Saturday, August 02, 2008

Dishonored Soldier Gets Apology From Army, Dies Next Day

Samuel Snow was wrongly convicted of rioting and murder in 1944 while in the Army in Seattle, Washington. His job was munitions handling as it was for many Negro soldiers during segregated World War II. Near his duty station at Fort Lawton, was a POW camp housing Italian soldiers. The Italian POWs, who just months before had been killing American soldiers in N. Africa, were allowed under supervision to come and go day and night. The POWs were allowed entry to stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and cafes to which the uniformed Negroes were forbidden.

The Associated Press reports:

SEATTLE (AP) - A day after the Army formally apologized for the wrongful conviction of 28 black soldiers in a riot and lynching in Seattle in 1944, 1 of the soldiers has died.

Rep. Jim McDermott says 83-year-old Samuel Snow died Sunday.

Snow came to Seattle to hear the formal apology delivered Saturday by Ronald James, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. But he missed the ceremony at Discovery Park because he was admitted to Virginia Mason Hospital with an irregular heartbeat.

Snow's son, Ray Snow, says receiving the long-delayed honorable discharge left his father at ease.
This is the Washington State History Online Encyclopedia version of the events of the riot and murder:

Riot involving African American soldiers occurs at Fort Lawton and an Italian POW is lynched on August 14, 1944.

On August 14, 1944, several dozen African American soldiers riot at Seattle’s Fort Lawton against Italian prisoners of war, and the next morning one of the Italians, Guglielmo Olivotto, is discovered hanged. Newspaper accounts in the coming days attribute the riot to the resentment of the black soldiers toward the Italian Prisoners of War due to the seemingly lenient, congenial treatment of the Italian soldiers. This is the story that receives nationwide attention, that Seattle officials and citizens react to, and that goes down in history. It is the story related in an earlier version of this file. What actually happened was suppressed at the time: the Army classified its investigation, and contemporary newspaper accounts were based on hearsay gathered in a bar days later and on similar dubious sources. The ensuing court martial results in the conviction of 23 African American soldiers, including one for killing Olivotto. Sixty years later the Army’s investigation conducted by Brigadier General Elliot D. Cooke is declassified, and researcher
Jack Hamann discovers that what was alleged to have happened was not what really happened. This file is largely based on his book, On American Soil. As a result of Hamann's book, four of the soldiers will petition the Army to reconsider their cases, and in October 2007 Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records will overturn the four convictions, leaving the way open for all the cases to be reopened.

Fort Lawton: 1944

Fort Lawton, in the Magnolia Bluff neighborhood of Seattle, was an Army training base and staging area for combat in the Pacific. In 1944, a group of Italian Prisoners Of War, were stationed at the fort to perform labor and maintenance duties. These particular Italian soldiers were carefully selected -- in general they had been drafted into the war and had been unenthusiastic soldiers, unlike other Prisoners Of War who were committed fascists and difficult to handle. The Army was highly concerned with treating Prisoners Of War humanely in order to conform to the Geneva convention and because any poor treatment would likely be paid for by American Prisoners Of War in Europe. But some local citizens and military men objected to the lenient, congenial treatment this selected group of POWs received in Seattle. After all, a year and a half before, they had been battling U.S. troops in Africa. These Italian prisoners enjoyed supervised visits to area homes, taverns, and to the movies.

Also stationed at Fort Lawton were several segregated Port Companies of the Transportation Corps, composed of African Americans trained to unload ships in combat areas. According to contemporary newspaper reports of the episode, these troops resented Fort Lawton's Italian POWs who visited local taverns, which excluded black enlisted men. Among the resentments were allegedly that local women lavished attention on the Italians. "[G]irls come out to service dances and make a big fuss over the Italians," a Seattle Times article dated August 18, 1944, reported. "They find 'em romantic. You know, speaking a foreign language and all that."

Also present at Fort Lawton were white Military Police (MP) and some 10,000 other soldiers.

The Event

On August 14, 1944, the black troops were notified that the next day they would be shipped overseas. That night there was a big party in their mess hall. Late in the evening, three Italians returning from town encountered three African Americans. All had been drinking. The groups clashed, supposedly leaving one black American unconscious. A particular MP, a private, came by and took the unconscious man away to the hospital. This MP claimed that one of the soldiers blew a whistle and trouble then started. Supposedly angry at the injury of one of their group, a number of black soldiers entered the Italian bunkhouse and orderly room and began severely beating and stabbing the Italians along with the four American translators present.

Italians ran out of bed, hid under furniture, and ran out to hide in nearby woods. The barracks and orderly room were wrecked. Thirty-two men were later hospitalized; a dozen sustained severe injuries including three fractured skulls, penetrating knife wounds, and shattered bones (p. 142). The following morning the same MP who had transported the supposedly unconscious black soldier to the hospital, along with another MP, discovered the body of Guglielmo Olivotto at the foot of Magnolia Bluff, hanging on wires that were part of the obstacle course.

Questions and Odd Occurrences

The MP who transported the unconscious black soldier later testified concerning the trouble starting and the whistle blowing, but at the time he drove right past the guardhouse without stopping to report trouble. He drove past the nearby hospital with the injured black soldier, taking him instead to a hospital on the far side of Fort Lawton. Another witness reported that there was no whistle.

After the attack started, several panicked phone calls were made from the Italian quarters, but there was a remarkable lapse of 30 to 45 minutes before Military Police arrived on the scene.

At least one white man was seen among the rioters, hitting Italians with a baton (p. 96).

A black soldier, among those detained after the riot, wrote to a friend in Washington D.C., giving his version of events. The white MPs, he said, had been harassing the Italians for days at the PX, “and trying to get the colored troops involved.” In general, he said, it was the whites who resented the Italians, far more than the blacks (p. 113).

Either through remarkable incompetence or a cover-up, all evidence of the identity of particular black rioters was destroyed. The Italian barracks were repaired and repainted with dazzling speed -- within 24 hours. Not a single fingerprint was taken, though they were everywhere. None of the white MPs could recall exactly who the black rioting troops were, claiming “you can’t tell one from another.”

All the black troops of both companies, whether or not they were involved in the riot, were herded into a stockade but allowed to keep their weapons. When their weapons were finally confiscated they were not tagged or in any way treated as evidence. They were thrown in a heap (p. 140-141).

There were no signs of struggle on Olivotto’s body. (However, there were superficial abrasions on his legs.) An important fact is that Olivotto was extremely fearful of black people. He was last seen leaping in terror out of a window next to his bunk. A possibility is that he was driven away from the riot by someone he felt safe with, i.e., a white MP (p. 146-147). Most evidence at the scene of the hanging crime, including clear footprints and the rope, was destroyed. Dominic Moreo, in his Riot at Fort Lawton, 1944, points out that shoes, apparently belonging to Olivotto, were found in the nettles some distance away. This might suggest that he was dragged through the nettles, face down, probably by two people. But the evidence is too sketchy to draw a firm conclusion.

Whatever happened, the Army’s investigator, Brigadier General Cooke, was scandalized at the large amount of obvious lying under oath by many MPs and officers at Fort Lawton.


The death of an Italian prisoner of war became an important issue to American military and diplomatic officials. U.S. Forces were then battling German forces in France and Italy and any perception that the U.S. mistreated prisoners had important repercussions with world opinion and with the treatment of U.S. prisoners in German and Japanese hands. There was immediate and intense pressure to solve the crime apparently perpetrated by African Americans.

After a hasty review of the facts, 44 African American soldiers were charged with a variety of counts including riot and murder. Four of the defendants faced the death penalty.

The charges were prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Leon Jaworski, a Texas prosecutor in civilian life and later Watergate Special Prosecutor. The defense was handled by Major William Beeks, a Seattle maritime law specialist and later U.S. District Court Judge. Beeks was given two weeks to prepare a defense for 44 clients, including four accused of capital murder. In the end, two soldiers had charges dropped, 13 soldiers were acquitted, and 28 were convicted, two of manslaughter. It was the largest Army court martial during World War II.

After the war, the longer prison sentences were reduced by a clemency board, although some soldiers served as long as 25 years. Guglielmo Olivotto was buried at the cemetery at Fort Lawton in an area away from the American graves.

A Death Far from Home

Of Guglielmo Olivotto, Jack Hamann writes:

“Olivotto was a quiet man, well read and devoutly religious. He was lean, five feet ten inches and just 150 pounds. His eyes were dark; his hair was black and thick, except for a bald spot on the crown of his head; he wore a dark mustache. A thin scar slid down the right side of his scalp at hairline. He was never married and had no children. He didn’t drink or gamble. He had no interest in being a soldier” (p. 11).

Sixty-three Years Later

In late October 2007, the Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records, after a year of deliberation, ruled that the black soldiers court-martialed in the death of Olivotto were unfairly denied access to their attorneys and to investigative records and should have their convictions overturned. This ruling applies to four soldiers who petitioned military investigators (three of them, represented by their families, are no longer living).

The soldiers petitioned after the publication of Jack Hamann's book, with the aid of Congressman Jim McDermott, Democrat from Washington state, and Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican from California. Ultimately the ruling could cover another two-dozen soldiers convicted at the time.

The four soldiers who petitioned were Booker W. Townsell, of Milwaukee, Luther L. Larkin, of Searcy, Arkansas, William G. Jones, of Decatur, Illinois, and Samuel Snow, of Leesburg, Florida. Of these four, Snow alone is still alive. After serving a year in prison and being dishonorably discharged, Snow returned to his home in Leesburg, Florida, to raise two children and to work as a church janitor. He lived for decades with the dishonorable discharge and was denied benefits of the GI Bill and veterans' health care.

He is one of only two of the black soldiers believed to be still alive. Snow was convinced that the conviction was a racial injustice but nevertheless burned his Army paperwork in order to hide it from his children.

Restitution will include honorable discharges and back pay for the soldiers who petitioned.

Snow told a reporter, "I'm rejoicing today. I'm not mad at nobody. I'm just as satisfied as can be"(Martin).
Samuel Snow died the day after receiving a formal apology from the US Army. Pvt Samuel Snow is now officially Honorably discharged from the US Army. Pvt Snow was a good man in 1944 and Mr Snow was a good man afterward. He always knew that and now we all know. Thank you for your service, sir.

The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.


Gayle said...

It's almost as though Mr. Snow was waiting for this apology so that he could go to his final resting place knowing that the world knew of his innocence. How tragic this had to happen to him.

That one part where one guy said "they all look alike" for once was a blessing instead of a putdown. I personally don't see how anyone could say all blacks look alike, but since so many people believed that, it was an easy way to not name anyone. :)

Indigo Red said...

I think that's exactly what happened, Gayle, and I'm glad that came across without saying so. My sister, Indigo Rose, sent the pair of stories to me. I'm sure that's what she was suggesting.

There are few histories of WWII POW camps in America. But, one thing they have in common - the POWs were allowed into establishments that uniformed Negroes were not. While these men and women could be in harm's way from enemy shells and bullets in many ways, their lives were at greatest risk in white owned businesses everywhere in their own country.

I feel greater shame as an American over this than I do over slavery. A war was fought to correct the mistake of slavery. Slavery of the African was understood to be the way the Good Lord had intended life. That was wrong, of course, but that is what was believed and practiced. The wanton discrimination was a conscious choice of bright people to be utterly stupid. No amount of apologizing can rectify that.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there are many soldiers who would like to have their youthfull military mistakes eraised as they get older, but why is it that the blacks had so many of these riots during war time. Their no combat jobs is a direct result of the hundreds of armed black US soldiers that switched side during the Philippine war of 1900-1904.

BB-Idaho said...

Starting in the civil war, blacks
were kept in segregated units. Despite this treatment, they performed their duties well:
In the modern integrated military
they are treated as equals and fellow team members..a far better
situation for all.

The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

I heard about the apology, but didn't know about Samuel Snow. Thanks for bringing his story to my attention.

indigo rose said...

I don't understand what anonymous is speaking of..."youthful military mistakes".... These black soldiers were proven INNOCENT.
And the "no combat jobs".... you are not very informed if you believe that blacks were not sent overseas. The segregated black units received many commendations, but for the stupidity of the people whose freedom they were fighting for, their accomplishments were kept quiet.

indigo rose said...

I took time to look up the history of the Buffalo Soldier and the Philipine Insurrection, now commonly known as the Philipine-American War.
According to the article in the National Park Service archives, there were only FIFTEEN US soldiers, SIX of them Black, that defected to Aquinaldo.
Six does not equal One Hundred.

Indigo Red said...

You beat me to the response to Anonymous, Rose. I found the same data.

What I didn't know was that the Spanish forces in the Philipines were waiting for Adm Dewey to rescue them from the Filipinos. Officially we were allied with the Filipinos, but when Dewey arrived, an agreement was made with the Spanish. Dewey fired a few perfunctory shots and the Spanish 'surrendered'.

The Filipinos, thinking the US fleet was going to help them, started attacking Spanish forces. US and Spanish forces then turned on the Filipinos. Dewey fired all guns at the Filipinos. Their new president fled into the jungles leaving over 800 dead in the trenches dug on the beaches.

The US was then at war with The Philipines. This was the only time that America officially was out to gain an empire. Many of the black soldiers saw the Filipinos as fighting for their freedom from the Spanish and were willing to fight and die for other colored people trying to fr themselves from domination of a European power.

After being ordered to turn their weapons on the native forces, many of the Buffalo Soldiers no longer supported the war. Although a few left their posts to join the rebels, most remained with their outfits and served honorably in what was always an unnecessay war the hysteria of which was fanned by newspapers across the US.

The leading proponent of war was the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. For years, Hearst newspapers ran article about the situation in Cuba and when the USS Maine exploded in Havanna Harbor, Hearst blamed it on the Spanish.

Spanish responsibility has always been in doubt. In recent years however, US divers were permitted to examine the wreckage and found the the ship was damaged by an internal explosion. The most probable cause was burst boiler. In those days, the boilers were made of iron that rusted and weakened quickly. Many boilers exploded just like the one on the Maine.

But Hearst got his war, sold alot of newspapers and became a millionaire as a result. For the US government, the desire to create an empire in the mold of Spain, England, and France began and ended in the Philipines.