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 for the men who were convicted on tainted evidence, he says: "I feel sorry for what happened. If they can prove they didn't take part, that's fine with me. It's not my intention to hurt anybody. It's to tell the truth."

Jack Hamann says that he doesn't doubt DeCesare's assertion that he was at Fort Lawton's hospital, but he points out that in talking with the few other witnesses who are still alive, he's found that their memories are often very different from what they said to investigators decades ago. Records at Fort Lawton, for example, indicate that there were never any Japanese POWs held at the Seattle fort. And there was no testimony about Italian soldiers also being attacked at the obstacle course, despite what DeCesare says he remembers the Italian POWs saying.

DeCesare's memory, those records suggest, is simply faulty about those details. He doesn't take kindly to that suggestion, however.

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 even with those discrepancies, Hamann says it's interesting to consider the Italian-American perspective on the Army's about-face, even if some of it is predictable.

"I, too, have run across a couple of pissed off Italian-Americans (none of which, as far as I know, have read the book)," Hamann writes to the Voice in an e-mail. "Their spin: why are these damn blacks getting all the attention, when it was Italians who were beaten and lynched?

"I've met several Italian-Americans who, in a we-are-all-brothers sort of way, seem glad that someone was convicted of the Fort Lawton crimes—perhaps even glad that black men were convicted."

Of course, that perspective misses the point: Despite the convictions, justice was not served in 1944. "The truth is, Jaworski screwed both the black soldiers and the Italians," Hamann says.

He's right. And what his investigation has achieved is remarkable. The anger of a 92-year-old Staten Island man can't really take away from it.

But it's also easy to understand DeCesare's frustration. From a 64-year remove, it's not difficult to condemn the flawed justice meted out to black soldiers—men who were already suffering the indignities of a segregated military—for a long-forgotten criminal incident. But for the man—perhaps the only person still alive today—who saw the victims of that crime being treated for their injuries, the military's decision to sweep the whole mess aside by overturning the court-martial verdicts en masse provides little sense of justice having been served either.

After the Voice first exchanged e-mails with Hamann about DeCesare, the author mentioned the Staten Island man in a lecture at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution. Hamann says that it prompted one of the professors there to approach him about conducting a public mass for Olivotto as a way to reach out to the local Italian-American community. DeCesare, the professor pointed out, might not be the only one sensitive to the way the story of the military's about-face was being reported. "I thought it was a great idea," Hamann says.

In the end, the most striking thing about talking to DeCesare—even knowing that he's messing up the program, our necessary national mea culpa after centuries of being on the wrong side of so many things—is to see how a single night's episode can be the most passionately remembered thing in a life nearly a century long. When asked about his experiences in the decades since—what were the '60s like? The '80s?—DeCesare mostly draws a blank. It has to be drawn out of him that he was married and divorced, and has a daughter with whom he is now closer than he was in the past. His sister says Anthony spent much of his time helping older relatives. And he did continue to write music; he wrote and arranged a march in 2003 to commemorate the soldiers going to Iraq. But except for those details, which feel like asides, he comes back again and again to that night in 1944 and that portentous command: Hold your tongue or be court-martialed.

What a thing to carry around for 64 years.

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