Thursday, May 10, 2018

On American Soil tells previously untold story of Italian prisoners of war and the lives of black soldiers

Most of us know about the unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and many also know that Italian Americans were under suspicion and suffered hardships as well at the hands of our government. Few, however, know that Italian prisoners of war were detained in prison camps in the Northwest—and that at one of these camps, an Italian prisoner of war was found hanged on the beach of a U.S. Army base in Fort Lawton, near Seattle, after a riot by African American army troops.

The trial that followed was the Army’s longest during World War II. The lead prosecutor was Leon Jaworski, who later led the Watergate investigation. The complete story of this encounter is told by local author Jack Hamann—TV correspondent and documentary producer—in his book On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II. Hamann asserts that much of what was reported about the incident at the time was inaccurate, and the court-martial ended in a miscarriage of justice.

The Italians were captured in North Africa and dispersed to various Allied countries for the duration of the war. Those who weren’t Fascists were eventually put to work in noncombatant duties to help free up American soldiers to participate more directly in the war efforts overseas. This was done only after Italy surrendered, and thus the captured soldiers were no longer considered enemies. As American GIs worked alongside them, resentments grew over what was perceived as coddling. Both white and black soldiers were irritated, but white soldiers egged on black soldiers until a riot broke out because of underlying tensions. A black soldier, in a drunken state, cursed a group of Italians, and one of whom struck back and knocked out the black soldier. The black troops, trained to seek revenge for any assault on their brethren, unleashed a violent assault on the Italians in their nearby compound. Besides the Italian prisoner who was killed, dozens of others were seriously injured by the time the MPs came upon the scene to break it up.

The justice dished out was self-serving for JAG attorney Jaworsky, who prosecuted the case with an eye to advancement of his own career. He was determined to get convictions, as was the Pentagon and the White House, given that Italy was now an ally, and the murder cast America in a bad light. Jaworsky found the initial investigation shockingly inadequate, but he compounded the injustice by withholding evidence from the defense. The lives of more than 40 men were ruined by the miscarriage of justice, many being sentenced to hard labor and dishonorably discharged from the service. The murder was never really solved, so the best and brightest of the black soldiers were charged with the crime, it being assumed that they were the ones leading the charge. The author brilliantly brings this story to light after discovering long classified material.

On American Soil sheds light on two underpublicized aspects of the war. First, Hamann brings attention to the fact that 50,000 Italian prisoners were interned in the United States, with Americans displaying a mixed attitude towards them. Many Italian Americans visited the POW facilities, hoping to find relatives or information about relatives in Italy, and some even ending up marrying the POWs. Other Americans resented the fact that the Italian POWs were treated so well and allowed to visit and dine off base. Second, Hamann publicizes the fact that even as late as 1944, African Americans in the military were kept in segregated facilities and allowed to work only in menial jobs in the service—loading and unloading ships and supplies. When these two aspects collided, murder and mayhem resulted. Anyone interested in either of these two aspects of WWII will find this book invaluable.

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