SEATTLE — Black soldiers court-martialed 63 years ago in the rioting death of an Italian prisoner of war at Fort Lawton were unfairly denied access to their attorneys and investigative records and should have their convictions overturned, the U.S. Army said Friday.
The ruling by the Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records applies to four soldiers who petitioned military investigators with the help of two congressmen, but could eventually cover two dozen more soldiers found guilty of rioting over alleged resentment of Italian prisoners' living conditions on the post.
Samuel Snow, 83, one of the petitioners who served a year in prison, said he was "elated" by the decision.
"It just knocked me off of my feet," Snow said from his home in Leesburg, Fla.
"No, I don't have no resentment over it," he said. "I've just kept myself clean up to this present moment."
The decision could grant the soldiers honorable discharges, back pay and benefits.
"I'm absolutely overwhelmed with joy. You don't often get a chance to pursue justice on behalf of something that happened years ago," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who requested the review along with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
In 1944, POW Guglielmo Olivotto was found hanging on wires in an obstacle course following a night of rioting on the post in what is now Seattle's Discovery Park. Forty-three Black soldiers were tried in one of the largest courts-martial of World War II. Of those, 28 were found guilty of rioting and sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison.
Only two of the 28 soldiers are believed to be still alive, said Jack Hamann, who wrote a book on the case, "On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II."
The other petitioners — Booker W. Townsell, of Milwaukee; Luther L. Larkin, of Searcy, Ark.; and William G. Jones, of Decatur, Ill. — are all deceased.
Larkin and Jones were also convicted of manslaughter; these convictions will also be thrown out in the ruling, Hamann said.
Hamann said the ruling also will give the deceased soldiers marble headstones for their graves, and their families will be entitled to American flags.
"My first thought is, what a shame it is that the folks who this injustice was done to are not around to see this," Hamann said. "And yet I'm so elated that their families will finally know that these men did not commit these crimes."
The lawyer in charge of the case for the board, John Tait, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
—The Associated Press