On August 14, 1944, African American soldiers “rioted” against Italian prisoners of war at Seattle’s Fort Lawton, an Army staging area for combat in the Pacific. American officers and POWs under their guard were severely beaten. The next morning one of the POWs, Guglielmo Olivotto, was discovered hanged a considerable distance away. Newspaper accounts attributed the riot to black soldiers’ resentment of Italian POWs due to the Army’s lenient treatment of them.
The Army classified its investigation, and the ensuing court martial resulted in the conviction of 23 African American soldiers, including one enlisted man, for manslaughter for killing Olivotto, based on no evidence. Sixty years later the Army investigation was declassified.
Who lynched Olivotto cannot be proved, but the following are interesting facts. White MPs, more than black soldiers, routinely harassed the Italian POWs, and plainly tried to involve black soldiers. White MPs failed to respond to frantic calls from the Italian barracks for a remarkable 30 to 45 minutes. No white MP could remember any particular black rioter, as “you can’t tell them apart.” The barracks were repaired and repainted with dazzling speed – within 24 hours, destroying all evidence. Army investigators later learned that many MPs and officers at Fort Lawton lied under oath about the incident, sending a number of black enlisted men to various levels of military punishment.
Sixty years later the Army investigation of the incident was declassified allowing researcher Jack Hamann to argue in his book, On American Soil, that justice was not served in the Fort Lawton courts martial. In October 2007, the Army’s Board of Corrections of Military Records overturned the convictions, allowing the cases to be reopened.