On a hot August night in 1944, a soldier’s body was discovered hanging by a rope from a cable spanning an obstacle course at Seattle’s Fort Lawton. The body was identified as Private Guglielmo Olivotto, one of the thousands of Italian prisoners of war captured and brought to America.
The murder stunned the nation and the international community. Under pressure to respond quickly, the War Department convened a criminal trial at the fort, charging three African American soldiers with the lynching and firstdegree murder of Private Olivotto. Forty other soldiers were charged with rioting, accused of storming the Italian barracks on the night of the murder. All forty-three soldiers were black. There was no evidence implicating any of these men. Leon Jaworski, later the lead prosecuter at the Watergate trial, was appointed to prosecute the case and seek the death penalty for three men who were most assuredly innocent.
Through his access to previously classified documents and the information gained from extensive interviews, journalist Jack Hamann tells the whole story behind World War II’s largest army court-martial—a story that raises important questions about how justice is carried out when a country is at war.
An explosive but forgotten WWII incident that took place on native ground is unearthed by former NewsHour Seattle bureau chief Hamann. In August 1944, the Seattle area played host to Italian POWs on parole and to African-American GIs recently returned from overseas or waiting to ship out. The Italians had freedom of movement and received hospitality in Seattle homes; the African-Americans were subject to massive discrimination and restrictions. The resulting tension led to escalating scuffles, which in turn led to a riotous assault by the GIs on the Italians' quarters and to the death of one Italian. Forty-three GIs faced court-martial; three faced hanging. Hamann shows a then-unknown Leon Jaworski, nearly 30 years before Watergate, using his prosecutorial skills to the fullest, leaning on prejudices in order to make a case for murder. The lead defense attorney, Maj. William Beeks, cleared one third of the defendants (against whom Jaworski had marshalled only "hearsay and innuendo"); the rest were court-martialed, some with imprisonment but no one was hanged. Hamann reconstructs the courtroom scenes admirably and gives shape to the riot itself. He is best in depicting the men involved and the waste of lives that the episode entailed.