Monday, July 28, 2008

A Double Injustice from WWII

This morning I received information about a ceremony that recently took place in Seattle WA to formally repair the injustice done to African American soldiers in the latter days of WWII. Forty-three of them were court-martialed for the 1944 lynching of an Italian POW, Guglielmo Olivotto, during a riot at Fort Lawton, after which 28 African American soldiers were convicted and sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison.

Then in 2005, Jack Hamann wrote a book about the case, "On American Soil," in which he showed that the soldiers had been wrongly accused and convicted. The court-martial proceeding was deeply flawed, the prosecutor had held back critical evidence, and it was probable that a white Army policeman had killed Olivotto (see Nicole Brodeur, Seattle Times, 7/22/08.) An Army investigation confirmed these flaws in the case and led to the ceremony in Seattle: all the soldiers received apologies and honorable discharges, and their families were brought to Seattle for the ceremony.

But what about Guglielmo Olivotto, the forgotten man, the man who died? According to Brodeur, he was a reluctant warrior in Mussolini’s army who served as a truck driver in North Africa where he was captured in 1943. Like some 50,000 of his countrymen, he was shipped to the United States for internment. It was because of this that he ran afoul of the African American soldiers at Fort Lawton—themselves the victims of such prejudice during WWII that they were kept in segregated units and separate barracks. Already resentful over this mistreatment, they then saw Italian POWs at Fort Lawton—the enemy—treated very well: they were allowed to leave the base, eat and drink and dance with host Italian American families and clubs, and even date American girls who found them charming. These privileges were reserved only for those Italian POWs who declared their allegiance to the Allies (Italy’s government did the same in September 1943), but not everyone could know that. Resentment flared into a riot between African American soldiers and the Italian POWs at Fort Lawton in August of 1944, and resulted in the African Americans court-martialed and Guglielmo Olivotto lynched. He was buried in the fort’s cemetery, with a broken-column headstone—columns intentionally constructed as broken to signify a life cut short.

The column would not be the only memorial to Olivotto. Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, who had studied in Italy, decided that Olivotto, too, deserved commemoration: “There’s something undone; Olivotto is the lost person in the story.” So on July 24, in his school’s St. Ignatius Chapel, Sundborg was to conduct an Italian mass in Olivotto’s honor. “He was one soldier in a war who suffered a tragic end,” Sundborg said. “And he should not be forgotten.”

Neither should the injustices, and they are many. To begin with, the injustice that virtually defines the activity we describe as war: the sanctioned murder of both combatants and innocent civilians alike. Second, the injustice that African Americans were compelled to live with in a United States military that still, in a war ostensibly fought for the “four freedoms,” denied those freedoms to those with black skin. And third, the injustice suffered by all those with a perceived connection to the nations the U.S. was fighting—a category that includes not only the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned in by-now well-known internment camps, but also the enemy aliens of Japanese, Italian, and German descent, who were interned even earlier in a program that to this day remains a “secret story” (see to most Americans.

With the Army’s apology and Father Sundborg’s mass in Seattle, we can add two more categories of “almost-forgotten” injustices—the lost life suffered by an innocent, reputedly shy and retiring Italian prisoner, and the lost lives of those who proved to be simply too convenient as scapegoats to blame for his death.

Lawrence DiStasi

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