Samuel Snow was a twenty-one-year-old U.S. Army private when he was wrongfully convicted by court-martial for a 1944 riot at a military base near Puget Sound, Washington. It was one of the largest court-martial cases of the World War II era, but those prosecuted believed they had been betrayed by the military service they had sworn to protect and serve. Several decades later the truth about the Fort Lawton riots emerged, but justice came too late for nearly all of them. In 2007 Snow was one of only two survivors among the twenty-eight soldiers who received apologies from the Army admitting that it had erred in prosecuting the case. "It means a lot to me that it's going to come out in the paper," Snow told William Yardley in the New York Times. "Now people are going to see that I wasn't a villain."
Snow was born in 1923 in Fort White, Florida, a small community near the Ichetucknee River. His father was a farm laborer, and his mother took in laundry to help support their six children, of whom Snow was the youngest. He attended segregated schools in the area, and spent a year living with his mother and an aunt in Leesburg to attend the Lake County Training School. At the height of World War II, Snow joined the U.S. Army. He hoped to become a mechanic once his service ended and he could access the benefits of the G.I. Bill, which provided college or trade school tuition. After completing basic training in Louisiana in July of 1944, he was granted two weeks' leave before he was to be shipped out to New Guinea with the 650th Port Company, an all-black unit. In August he reported to Fort Lawton, on Puget Sound in Washington State, to await a carrier that would take him to the Pacific theater of war.
Accused in Fort Lawton Riot
Fort Lawton was a common point of departure for combat troops, but several hundred prisoners of war (POWs) were also held there. The largest contingent were Italian men, but because Italy had surrendered to Allied forces a year earlier, they were not considered very much of a threat and were allowed to leave the base. Such casual treatment angered many, including white soldiers who had fought against the Italians as enemy combatants, and black soldiers who were still relegated to segregated units and in some cases enjoyed fewer freedoms than the POWs. A day after Snow arrived, a fight broke out between the Italian POWs and African-American soldiers. It quickly reached the proportions of an all-out riot, and an Italian prisoner of war named Guglielmo Olivotto was found hanged to death. Snow recalled hearing the whistle that summoned soldiers to stand at attention in front of their barracks, and headed outside. Once there, he was knocked unconscious. When he was revived in the hospital, he learned he was about to be placed in the stockade, or military prison, for his involvement in the melee.
Snow was one of forty-three black soldiers brought up on charges relating to Olivotto's death and the riot, and one of twenty-eight prosecuted. Only two lawyers were assigned to represent all of the defendants, and they had less than two weeks to prepare for the trial. Twenty-six of the men were convicted of rioting and two on manslaughter charges. Snow was among the first group, and spent more than a year in a military jail. After his release on March 2, 1946, he returned to Leesburg, Florida, where his father helped him burn his dishonorable discharge papers. "I didn't want anyone to see them," he told John Barry in the St. Petersburg Times. "No one wants to be a failure." Believing he was wrongly charged and convicted, Snow twice tried to have his military record corrected. In 1949 the Army Board for Correction of Military Records rejected his case, but in 1975 a second petition resulted in a change in his discharge status from dishonorable to general under honorable conditions.
Snow never told anyone what had happened to him during the war. For members of the so-called Greatest Generation, wartime service was almost universal among men of his age, and a dishonorable discharge was a black mark on one's record no matter what the extenuating circumstances. Not even his wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1947, nor his three children knew about the Fort Lawton riot. For the next several decades Snow worked as a custodian at a church or in other odd jobs, in part because an employment application to a company or government organization would have included a space in which he was expected to reveal his military record.
Cleared of Wrongful Conviction
In 1987 the story of the Fort Lawton riot piqued the interest of a Seattle television reporter named Jack Hamann. Knowing it was rare for blacks to lynch someone, as the army prosecutors had claimed, Hamann researched the incident. He discovered an unpublished report on the riot written by brigadier general Elliott Cooke, who "concluded that the case was a sham," wrote Barry in the St. Petersburg Times. "It lacked any physical evidence. The crime scene—an obstacle course where the Italian soldier had been found hanging from a cable—had been trampled over. Even the barracks where the fighting occurred had been repainted. The whole case was based on the testimony of two POWs and four black soldiers, whom Cooke believed had scores to settle." Hamann wrote a book about the case, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, that was published in 2005 and aided in reviving interest in what was the largest Army court-martial during World War II. The book linked the actual hanging of Olivotto to a white military police (MP) officer, and also noted that none of the Fort Lawton MPs acted quickly enough to stop the riot, and had perhaps even taunted the black GIs into attacking the Italians.
In 2007 the Board for Correction of Military Records finally admitted the prosecution of the African-American men had been a deeply flawed one. With that, Snow was now eligible for back pay for the year he spent in military prison, and later that year received a check for $725. There was no adjustment for inflation or interest, and Snow did not cash the check. A U.S. senator from Florida, Bill Nelson, took up the case of Snow and the other wrongfully convicted men, and calculated that his amount should rightfully be about $80,000. There was only one other surviving member of the twenty-seven others, but the families of the deceased were still eligible to receive the benefits.
Snow told the press he was more interested in a formal apology from the Army than any cash windfall, and that came in the summer of 2008, when Army officials scheduled an event at Fort Lawton for July 26. Now eighty-four years old and in failing health, Snow nevertheless traveled to Seattle for the ceremony. After a celebratory dinner in Seattle with Hamann and others on July 25, Snow began to experience issues with the pacemaker that regulated his heart, and he was taken to the hospital. His son Ray attended the ceremony the next day, and returned to his father's bedside with the honorable discharge papers. Just hours later, Snow died. "My father never held any animosity," Ray Snow said at the ceremony, according to Barry in the St. Petersburg Times. "He said, ‘Son, God has been good to me. If I hold this in my heart, then I can't walk in forgiveness.’"
At a Glance …
Born on September 23, 1923, in Fort White, FL; died July 26, 2008, in Seattle, WA; son of Kid (a laborer) and Ruley (a laundress) Snow; married Margaret, 1947; children: Maurice (died, 2007), Kay (died, 1968); Ray. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Morrison Methodist Church, Leesburg, FL, custodian for two decades.
Hamann, Jack, On Native Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.
New York Times, October 27, 2007, p. A1; December 1, 2007, p. A10; July 30, 2008, p. A10.
Orlando Sentinel, July 27, 2008.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), November 9, 2007, p. E1; July 29, 2008, p. A1.
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