Army officially apologizes for WWII injustice

Army officially apologizes for WWII injustice »Play Video
SEATTLE - Decades after a World War II cover-up at Fort Lawton in Seattle, 28 African-American veterans received apologies and honorable discharges in a ceremony at the same spot where they were wrongly convicted years ago.

The ceremony took place Saturday in Seattle's Discovery Park, site of the former Army base, as public officials acknowledged the travesty of justice that took place 64 years ago.

On Aug. 14, 1944, a riot broke out on the post. Black soldiers in segregated barracks were accused of sparking the violence due to resentment over treatment of Italian prisoners of war. An Italian POW, Guglielmo Olivotto, was later found hanging dead on wires in a post obstacle course.

Forty-three black soldiers were tried in the largest court-martial of World War II. Of those, 28 were found guilty of rioting and sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison. Three were also convicted of manslaughter.

When evidence emerged years later showing that the court-martial proceeding was grossly flawed and that the prosecutor had withheld critical evidence, the Army opened an investigation.

Based on the results of that probe, the Army overturned the convictions of all the black soldiers who were court-martialed.

The decision said the trial was "fundamentally unfair" to the soldiers, who were denied access to their attorneys and investigative records.

The ruling was made by the Army's Board of Corrections of Military Records, which was sought by U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., to investigate the matter.

The decision also grants the soldiers honorable discharges, back pay and benefits.

Only two of the 28 soldiers are believed to be still alive. One of them, Samuel Snow, now 84 and living in Leesburg, Fla., had planned to attend Saturday's ceremony, but was unable to make it due to heart problems.

But scores of family members came in their places to receive the official apology on their behalf.

The court-martial proceeding "was not fair or just," Assistant Army Secretary Ronald James said at Saturday's ceremony.

"The Army is genuinely sorry. I'm sorry that your father, grandfather and loved ones lost years of their freedom," he said.

The Army brought as many family members as they could find to the ceremony, including Ray Snow, the son of Samuel Snow.

"You know, there's nothing with forgiveness," Ray Snow says. "And that's where my dad stands. He stands in forgiveness. And he holds no animosity."

The beginning of the end for 64 years old injustice started when a Seattle journalist, Jack Hamann, became curious about the case and started looking into it. He eventually wrote a book about the incident that explored the murder, unraveled the ill-fated court martial and finally pressured the Army into action.

Saturday's apology and honorable discharge brings a final sense of justice, to the unjustly accused.

"It's so sweet and so touching, it's everything to me and my family," says Camille Kea, granddaughter of Arthur Hurks, one of the men who was unfairly convicted.

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Rep. McDermott and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Hamann said the Army 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."