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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 7:31 PM

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U.S. Army overturns convictions of Fort Lawton soldiers court-martialed in 1944 after riot, lynching

In an extremely rare move, the U.S. Army has overturned the convictions of 28 World-War-II soldiers who were court-martialed in 1944 after...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In an extremely rare move, the U.S. Army has overturned the convictions of 28 World-War-II soldiers who were court-martialed in 1944 after a riot and lynching at Seattle's Fort Lawton.

The decision, released this morning, found the trial, held in the segregated Army of the time, was "fundamentally unfair" to the African-American soldiers, who were denied access to their attorneys and to critical investigative records.

The decision by the Army's highest administrative-review board also grants the soldiers honorable discharges, back pay and benefits. The decision was rendered in the cases of four of the 28 soldiers because their families petitioned for review. But it can be applied to any of the remaining soldiers' families who also petition.

Only two of the 28 soldiers are still alive.

"I'm rejoicing today," said one of them, Samuel Snow, 84, of Leesburg, Fla., who was convicted of rioting and served a year in the brig. "I'm not mad at nobody. I'm just as satisfied as can be."

Jack Hamann, a Seattle journalist whose book on the case, "On American Soil," prompted the case to be reopened, said the ruling will give the deceased soldiers' marble headstones for their graves, and their families will be entitled to American flags.

But he also noted that the timing is bittersweet: "I have to be saddened that most went to their grave knowing this injustice was done and not living to see it corrected," he said.

The military trial came after a riot Aug. 14, 1944, at Fort Lawton, most of which is now Discovery Park. African-American soldiers stationed at the base were resentful that Italian prisoners-of-war being held at the base got more privileges than them. A brawl with the POWs ensued, and after the melee an Italian prisoner, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanged.

After an investigation by the Army's Inspector General, 43 soldiers were charged with rioting, and three were also charged with Olivotto's death, making it the Army's largest court martial of the war. In the end, 28 men were convicted, including the three charged with manslaughter. Many spent years behind bars.

But the ruling issued today by the Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records found that the soldiers' lawyers were denied access to portions of the Inspector General report. The report suggests that a white military policeman may have been involved and was consistently seen at "the wrong place at the wrong time," said Hamann.

The Army agreed to review the case at the request of U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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