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

"We lost," he says.

He never knew how he was wounded; he just remembers coming to in a British ambulance and being told to relax. "There was a captain with his legs blown off," he says. DeCesare's skull was fractured, and he'd suffered a concussion. He can only speculate what happened—a shell exploded near him, he supposes.

Shipped back to the States for a lengthy recovery, he was suffering from brain trauma—like many of the soldiers coming back from Iraq today, he points out. He was sent to a hospital at a post in Virginia and then was moved to Georgia before being sent by train all the way to Fort Lawton, near Seattle. He was only there for a few months before being moved again to a hospital in Spokane, where he was photographed receiving a Purple Heart in October 1944. Two months later, after being sent to another post in West Virginia, he was honorably discharged. He would receive the Bronze Star for his service.

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

But during his short time at Fort Lawton, in August 1944, one of the most significant episodes in his life occurred. The night of the riot, bloody men were brought into the hospital where he was staying.

"The men were bleeding badly. I couldn't, you know, tell you exactly what their injuries were. But they were bleeding bad," he says.

Some were POWs, speaking in Italian about what had happened. Others were white American MPs. And some, DeCesare insists, were Japanese.

The Italians, he says, were saying that they had been attacked in their barracks by black soldiers. Others talked about being attacked at the fort's obstacle course.

But what struck him more than anything else, the thing that haunted him for 64 years, was what a medical officer said to the men on the ward: "You patients, you haven't seen anything. Any of you talk, you're going to get court-martialed."

DeCesare repeats it again and again, trying to convey how much it struck him at the time and made him keep quiet about the event for so long.

"I swallowed that for 64 years," he says. "Who's going to listen to what I have to say, especially when I got a head injury?"

Then, after all that time, suddenly a news story appears in the Staten Island paper saying that it was all a mistake, that the men convicted for the crime were being exonerated. That the military apologizes for the results of the court-martial.

And an old man, who still talks about the "colored" section of the fort, who is Italian-American and couldn't help but sympathize with the Italians injured in the riot, says about Booker Townsell, a long-dead soldier whom he never met: "He don't deserve freedom."

Sure, you don't even have to say it: DeCesare is just a classic old-school racist, unhappy that "colored" soldiers are getting away with something. It's an easy diagnosis.

Except that DeCesare's a bit more complicated than that.

There's another yellowed news clipping that Tony DeCesare keeps, this one from 1965.

After he was discharged, DeCesare served as a cop for the VA and was finally declared fully disabled in 1954. He couldn't work in law enforcement anymore, but he could still read and write music, and he was still an avid churchgoer, something he got from his dad.

He wanted, more than anything else, to help young people make music. But he hated how much young people were kept apart by their different affiliations.

In 1965, the Staten Island Advance reported that DeCesare had formed the Summerfield Inter-Faith Orchestra.

"What does music have to do with brotherhood?" the article asked. "Anthony DeCesare says it has a lot to do with bringing people together."

The article describes DeCesare's efforts to bring together young musicians from different faiths: "We Protestants have been holding back . . . . We've been ignoring the ecumenical spirit."

There's a photograph showing DeCesare leading six musicians. A trombone player. A violinist. A percussionist. A sax player. A pianist. A baritone horn.

Three of the musicians are black. In 1965. In Staten Island.

"I started the Inter-Faith Orchestra in 1965 to bust up this racial, religious discrimination," he says. Heatedly, he points out that some Catholic priests prevented their parishioners from taking part.

How does that square with his anger about the Fort Lawton decision, which surely must have something to do with the race of the men who are now being exonerated?

"This is about the incident," he replies, "not the race of who caused it."

To make his point, he compares the Fort Lawton situation with Abu Ghraib. He's convinced that although low-level soldiers took the heat for what happened at the Baghdad prison, their superior officers should also have been held accountable. At Fort Lawton, he says, not all of the black soldiers took part in the beatings, but nearly the entire black barracks emptied out in response to the rallying cry for the riot, as Hamann's book shows. "The whole unit is guilty," says DeCesare. "There's the problem. . . . I felt really bad. I was in that hospital and saw that. 'Keep your mouth shut or you'll get court-martialed.' "

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