Detail from the cover of The Interpreter
Author Alice Kaplan discusses her new book, which recounts the disproportionate number of black soldiers executed for capital crimes shortly after the liberation of France. The book is told through the eyes of a French interpreter.
Read an Excerpt: Chapter One, Plumaudan
At dawn on November 24, 1944, the day after Thanksgiving, a two-and-a-half-ton American Army truck made its way from the Disciplinary Center at Le Mans to Plumaudan, Brittany. Its destination: an abandoned château down the road from the village church. The Army had chosen one of Plumaudan's only imposing structures for the ceremony. Château la Vallée was a fourteenth-century manor house, deserted for years, with rickety stone walls and gaping holes where windows had been, a round tower, a lower square building facing the road into the village, and a courtyard the size of a baseball field.
There in the courtyard, a group of Military Police unloaded their kit: large pieces of wood, slats, steps, a crossbar for the rope. The sky over Plumaudan was relentlessly gray that Friday morning and it looked like it might never stop raining. There was a wet chill in the air, the kind that goes straight to your bones — a prelude to the coming winter, so bitter cold it would freeze the rivers.
The villagers awoke to the sounds of hammering. The mayor had received his instructions two weeks earlier. The citizens of Plumaudan were to be informed, but official attendance should be limited to authorities designated by the American Army. No photographs could be taken, the Americans had said, and the local press was to omit the name of the condemned man or his unit from any of its articles.
Thirty American soldiers had also received instructions. From units stationed all over Brittany and Normandy, from Caen to Morlaix, they were ordered to leave their posts for one day of temporary duty in a village located seven miles southwest of Dinan. They reported that Friday morning to the Commanding Officer, Seine Disciplinary Training Center. He arranged them in the courtyard, designating some as "official witnesses," others as "authorized spectators." It was only then that they learned what their duty was.
In one hour, an American soldier was going to hang. His name was James E. Hendricks. He was a black GI from a quartermaster battalion that had camped in a field in Le Percoul, a tiny farming hamlet up the hill from Plumaudan, back in August, only days after the town was liberated from the Nazis.
The soldiers who had been brought to observe knew little about the crime except that Hendricks had killed a local peasant. A court-martial had found him guilty and sentenced him to hang by the neck until dead. But they all knew the policy: GIs who committed crimes against French civilians were punished in the community where the crime occurred.
At 10:59 A.M., a cargo truck with its white U.S. ARMY stencil and flapping canvas top arrived in the courtyard, delivering the condemned man. General Prisoner James Hendricks was escorted by a procession of two guards and four officers to the platform on the gallows.
Hendricks was twenty-one years old, with round cheeks, gentle eyes, and dark brown skin that stood out next to his guards' ruddy white faces. He wore his uniform, but his jacket had been stripped bare of the modest insignia that identified him as a private first class in the quartermaster battalion. He had killed Victor Bignon, a decorated World War I veteran and a respected farmer who sat on the Plumaudan town council. Madame Bignon and her daughter had kept to themselves since the trial, and rumors abounded in the village about what happened to them the night of the crime.
James Hendricks had been confined to the guardhouse in Saint-Vougay, in the western part of Brittany, since his sentencing. His closest contact there was with Lt. Robert Saunders, one of the Army's few black Baptist chaplains. The task of preparing James Hendricks to die was one of the most difficult of Saunders's Army career. Back in 1943, he had been attached to the same quartermaster battalion as Hendricks at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, a training camp for black GIs. The poor conditions at Camp Van Dorn had so appalled the forty-year-old chaplain that he tried to resign his commission. He understood, better than anyone, what Hendricks's life had been like since he was drafted into the segregated Army. At Saint-Vougay the two men had prayed together on Thanksgiving. Now, on the gallows at Plumaudan, they were still side by side.
Saunders was not the only black man at Plumaudan on November 24. Three African American enlisted men from service units other than Hendricks's had been ordered to attend the ceremony. It was lip service to the so-called "separate but equal" policy of Army segregation, which stipulated in the memorandum on hangings that there were to be black witnesses present along with the whites.
Hendricks's own Army buddies were spared the gruesome privilege of seeing their comrade hang. The 3326th Quartermaster Truck Company, which had played a key role in Brittany by transporting the supplies crucial for winning the Brest campaign, had moved on to Belgium and Holland. With them was Hendricks's commanding officer, Lt. Donald Tucker, who had testified in court to the young man's fine behavior before the shooting. Hendricks's defense counsel, and two officers from the court-martial who had requested that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison, were also in Belgium, en route to Germany.
After Hendricks's feet were bound, the ceremony proper began. The commandant asked him the requisite question:
"Do you have a last statement to make before the order directing your execution is carried out?"
Chaplain Saunders began to recite the Twenty-third Psalm: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul..."
The commandant interrupted the verse; it was time for Saunders to ask Hendricks his own official question, as dictated by the strict protocol of the hanging memorandum.
"Do you have a statement to make to me as Chaplain?"
"Thank you for what you've did for me," James Hendricks answered. "Tell all the boys not to do what I did."
Amidst the carnage of World War II, the spectacle at Plumaudan was a minor incident. Only a dozen men had been at James Hendricks's trial. The crowd that came to watch him hang was small. Once they were gone, who would remember what he did, what happened to him, or what it meant? Ordinary crimes such as his are not part of the story of D-Day or the legacy of the Greatest Generation. They seem destined to fade in memory, then disappear forever. Except that one man could not forget. He was a Frenchman and writer named Louis Guilloux.
Guilloux was not at the ceremony on that rainy November day, but he knew more about Hendricks's crime and punishment than anyone at Plumaudan. He had attended James Hendricks's court-martial as an interpreter, translating the testimony of the French civilian witnesses into English for the Americans. He had witnessed many acts of war and occupation — cowardly acts and heroic ones — but these American military trials haunted him for decades. He remembered Hendricks's story in all its details.
There were a few things people always liked to say about Louis Guilloux. He had a perfect ear for language, and a perfect sense of justice. His ear for language came through in the dialogue he wrote, and in his ability to translate. He spoke English beautifully, though he had only been in England once, as a boy.
His sense of justice was just as sharp. It didn't have to do with ideology, but with a kind of lucidity about the world, about what mattered, what was fair and unfair. When Guilloux sensed an injustice, he wouldn't let it rest. His friends still remember him, cradling a pipe in his left hand, tilting his head, his eyes sparkling with discernment. He didn't care if you agreed with him or not. He liked to ask uncomfortable questions, and he wasn't satisfied until he understood the answers, in all their complexity.
After a month working for military justice in the U.S. Army, Louis Guilloux began to sense that something was very wrong: "The guilty were always black," he mused, "so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other."
Postwar Army statistics confirm Guilloux's intuition. In an After Action Report, the Judge Advocate General's Department revealed that seventy men were executed for capital crimes in the European Theater of Operations between 1943 and 1946. Fifty-five of them were African Americans. That's 79 percent in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black.
Guilloux thought about it for twenty years, then he began to write. He had served as interpreter in four cases. He had seen six black GIs condemned to life in prison for rape and two more black GIs sentenced to hang for rape and murder. In his final trial, a white officer, on trial for murder, was acquitted. It took him twelve years of work and as many drafts to turn the memories of his time with the Americans into a novel. He concentrated on the trial of the black private James Hendricks, who was condemned to hang at Plumaudan, and the white officer George Whittington, whom the Army found innocent.
Although he wrote in French, Guilloux was always an interpreter at heart. He wanted the language and spirit of the GIs to be central to his story, so he gave his book a title in American English. He called it OK, Joe.
Copyright © 2005 by Alice Kaplan