Cold Case

The White House has awarded back pay plus interest to the families of an unusual group of veterans.

The 28 vets were not just World War II soldiers; they were black and had been dishonorably discharged. The convictions came in the aftermath of a deadly incident at Fort Lawton in Seattle. But things might not have been as they seemed, and more than 60 years later, following petitions from some of the soldiers and at the urging of lawmakers and other interested parties, history is being rewritten.

It might not have been a dark and stormy night, but the story plays like a “Cold Case” episode. Flashback a segregated military in August 1944. The story seems familiar: Black soldiers less than pleased to see POWs receiving better treatment from their Army than they received. Another theory is more clichéd: The white soldiers resented the good-looking and sometimes exotic Italian prisoners who were quite popular with the local girls whom they were allowed to date.

What happened Aug. 14 still is open to speculation. What is clear is there was a confrontation in the Italians’ barracks. At the time it was called a “riot,” and it was believed the black soldiers had led the assault. More than 30 men landed in the hospital, some with fractured skulls and stab wounds.

One Italian hung (dead) from a tree.

The next day black soldiers were rounded up. Did they riot as some allege? Were white soldiers involved? Had the dead Italian jumped from a window to escape the melee as some of the other prisoners stated? Did it matter? A dead POW was a big problem. Americans were fighting in Italy and pressing into Germany. Word of mistreatment would endanger American prisoners. Swift action was necessary. It did not have to be accurate. If one believes the varied accounts, justice was of little concern.

Of the 44 black soldiers court martialed, 28 were found guilty. Two were convicted of manslaughter — better than the charge of capital murder four originally had faced. All were dishonorably discharged. In 2007, the Army’s Board of Corrections of Military Records, overturned the convictions ruling the men found guilty in the death had been “denied access to their attorneys and to investigative records,” though the circumstances surrounding the longest and largest court martial were troubling.

Most of the men did not live to see their convictions overturned or receive their honorable discharges. It has been reported that the families of 14 of the men cannot be located. They will not know their loved one’s name has been cleared.

But these men probably carried this shame in secret to the grave.

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