Wrongly Convicted WWII Vets Cleared, Honored Just hours before he died last month, Samuel Snow finally got his wish. The Army formally apologized to the World War II vet and affirmed his honorable discharge. NPR's Tony Cox speaks with journalist Jack Hamann, author of On American Soil, and Lashell Drake, granddaughter of one of the exonerated veterans.
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Wrongly Convicted WWII Vets Cleared, Honored

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Wrongly Convicted WWII Vets Cleared, Honored

Wrongly Convicted WWII Vets Cleared, Honored

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TONY COX, host:

Sixty-four years. That's how long Samuel Snow waited for vindication. He and 27 other African-American soldiers were wrongly convicted for a 1944 riot that left an Italian POW dead. Last month the Army held a ceremony to apologize to those World War II Vets, and affirm their honorable discharges. But now, received word - Snow received word from his hospital bed, and died just hours later. He was 84.

Today we remember Mr. Snow, and all those soldiers whose names have finally been cleared. I'm joined now by Jack Hamann, who wrote the book, "On American Soil." It prompted an Army review of the convictions, and Lashell Drake is the granddaughter of Booker Townsell. His case set the precedent for the Army's exoneration. Jack, Lashell, welcome to the show.

Mr. JACK HAMANN (Author, "On American Soil"): Thank you, Tony.

Ms. LASHELL DRAKE (Granddaughter of Booker Townsell): Thank you.

COX: Jack, let's start with you. Explain for us briefly, what led to the Army offering an apology, and honorable discharge, to these World War II veterans so many, many years later?

Mr. HAMANN: Our research found, Tony, that the Army itself knew back in 1944 that the African-American men that they had accused of this riot and lynching, were, for the most part, not likely to be the ones who committed it, and even to the extent that there may have been some involvement, of some degree, their whole trial, their whole conviction was all based on material that was - something that was not acceptable back then, in military or civilian courts.

So Congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle proposed legislation, he eventually got Republicans like Duncan Hunter of California, to agree. They demanded that the Army reopen the case, and after vetting the book, and the information we'd uncovered for more than a year, the Army's highest court agreed to overturn all the convictions.

COX: Lashell, your grandfather was one of those, along with Samuel Snow. I'm going to ask you to talk about both men, in just a moment, but we know that Mr. Snow spoke to NPR member station KUOW on the day before the army's official apology ceremony last month.

Mr. SAMUEL SNOW (Vindicated World War II veteran): It run across my mind everyday. But I didn't let that effect me. I said, I ain't did this. Ain't no need me worrying about it.

COX: That was Samuel Snow. You met him, Lashell, and tell us about him and your grandfather, and how important this was to both of them.

Ms. DRAKE: Samuel Snow was the most humble man you ever wanted to meet, and yet he still exuded an air of royalty about himself. With our without an honorable discharge, he knew who he was, and most importantly, who he was. The city of Seattle and the U.S. Army treated him like he was a king, and with every kind gesture, and with every kind word, we saw the faces of our loved ones receiving it through him when he was in Seattle.

And when our loved ones weren't there, Sam Snow interceded, and he received those kind things for them. We received many honors and many proclamations from, literally, every government official, and hosts, and many guests, that we will always cherish, but the honor that we will cherish the most would be the honor of meeting Mr. Samuel Snow.

COX: Jack, this is for you. The Army's ruling included compensation for pay, back pay obviously, and privileges lost as a result of their convictions. But Mr. Snow received a mere 725 dollars in back pay for the salary he lost. But tell our audience what Mr. Snow did with his money.

Mr. HAMANN: Well, he called me up, and he said, Mr. Hamann, what do I do with this? It says if I sign it, I will give up my rights for future claims. And I said, what do you think you ought to do, Mr. Snow? And he said, well I don't think I should cash this. So his -member of the senate Bill Nelson, and once again, Congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle, proposed legislation that would allow the Army to pay interest on claims.

The 725 was just the amount he would have been paid had he been getting his monthly or weekly, checks back in 1944. That legislation is now passed the House of Representatives, and it's waiting for our United States Senate to get going on it.

COX: Does that mean that there then is - if I'm understanding you correctly, that there's still an opportunity for Mr. Snow's family, and others, to be compensated for the money, and privileges, that they lost?

Mr. HAMANN: Yeah, it will happen. I mean, there's just - it's a matter of time right now. This is a bi-partisan effort; President Bush's own Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, has spoken on behalf of the bill, urging Congress to pass it. There is no opposition other than the inertia, and you know, it's something we know that will happen.

We'd just returned from the funeral, by the way, of Mr. Snow. And I must say with all the tributes that were there in his little town, not a single mention was made of money, ever, in four days that we were there. It's - it was all about Mr. Snow, and I think the family considers the money to be a great acknowledgment of all of what men have done during World War II, for Fort Lawton, but they were not focusing on that, they were focusing on Mr. Snow.

COX: I remember reading that Mr. Snow was supposed to be at the ceremony, but fell ill, and I don't know whether he made it to Seattle, or not. It was in the hospital in Seattle, and then died, or - and there was something about his son. Tell us, briefly, that story.

Mr. HAMANN: Oh, it was incredibly touching. We had four days of tributes planned, including a Thursday night ceremony in which the local university, Seattle University, which is a Jesuit College, had a catholic mass in honor of the prisoner of war who had been lynched that began all of this. Who, by the way, we now know was not lynched by black soldiers.

Mr. Snow, who is a lifelong member of the AME Church, African Methodist Church, decided, to the surprise of his family, to accept Catholic communion that night, and now, in retrospect, they thought that was quite significant. And the next evening in Seattle, the community held a dinner in honor of all of the families who'd arrived, including Lashell Drake, and the rest of her family, and others.

And Mr. Snow was there, and he spent quite a bit of time conversing with others, and enjoying their memories that they shared, including one of the lawyers who had defended him, who is now 95 years old. And then later that night, he was admitted to the hospital in Seattle because his pacemaker began to work a bit overtime.

The next day his son represented him when the entire community came together, in this giant ceremony, and among other things, presented the various families, and the Snow family the honorable discharge. The family brought it to Mr. Snow in his hospital bed. He grinned, he held it, he looked just elated, according to the family. And just a few hours later, with the family at his side, he passed away.

COX: Quite a story. I want to thank both of you for coming on, Lashell and Jack, because Jack, you've been very involved in the telling of this story, and it has a bitter sweet, but a happy ending as well, doesn't it? Lashell Drake is the granddaughter of Booker Townsell, one of the soldiers wrongly convicted, and now cleared, in the Fort Lawton case. Journalist Jack Hamann, author of the book, "On American Soil," he joined us from the studios of WLRN in Miami, Florida. You can find photos from the Army's apology ceremony in Seattle at our website, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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