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Apology comes 64 years after black soldiers wrongly convicted in Seattle lynching
Updated: 2008-07-27 15:08

SEATTLE - More than six decades after 28 black soldiers were wrongly convicted after a riot and lynching of an Italian in Seattle, the US Army has issued a formal apology.

This 1944 newspaper sketch shows the soldiers on trial -- the only time in US history a group of black men were tried for lynching a white man. [Agencies]

"We had not done right by these soldiers," Ronald James, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, said Saturday. "The Army is genuinely sorry. I am genuinely sorry."

Relatives of the soldiers joined elected officials, military officers and one of the defense lawyers to hear James give the apology before hundreds of people in a meadow near the old Fort Lawton parade grounds and chapel in Discovery Park.

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In addition the soldiers' convictions were set aside, their dishonorable discharges were changed to honorable discharges and they and their survivors were awarded back pay for their time in the brig.

All but two of the soldiers are dead. One, Samuel Snow of Leesburg, Florida, planned to attend the ceremony but wound up in the hospital instead because of a problem with his pacemaker.

The convictions were overturned in October at the prodding of Rep. Jim McDermott, largely based on the book "On American Soil" published in 2005 by Jack Hamann, a CNN and PBS journalist, and his wife Leslie about the riot on the night of August 14, 1944, and subsequent events at Fort Lawton.

Dozens were injured in the melee that started with a scuffle between an Italian prisoner of war and a black soldier from the segregated barracks near the POW housing. A POW, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanged at the bottom of a bluff the next day.

The Army prosecutor was Leon Jaworski, who went on to become special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

Forty-three black soldiers were charged with rioting and three also were charged with murder. Two defense lawyers were assigned to the case and given two weeks to prepare without ever being shown an Army investigation criticizing the way the riot was handled.

Hamann also wrote that at least two soldiers were threatened with lynching by Army detectives. When one witness said a "Booker T." was present at the riot but couldn't give any more detail, the Army charged two men by that name. Another was charged with rioting although white, black and Italian POW witnesses all said he tried to quell the disturbance

In the ensuing trial 28 men were convicted.

One of those attending the ceremony Saturday, Arthur Prevost of Houston, said his father Willie, one of the convicted soldiers, never talked about what had happened.

"I think he was embarrassed," Prevost said. "I wished he had told us."

Snow's son, Ray Snow, told the gathering his father felt no animosity for the long-ago injustice.

"He was so honored" by the tribute, Ray Snow said. "We salute you for remembering a travesty that took place."