Rush to Judgment

In World War II, Houston attorney Leon Jaworski prosecuted a group of black American soldiers. In a hurried-up trial, they were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor. The verdict was probably wrong. And Jaworski had a lot to do with that.

In Seattle's Fort Lawton, American staff sergeant Grant Farr was dozing in his bunk as three Italian prisoners sprinted past his window at top speed. A few minutes later, Farr thought he heard a distant crash but dismissed it. He was drifting off to sleep when his door flew open. "Negro troops!" an Italian yelled. "They are going through the barracks!"

Rocks and lumps of coal pounded the outside walls. A window shattered.

It was a dark summer night in 1944, and Farr, a translator, had been working with a select group of Italian prisoners who were employed by the U.S. Army as cooks, mechanics and cleaning people. The Italians were stationed for their own safety in a separate area at Fort Lawton, which just happened to be next to the base's other segregated encampment: the "Colored Area," where black soldiers were kept separate from whites. The army's segregation strategies were now dramatically breaking down.

In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
Baylor University
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.

Farr stepped out of his bedroom into his office and dialed the sergeant of the guard while more than a dozen Italians poured in. Many cradled bruised limbs. As Farr hung up the receiver, a brick slammed near the phone, missing his head by inches. Black soldiers stormed inside, hurling rocks, sticks and a stool. "I am an American soldier! Stop this!" yelled another translator. He was decked with a tent pole.

By now, the two-acre Italian area swarmed with African-Americans. Some, such as Les Stewart of Austin, would later say they merely walked down to check out the ruckus. Others, such as Houstonian Arthur Hurks, would say they tried to turn their comrades back, but without much luck. In Barracks 708, black soldiers battered Nicola Correa with clubs, poles and fence pickets. Beneath Barracks 709, they lunged for Victorio Bellieni with a board and a knife. Italian Private Guglielmo Olivotto dashed for cover in the woods. He would later be found dangling beneath a tree from a noose.

Back at Farr's office, the rioters axed through the door. A tall black soldier stood in the doorway and tried unsuccessfully to hold back the throng. They clubbed Italian First Sergeant Agosto Todde and slashed his face with a knife. Stepping forward, Farr again yelled that he and many other whites inside were Americans. A knife missed an Italian next to him and plunged into Farr's upper arm. He gasped as the man was smacked to the floor and booted in the face.

Now fearing for his life, Farr rushed forward and stood jowl to jowl with the tall black soldier. In his loudest voice he roared, "!" The black soldier clenched Farr's good arm. "You come with me," he said. "We're not after you." He pulled Farr out of the building as beery groups of soldiers angled toward them. "We done here now," he proclaimed. "This man, he is American. You let him be now, let him be, I say."

By the time military police re-established order, 26 Italians were hospitalized and one was dead. Slipping through the grip of army censors, news of the riot outraged the Italian government and prompted fears in the United States of a scarred rapprochement. The U.S. Army's top brass called for swift justice. They brought in one of their best military prosecutors, Houston-based Colonel Leon Jaworski.

In what would become the largest and longest court-martial of World War II, Jaworski prosecuted 43 soldiers. All came from the Colored Area and many -- more than any other grouping -- hailed from Houston. More than half of them were convicted and sentenced to terms of up to ten years of hard labor.

Jaworski's success in the closely watched trial helped him launch a career that would include trying Nazi war criminals in Europe, serving as President Lyndon Baines Johnson's personal attorney and prosecuting the Watergate case that ousted President Richard Nixon, a case that earned Jaworski the respect of a generation of Vietnam-era idealists. Founder of the prestigious Fulbright & Jaworski law firm, he is unquestionably Houston's most successful, renowned and apotheosized lawyer.

But Jaworski's three autobiographies make little mention of the Fort Lawton court-martial -- probably for good reason. An investigation spanning two decades by a dogged Seattle-based journalist recently uncovered how Texans Stewart and Hurks, as well as many other black soldiers, were probably wrongly convicted, becoming scapegoats for the army's own incompetence. The surviving veterans of the court-martial and their relatives are now calling for justice. Far from being a hero in the final days of World War II, they argue, Jaworski was a man who put his own interests ahead of defending justice.

In 1987, television reporter Jack Hamann visited Seattle's Discovery Park on a thankless assignment to cover the expansion of a sewage treatment plant. Bored, Hamann chatted with a park ranger about the former military base's most mysterious attraction: In a separate plot inside the old Fort Lawton cemetery, a single Roman-style column was inscribed in Italian. Curious, Hamann copied the date on the headstone -- 14 Agůsto 1944 -- and decided to investigate.

A search of newspaper articles from the period revealed the bizarre tale: an Italian prisoner of war lynched by a mob of rioting black soldiers. "It was shocking," Hamann says. Most people in the Pacific Northwest thought lynchings had happened only at the hands of Southern racists.

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