Thanks to a chance encounter with sewage, the stench of a historic injustice has at last been removed.
I was a young news reporter for KING-TV in 1986, eyes glazed as local officials droned on about proposed expansion of a sewage treatment plant at Seattle’s Discovery Park. Sensing my boredom, a park ranger slid to my side.
“Discovery Park has so many hidden treasures,” she whispered, “it’s too bad so many reporters overlook them.” For much of the 20th century, she told me, the park had been a U.S. Army post called Fort Lawton. Among the few remaining artifacts was a small, well-manicured cemetery, filled to capacity with uniform rows of military headstones. Over to one corner, however, was a striking, tall headstone shaped like a Roman column with an inscription in Italian. No one at the park knew why it stood apart from the others.
Thus began a 20-year quest. It turned out that the column marked the grave of an Italian soldier named Guglielmo Olivotto. He had died on August 14, 1944, exactly one year before Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Private Olivotto, I was shocked to discover, had been a prisoner of war. More surprising still was that he had been lynched, and that the men who had been accused of his murder were African-American soldiers.
There were many more surprises to come. Back in 1944, Olivotto’s death sparked months of investigation and led to the largest and longest army court-martial of World War II. Forty-three U.S. soldiers—all of them black— were charged with rioting and, if convicted, faced possible life in prison. Three defendants were additionally charged with Olivotto’s lynching, a capital crime that carried a death sentence. To prosecute the case, the army assigned one of its rising stars, a brilliant young Texas lawyer named Leon Jaworski.
Leon Jaworski! The Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974 had greatly influenced my decision to become a journalist. Jaworski was a hero of that watershed event, the principled special prosecutor and victorious litigator in the landmark Supreme Court case U.S. v. Nixon. Former counsel to Lyndon Johnson, member of the Warren Commission, former president of the American Bar Association, Leon Jaworski (1905-82) was clearly one of the most accomplished lawyers of his generation. And here he was back in 1944, apparently seeking justice for poor Private Olivotto.
During a grinding five-week trial, Jaworski managed to convince all nine members of the court-martial panel that black American soldiers had viciously attacked a company of Italian prisoners. They were motivated, he said, by allegations that the POWs were treated better than black soldiers were in the segregated army of World War II. Twenty-eight defendants were eventually convicted of rioting; two were also found guilty of manslaughter. Each served time, and all but one was issued a dishonorable discharge. That, it seemed, was the history of the Fort Lawton incident.
After working the story for several months in 1986— including interviews with many of the trial’s participants—and producing a documentary for KING-TV that recounted the incident as I knew it, I moved on to other things. But something didn’t seem right.
In 2001 my wife, Leslie, and I, curious about the peculiar allegation that black men might choose a noose as a murder weapon, decided to revisit the Fort Lawton incident full-time. We scoured the country for clues, conducting many more interviews and visiting libraries, museums and archives throughout the nation. We were intrigued by the fortitude of surviving defendants, each of whom still calmly and clearly denied his guilt.
After months of research, a smoking gun surfaced. At the National Archives in College Park, Md., we discovered that Pentagon officials, sharing some of the same suspicions we would harbor decades later, had dispatched a no-nonsense brigadier general to Seattle within weeks of the lynching. Elliott Cooke was to conduct an independent investigation on behalf of the inspector general.
Cooke’s scathing report found fault with nearly every aspect of the criminal investigation. He recommended reprimand for several of Fort Lawton’s highest-ranking officers. Tellingly, he also insisted that two white soldiers be court-martialed for their suspicious behavior the night of the riot and lynching.
One of those soldiers, Clyde Lomax, who reportedly discovered Olivotto’s body, was later dismissed from the army. Because Lomax was prosecuted by special court-martial and not a general court-martial, army procedures required that transcripts of the proceedings be sealed or destroyed.
Most damningly, we learned that a copy of the Cooke Report was made available prior to the start of the court-martial to Leon Jaworski—but not to the 43 defendants or their lawyers. Jaworski’s decision to keep the report under wraps, it turned out, violated established legal and ethical canons of the time. We became convinced that, but for those violations, the case against the defendants would have collapsed.
When our book, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, was first published in 2005, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) was inspired to join forces with Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) to insist that the army review the decades-old case.
On October 26, 2007, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records ruled unanimously that Jaworski had committed “egregious error” by withholding the Cooke Report, rendering his prosecution “fundamentally flawed.” All dishonorable discharges were changed to honorable, and “all rights, privileges and property lost as a result of that conviction” were ordered restored, to either the defendants or their estates.
Upon hearing the news, defendant Samuel Snow of Leesburg, Fla., now 83, spoke of the relief of unburdening a truth “I’d carried my whole life.” The daughter of deceased defendant Booker Townsell told of her mother’s grief at seeing her father buried in 1984 without an American flag draped on the casket, deprived of that honor by his dishonorable discharge. Even white soldiers who had been called as witnesses at the 1944 trial expressed gratitude that the army had finally set the record straight.
As for restoring all rights, privileges and property, however, The New York Times reported in December that Snow had received a check from the army for $725, the amount of back pay—without interest or adjustment for inflation—due to him in 1945. Rep. McDermott has asked the army to reconsider the amount for Snow and the others affected by the board’s decision.
Journalists know that their often-hurried reports are the first rough draft of history, and that those drafts are largely dictated by those in power. Yet first drafts usually represent just a small slice of the real story—the complicated, messy, textured truths are what make history so alive and compelling.
We didn’t set out to overturn the Fort Lawton verdicts. We were merely enthralled by a story with endless twists and turns. We were captured by characters who displayed courage or cowardice or both. We were struck by the many parallels on display in current headlines, including race, military justice and the treatment of prisoners of war.
Most of all, we were motivated to more carefully examine an official version of history that—like that sewage treatment plant—just didn’t smell right. Sometimes, you follow your nose and you end up inhaling the delicious complexity that is American history.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.