Black Soldiers Exonerated in WWII Lynching Incident

Forty-three soldiers, all African Americans, were court-martialed and convicted of lynching an Italian prisoner of war during World War II. The Defense Department recently exonerated the men and sent at least one of the two survivors a check for $725 in back pay.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

A man named Samuel Snow in Leesburg, Florida, received a check from the Army earlier this week after he was exonerated in October. It was meant to be the final chapter of a story that started over 60 years ago at Fort Lawton in Seattle.

Samuel Snow was one of 43 African-American soldiers convicted of rioting and lynching an Italian POW during World War II. It was the largest and longest court martial of the war. Snow served jail, was dishonorably discharged, and spent some 60 years living the legacy of that conviction.

Well, last month, an Army review board overturned Snow's court martial and not of the other men. Thanks largely to a book called "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II."

Jack Hamann is the author. I asked him to give us a summary of the case as it stood before he began investigating it.

Mr. JACK HAMANN (Author, "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II"): Well, for the last 60 years, the conventional wisdom had been that because during World War II, the United States was determined to treat its prisoners of war far more humanely than it ever had, that there had been quite a bit of resentment by many Americans including many soldiers it was alleged. When these 43 men were prosecuted, it was under the theory, and this was what all the media reported then, that black soldiers, in particular, were incensed about the treatment of Italians, saying that they were being treated better than the American black soldiers were.

It didn't add up to me that blacks then now, or at any anytime, might logically be accused of lynching. It's never been ever in the history of the United States, there's never been another case where blacks were put on trial for lynching. And with that bit of suspicion, we were able to find out that the Army itself was suspicious way back in 1944, and we discovered after many weeks and months of searching in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., this extraordinary document in thousands of pages that showed that the Army back then, pretty much knew that this case was a sham.

SEABROOK: And the real story was?

Mr. HAMANN: Well, the real story was that there was a confrontation between a couple of black soldiers and a couple of Italians but they were drunk, young soldiers, and it would have stopped there. But for the encouragement and eventually the criminal participation of a white MP, a Leon Jaworski, it turns out, knew all along about this report…

SEABROOK: He…

Mr. HAMANN: …but chose to pursue it anyway.

SEABROOK: He was the prosecutor at that time and later became the famous Watergate prosecutor.

Mr. HAMANN: That's right, yeah. Leon Jaworski, brilliant, young lawyer. The Army needed their best to prosecute this large trial. And as we discovered, he was quite eager to advance his career and, in fact, when he got a verdict in this case in his favor, he did advance his career and became one of the prosecutors' war criminals in Europe after the war.

SEABROOK: So you wrote a book about this, "On American Soil," and then, what happened?

Mr. HAMANN: Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat of Seattle, was given a copy of the book and he called me one day to say, what can Congress do? Of all things my mother, who lives in San Diego, wrote a letter to her congressman, Duncan Hunter. He was then the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

SEABROOK: A Republican from Southern California.

Mr. HAMANN: Yeah. And the two of them vetted the case. They looked through the sources that we had cited and jointly decided to go to the United States Army and say to the Army board of review, hey, take a look at this. And the Army board of review issued a resounding, really, unprecedented verdict that - on appeal saying that the entire case needed to be tossed out.

They said that Leon Jaworski had committed an egregious error - that was their words - in withholding this report that had been repaired. And he said that all of these defendants had been denied fundamental fairness and declared that they should, not only have their - the convictions tossed out, but they should be paid was due to them for all their salary and benefits that had been denied to them.

SEABROOK: Samuel Snow was one of those men. He is now 84 years old, living in Leesburg, Florida. Snow's name has been cleared after 63 years.

Mr. SAMUEL SNOW (World War II Veteran): You know, I didn't sleep well at night. You think about it as the all day, all the time. It never leaves you. I couldn't get no military job. I couldn't (unintelligible) civil service for years. But I wasn't bitter because a man had me as a janitor at a church.

SEABROOK: Snow heard last month that the U.S. Army would finally make amends.

Mr. SNOW: I got the news from my jackhammer(ph). He told me I was exonerated, and I was glad and I was uplifted and the burden came off of (unintelligible).

SEABROOK: But the story isn't over yet. This past week, Mr. Snow received a check in the mail from the Army for the back pay it said Snow is entitled to. The check was for $725 - $725.

If this seems like a modest amount, Colonel Daniel Baggio, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Army, has this explanation.

Colonel DANIEL BAGGIO (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Army): We do have an Army regulation that the, you know, governs operation, you know, for these correction of military records. And within that regulation, there is no provision in the law or regulation that provides for the payment of, you know, interests, damages, pain and suffering or attorney fees but - so, and there's no adjustment for inflation.

But what we do compensate for would be the money that the person would have earned, you know, during - in the case we're talking about, a period of court martial conviction, the time that you're actually incarcerated. You would be compensated for that money that was paid at that rate that was then in effect.

SEABROOK: The congressman, who originally brought the case to the Pentagon's review board, Jim McDermott of Washington says the Army should do more.

Representative JIM McDERMOTT (Republican, Washington): This case was always about righting a wrong. It was about getting justice for somebody who had been wronged by the government. And I'm pleased that we were able to get this brought to their attention and get a reversal of the conviction. But sending him $725 after having - had a bad conduct discharge, couldn't get into college, all the losses over the course of time, it seems to me is just compoundingly injustice.

SEABROOK: Samuel Snow has not cashed his check for $725. Congressman McDermott says when he gets back to Congress this week, he'll push the Pentagon to do more for Mr. Snow.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Jack Hamann, the writer who spent years delving into the case of these young African-American soldiers, he gives us a parting words tonight. Here is what Hamann has to say about the exoneration of Samuel Snow and the others.

Mr. HAMANN: The first draft of history is always written by those in power, but it's never the only draft of history. There's always the stories of so many other people who weren't then in power and for me it's kind of an exciting, you know, life lesson that it's really important not to take the conventional wisdom for granted forever.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: And that's today's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a good week.

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