SHEILAH KAST, host:
This scenario could be the plot of a novel or a headline from today's newspapers, but it's history. A prisoner of war in American custody turns up dead; American soldiers are charged with his murder, even though there's conflicting testimony and precious little evidence. A new book details what happened in August 1944 when an Italian prisoner of war was found hanged on the beach of a US Army base on Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington. Hours earlier, his unit's barracks had been assaulted by black American enlisted men quartered nearby.
The trial that would follow was the Army's longest court-martial during World War II with the most defendants, prosecuted by a man who would become one of America's most famous lawyers, and according to author Jack Hamann it was a miscarriage of justice.
Hamann, a television correspondent and documentary producer, based his first book in part on nearly declassified evidence. The book is "On American Soil." Hamann joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle.
Welcome to the show.
Mr. JACK HAMANN (Author, "On American Soil"): Hi, Sheilah. Glad to be here.
KAST: Let's start with some background. How did Private Guglielmo Olivotto even come to be at Ft. Lawton, Seattle, in 1944?
Mr. HAMANN: The first big American assault of the war took place as General Patton and others swept across north Africa and met the British army and ended up capturing the two allied forces--a quarter of a million Italian and German prisoners. The allies were completely unprepared for that. They had very few facilities worldwide and the US went out of its way to try to absorb as many of those prisoners as they could. One company of those soldiers of Italians ended up in Seattle's Ft. Lawton.
KAST: And was there tension between the Italian POWs and the rest of the camp?
Mr. HAMANN: There was tension, and not just in Seattle but throughout America. There were headlines in newspapers that indicated that both veterans and current members of the military often looked at some of these prisoners and their impression should have been that they were in--they should have been in prison, that they should have been behind bars. And yet they were often given opportunities to go out on field trips and such and in some of the most emotional cases, there were articles about parents who were very upset that their daughters were dating usually the Italian prisoners.
KAST: And how did African-American soldiers fit in with the rest of the Army in 1944?
Mr. HAMANN: In 1944, as in all of the decades before, African-Americans were segregated from the rest of the Army. In Ft. Lawton, as in most US military installations, they were physically removed from the rest of the fort and in this particular fort, they made the decision to put the black soldiers in their own segregated, remote part of the fort, right next to the same barracks that they kept the Italian prisoners of war.
KAST: Now there's no dispute that there was a brawl between black soldiers and the POWs around the Italian barracks the night of August 14th, 1944, and that Olivotto was found hanging from a rope on the obstacle course a few hours later. How did the Army handle the investigation?
Mr. HAMANN: The Army was under tremendous pressure, domestically, within the Army, quietly and secretly, there were a lot of concerns and internationally that the world, if you will, viewed this as an outrage, that American soldiers could be capable of doing any kind of harm to prisoners of war. We had championed the then new Geneva Convention and US felt obligated to really rewrite the rules of warfare so that prisoners were no longer treated in the way they had been historically, which is to say very poorly. So the Army treated this with the highest priority and put their best lawyer they could find on it. And, frankly, the research shows, seemed to be determined to at any cost get a conviction.
KAST: And one would assume from what you just said that they did just a fabulous job of collecting the evidence.
Mr. HAMANN: Well, anything but that. The secret--then-secret documents that we have been able to find at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, show that the Army itself learned that the basics of collecting evidence after this event were utterly, thoroughly ignored. The footprints that were found underneath the hanging body of Olivotto were never cast as--plaster cast. Very few photos were taken. Actually, within hours after this event, every bit of residue of the melee had been cleaned up. Everything was painted, reboarded, so that there was no chance to get fingerprints. Even at the most basic, this man was hung by a rope, a noose, and the Army somehow lost the rope, the murder weapon, and yet still went ahead with the murder prosecution. Three were charged with murder. All of the 43 defendants charged with rioting.
KAST: You mentioned the prosecutor. The prosecutor was an ambitious lieutenant colonel named Leon Jaworski, who went on to a distinguished legal career including special prosecutor investigating President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. And this court-martial was a big, important case for Jaworski. How did he do?
Mr. HAMANN: Well, I have to say I was just really astonished. That might have been the clincher for me that this was a story, because I was certainly--knew that Jaworski had this very illustrious career, not just Watergate but he was part of the Kennedy investigation for the Warren Commission; he was one of Lyndon Johnson's attorneys, on and on and on. And very tellingly, Jaworski rarely mentioned in his voluminious biographies and autobiographies this particular case, even though it had a lot of importance. And I think when you asked me how he did, I think the book pretty conclusively shows that Leon Jaworski, a brilliant, brilliant lawyer, was at the time preoccupied with getting an assignment to help with the impending war crimes prosecutions of Germans in Germany, an assignment, by the way, which he was able to get, and there were many, many instances that the records and the trial bear out where Jaworski made decisions to withhold information that by the standards of the time then and certainly now a prosecutor would be obligated to share with the defense. And these were just basic, really alarming bits of facts that he had access to that a prosecutor should have and must be required to share with the defense, and he withheld those with great vigor.
KAST: And at the conclusion, what happened?
Mr. HAMANN: Of the 43 men who were charged with rioting and/or murder, 28 were ultimately convicted; two of them, of the manslaughter of Guglielmo Olivotto. And they served varying--or assigned, rather, varying terms of jail and prison time, as low as six months all the way up to 25 years at hard labor. All but one were initially dismissed from the Army without an honorable discharge, so with a dishonorable discharge.
KAST: Who do you think killed Guglielmo Olivotto?
Mr. HAMANN: I've been told quite kindly by many people that this book reads like a novel and so to a certain extent, answering that question, which I'm about to, will perhaps give it away for some people. The people who had the means, the motive and the opportunity to kill this man are very few. The whereabouts of just about everyone is carefully accounted for, but there is one white military policeman who was physically present at every key moment in the 48 hours around which these events swirl, and most tellingly he was always, always at a place and in a position where he could have been the person who killed--even more tellingly, the Army without making this public at all, within days of the end and the conviction of the black soldiers, quietly turned around and summarily dismissed him from the Army, on other charges. They didn't charge him with murder but they charged him with dereliction at this--around this case, but it was kept completely quiet and private. And I think the evidence fairly firmly shows that this is the one person who could have and likely did commit the crime.
KAST: Jack Hamann's book is "On American Soil: Murder, the Military and How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II," published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Mr. HAMANN: Thank you, Sheilah.
KAST: You can read an excerpt from the book and see a video about it at our Web site, npr.org.
You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.