In an epic tale involving intrigue, racism, deceit, international relations and national security, the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR), overturned the Army private’s 1944 conviction. Booker Townsell was one of 43 “Negro” soldiers charged with rioting at Fort Lawton, an Army base in Seattle, Washington, where an Italian POW was found hanged the next morning.
After 63 years, Booker Townsell’s conviction for “rioting” at Camp Lawton was overturned. Townsell did not live to learn of the ruling–he died in 1984.
The two defense attorneys were given a mere 13 days to prepare for a trial in which all 43 soldiers were tried at once. All faced life sentences. Three of them were also accused of first degree murder. It was the largest and longest Army courts-martial of World War II.
The Secretary of the Army recently set aside the December 18, 1944, conviction of Townsell. The ruling paves the way for the remaining 28 convicted soldiers to be issued honorable discharges. In addition, “all rights, privileges and property lost as a result of the convictions” will be restored to them or their families. (Thirteen of the 43 were acquitted in 1944; charges against two others were dropped).
The decision is a stunning rebuke to Leon Jaworski, the military officer and lawyer who prosecuted the Fort Lawton case. Jaworski-one of the most famous trial lawyers of the twentieth century-gained notoriety as a special prosecutor in 1974 Watergate trial involving the impeachment of President Nixon.
In the Fort Lawton case, the ABCMR found the “most egregious error” of the trial involved Mr. Jaworski’s complete access to a confidential Army’s Inspector General report about the incident, a right repeatedly denied the defense counsel. The Townsell family believes the information in that report would have exonerated Townsell. Jaworski died in 1982. Townsell died in 1984.
Counsel for the Townsell family, Howard G. Cooley, of the law firm Patrick Henry LLP, says he is hopeful that the ruling will “serve as a springboard” to similar relief in other courts-martial, “particularly in those cases which involve racism but lack the blatant smoking gun of wrongfulness” as in the Townsell case.
In 2005, Seattle journalist Jack Hamann wrote “On American Soil,” an account of the Fort Lawton riot and trial. In the book, Hamann documents the Army’s Inspector General report which detailed widespread errors in the investigation of the riot and lynching, and harshly castigated many of the Army’s own officials, including the fort’s commander. “On American Soil” also presented compelling evidence that the Italian POW, Private Guglielmo Olivotto, was likely lynched by a white soldier, not by any of the black defendants. Hamann’s book was the principal reason contributing to relief in the Townsell case.
After reading “On American Soil,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced HR 3174, demanding that the Secretary of the Army reevaluate the Fort Lawton convictions. The recent action is the result of more than 15 months of evaluation by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.
But it’s been nearly 63 years of waiting for the Booker Townsell family of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eldest daughter, Marion Williamson, says “This is about justice. It’s about righting a wrong.”
“The pride and dignity of these men were stripped and the results impacted them for the rest of their lives… for the Army to admit that they were wrong took courage,” says son Jerome Edwards.
“I always knew that my father was an honorable man; now the world knows it, too,” says daughter Carol Blalock. Families of other defendants are currently living throughout the United States, including California, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Louisiana, Florida, and elsewhere. The families of many of the defendants, however, have yet to be located.
Congressman Jim McDermott and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have tentative plans to host a celebration of life for Booker Townsell at the War Memorial in Milwaukee in January 2008. That celebration will be open to the public.