A Staten Island Trombonist Breaks a 64-Year Silence About a Military Race Riot

A violent tale of justice and injustice from America's uglier racial past

As Barack Obama pointed out, matters of race in America can be complicated. He's right, and here's a prime example.

First, the easy version, the post-MLK, new-day-in-America version: A couple of years ago, a Seattle TV journalist noticed an odd monument at a place called Fort Lawton on Puget Sound. Asking around, he learned that the unusual grave was just about all that was left to mark one of the strangest, and most forgotten, episodes in World War II. The monument marked the 1944 death of an Italian POW found hanging from a noose after a night of rioting by black American soldiers at the segregated fort. It was, supposedly, the only time in American history that a black mob had lynched a white (well, Italian) man. More than 40 black soldiers were subsequently tried in the war's largest court-martial, prosecuted by a young Leon Jaworski, who went on to prosecute at Nuremberg and Watergate. Twenty-eight of the Fort Lawton black soldiers were convicted of rioting, and two of the 28 were also convicted of manslaughter in the death of the Italian POW. None served more than four years in custody, but all of the convicted were dishonorably discharged. At the time, the event was terribly embarrassing for the military and the American government. Within a few years, President Truman would integrate the armed forces. For Jaworski, the trial—notorious at the time—put him on the fast track to his later triumphs. But the Seattle journalist, Jack Hamann, suspected that there was more to the story, and he spent years digging into long-buried government documents to discover a much more troubling tale.

What was never in much dispute was that some of the black soldiers stationed at the fort, drinking heavily the night before being shipped out to a possibly very dangerous Pacific location, reacted to a fistfight between one of their own and one of the Italian POWs by swarming the Italians' barracks and beating the living hell out of many of the Italians as well as some white American MPs. Also not in dispute was that the rioters had stabbed unarmed victims with knives and used wooden clubs to break limbs, and that one black soldier drove a Jeep repeatedly over a tent that had men in it. It was probably something of a miracle that more people weren't killed. The dead man, Private Guglielmo Olivotto, was found in another part of the camp at dawn the next morning, hanging from a noose that had been tied to a wire at an obstacle course.

Sounding a sour note: Anthony DeCesare, 92, in his Staten Island home
Staci Schwartz
Sounding a sour note: Anthony DeCesare, 92, in his Staten Island home

What Hamann uncovered, however, was that right from the start, the MPs and the officers in charge at Fort Lawton handled the case by doing just about everything wrong. Evidence was destroyed, statements weren't taken when they should have been, and soon it was almost impossible to figure out which of the black soldiers at Fort Lawton had taken part in the beatings and which hadn't.

Hamann discovered that those were the conclusions of Brigadier General Elliot D. Cooke, who was called in after the riot to conduct a thorough (but secret) investigation of the incident. General Cooke found, to his disgust, that the white men in charge at Fort Lawton had completely screwed up the post-riot crime scene. But Cooke's investigation was never made public until Hamann unearthed it decades later. Jaworski had known Cooke's findings, but he kept the investigation secret from the officers who were brought in to defend the black men accused of rioting.

Hamann's subsequent book about the affair, On American Soil, thoroughly condemns Jaworski for his actions: The prosecutor knowingly ignored exculpatory evidence in the secret investigation and relied instead on questionable snitches to convict men whom he should have had reason to believe were innocent.

On American Soil demonstrates that not only was the investigation of the riot botched, but that there was also good reason to suspect that a white MP—an unreliable man that Jaworski used as a prosecution witness—had the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the murder of Olivotto. There was no physical evidence, and almost no circumstantial evidence, to tie the two black soldiers convicted of manslaughter to Olivotto's murder.

Now, here's the feel-good payoff: Hamann's book was such a thorough debunking of Jaworski and the court-martial that the military, reacting to howls of protest from family members of the convicted soldiers (nearly all of whom are now dead), ordered last October that the convictions be overturned, and that all of the soldiers receive (mostly posthumous) honorable discharges.

The military reversing itself after more than 60 years. Amazing.

In late January, there was a touching ceremony at the Wisconsin grave of Booker Townsell, one of the men convicted of rioting. There was evidence, suppressed by Jaworski, that Townsell had never even left his barracks the night of the riot. Now, his family was able—more than 23 years after his death—to hold a new ceremony giving Townsell the official military burial that he deserved.

An Associated Press story about Townsell's ceremony, which included a mention of Hamann's book, was carried by newspapers around the country. One of them was the Staten Island Advance, a copy of which made its way to a modest home on Arnprior Street.

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