A Casualty of Justice

At 11 o’clock an Army corporal dropped the needle into the well grooved lines on the record player. Taps played over the loudspeaker across the Fort Lawton base on August 14, 1944. It was time for soldiers to begin settling in for the night.  

Allied troops had recently marched into Paris and suddenly the bucolic Fort Lawton had become a hub in a huge war machine looking to ship out soldiers to the Pacific from Seattle’s Port. 

Fort Lawton was a gem of a base. Spread across more than 700 acres it was beautiful, even postcard worthy. 

But there was darkness, too.

In 1944, the army was segregated. The “Colored Section” was designated at the furthest region of the sprawling fort, next to the Italian Prisoners of War barracks. 

They were a company of 200 former enemies who now claimed allegiance to the United States. The Italians were paid to do menial jobs and had free range of the base. 

But, at 11 o’clock on that hot August night in 1944, things didn’t quiet down. About 10 minutes after Taps, three Italian POWs returning from town came upon three African American Soldiers. All had been drinking. Words had been exchanged. And an Italian POW put all of his power into one punch, knocking a black soldier out cold.  

Within minutes 200 black soldiers descended on the Italians’ barracks hell bent on avenging their friend, along the way picking up whatever weapons they could get their hands on: knives, rocks, sticks, bricks and boards from a picket fence. 

Forty minutes later help finally arrived to break up a chaotic melee. Dozens of Italian POWs had been beaten, many seriously injured with broken bones and concussions.

By dawn there was a devastating discovery: the body of Guillmo Olivotto was found hanging between two Maple trees. He’d been lynched. 

If you believe the prosecutor assigned to the case, Leon Jaworski, Olivotto was murdered by jealous Black soldiers.  Ultimately, 28 of them were convicted of rioting. Two were convicted of manslaughter. 

It would take over 50 years for the real story to come to light, when an inquisitive reporter, Jack Hamann, came upon the unusual grave of an Italian POW at Fort Lawton who’d been hanged by black American soldiers.

His curiosity would take Jack to Texas where he would interview a soldier by the name of Les Stewart who put a question to Jack: 

“If I were to kill a man, why would I lynch him? Why would I, a black man from the South, use that of all ways to kill someone?”

That exchange would come to haunt Jack over the years, until he decided to take a deeper look. What he would find was essentially a smoking gun.

It would take the help of a powerful ally to ultimately help try to in some way make right this horrible wrong.

On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II

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