sleep, or ammunition. The only thing Italian soldiers hated more than their German allies were their own Fascist officers, many of whom had earned rank through political favor rather than military skill. The favored greeting was "Speriamo," short for "Speriamo che finisce questa guerra" ("We hope that this war ends"). The prospect of laying down guns had been, for most Italians, a welcome and long-overdue deliverance. Guglielmo Olivotto had been a speck in the teeming crowd of surrendering soldiers that week. Olivotto was no kid: he was thirty-one years old, born in Nervesa, a village sixty miles north of Venice. The town, on the south bank of the Piave River, squatted at the base of Montello Mountain, above a broad plain dotted with small vineyards and modest farms. Shops and cottages surrounded the central piazza, built of stone and old timber, washed with pastel paint every forty years or so, then left to peel until a patchwork of stone peeked through again. Guglielmo was barely six years old when Nervesa was reduced to rubble during one of World War I's bloodiest battles, as Austrian forces pushed south of the Piave, only to be driven back again a few days later. The town, when eventually rebuilt, was renamed Nervesa della Battaglia, in honor of its heroic defense of Italy. Guglielmo grew up at a time when young men regularly fled rural Italy to chase dreams of decent wages and brighter futures, mostly in western Europe and America. By 1922, unemployment was so rampant-and inflation so out of control-that Benito Mussolini and his nationalist Fascists had little trouble bullying their way to power. Olivotto, still a teenager, packed his bags and headed west, spending the next seventeen years as a laborer in France. His expatriate life came to an abrupt end in 1940, however, when Hitler's panzers quickly overran French resistance. The Germans forced most Italian émigrés to return home, where they were immediately conscripted into the military. 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. By 1942, Private Olivotto was an army truck driver, stuck in the miserable heat of the Libyan desert. Libya had been ceded by the Turks in 1912 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a brutal program of Italianization followed. By 1940, one hundred thousand Italians had been sent to Libya as settlers, hastening the death or dislocation of half the native Libyan population. In the meantime, the North African beachhead provided Mussolini a base to invade Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. But Il Duce's ambitions were cut short. On a moonless night in November 1942, U.S. and British troops stormed the shoreline in Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Just three days later, the Allies controlled Morocco and Algeria, the entire western third of North Africa. Within weeks, the British Eighth army, surging from Egypt in the east, rolled into Tripoli, capital of Italian Libya. Olivotto and thousands of his fellow soldiers were forced to retreat west into Tunisia, where they were caught in a vice between advancing Americans, British, and French on one side and General Montgomery on the other. War correspondent Ernie Pyle, who slept, ate, and marched with troops in Tunisia, was one of the few American reporters to write unabashedly about what he admiringly called the "God-damned infantry":
I was sitting among clumps of sword grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we had just taken, looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear. A narrow path wound like a ribbon over another hill. All along the length of that ribbon there was a thin line of men. For four days and nights they had fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights had been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery . . . Their walk was slow, for they were dead weary, as a person could tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies spoke their inhuman exhaustion . . . Their faces were black and unshaved. They were young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion made them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they passed was no hatred, no excitement, no despair, no tonic of their victory-there was just the simple expression of being there as if they had been there doing that forever, and nothing else.One of those retreating from the American advance was John Apice, an Italian tank driver. "Our battles were tough. The heat in the tanks, and the lack of food and drinks, made it so hard to be able to drive those damn tanks for hours at a time. We moved around to fight. We usually never went more than a couple of days before another battle broke out. Our battles lasted a couple of hours, or several months. There was never any way to tell which one it would be . . . For every man we killed, there were another two behind him. For every tank we destroyed, there were two more on each side. We were outnumbered and tired and sick." Little wonder that soldiers on both sides were glad when they ran out of land at the tip of Tunisia.
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Jack Hamann has been a news reporter, network correspondent, and documentary producer for more than two decades and has served most recently as Seattle bureau chief for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He has won ten Emmy Awards for his work. On American Soil won the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award; previous winners include Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Neil Sheehan, among others.
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