"I spent a lot of time here in the middle of the night," said Jack Hamann, referring to the midnight research in Discovery Park's forest that he did for his new book, "On American Soil," the historical account of a riot and lynching that took place in the park during World War II.
"For two or three August 14ths in a row I came to the park in the middle of the night and took notes on what the plants were doing. I wanted to see what the thistles were doing - what the maples looked like."
He wanted to gather the subtle details that take readers from the armchairs of their livingrooms into the dark and woody setting of a crime scene. He succeeded.
On Aug. 15, 1944, the body of Pvt. Guglielmo Olivotto, an Italian prisoner of war, was found dangling from a gnarled maple tree within Magnolia's Fort Lawton. The night before, a violent riot had erupted between American soldiers and the Italian prisoners of war being held at Lawton - a riot at least partly sparked by the racial tension between foreign POWs and black American soldiers whose status was lower than that of the men they shared the Fort Lawton compound with. Twenty-four Italian soldiers were hospitalized, but Olivotto's was the only death. Forty-three soldiers, all African American, were accused of rioting, and three were charged with the murder of Pvt. Olivotto.
The lynching was tragic, the riot was bloody, but the trial that followed was and is the most horrific part of the story.
"The way this investigation was handled was worse than the Keystone Kops," stated Hamann, an award-winning journalist, documentary producer for CNN and PBS and now an author. "It was frighteningly comical." Except that innocent lives were at stake, and three men were found guilty of a murder without real evidence to implicate them.
The book takes a disturbing look at justice during wartime. "This was the first history book that made me cry," said Tegan Tigani, events coordinator and manager at Queen Anne Books. "It was very emotional for me because of the human stories involved."
Tigani, a graduate of Harvard with a science and history degree (she reads a lot of history books), enjoyed "On American Soil" so much that she nominated the book for Book Sense "Top 10 History Picks."
Using access to previously classified documents and personal interviews, Hamann spent the past four years of his life piecing together the real story behind World War II's largest army court-martial.
"There were times when the evidence was just like, oh my God," recalled Hamann. "I had three or four of those moments, and those were emotional moments."
During World War II, Fort Lawton was a West Coast site for tens of thousands of soldiers en route to the front lines in the Pacific. It was the segregated holding area for white American soldiers, African American soldiers and Italian prisoners of war. It was a compound seething with testosterone, bigotry and blurred enemy boundaries.
"Seattle's history of race relations is not as pristine as I or others might have thought," said Hamann, who first encountered the story of the riot and lynching in 1986. "Some events are well known, like how we mistreated Native Americans here; we treated the Chinese who worked on the railroads just terribly. Yet we were just as angry and racist about the fact that there were blacks here."
Racial tension played a large role in this sad piece of history. Nearly 20 years ago Hamann was a young news reporter on a boring assignment. Trapped in Discovery Park, he was stuck covering a meeting about expanding the nearby sewage plant, and a park ranger took pity on him. Seeing his boredom, she assured him that there really were a lot of interesting things in the park.
"There is this strange headstone," said Hamann, remembering what the ranger had told him. "She told me where it was, and unlike all of the U.S. military grave[marker]s, this was a Roman column." Hamann still has his notes from that day, and true to her word, there were a lot of interesting things in Discovery Park.
He headed to the graveyard, copied the inscription - written in Italian - on the Roman headstone, and over the next weeks tried to solve the riddle of who the deceased Pvt. Guglielmo Olivotto was and why he was buried in Discovery Park.
"What was interesting to me," recounted Hamann, whose eyes light up as he shares the story, "[Olivotto] died that day, and there was nothing in the Times or P-I - or the next day."
Finally, days later, a screaming headline announcing the huge riot and lynching appeared. Oddly enough, the soldiers accused of the lynching were black and the victim was white. "I went through as many books as I could find," noted Hamann. He spoke with experts on lynching, and no one has ever been able to come up with another case where the lynched victim is white and the lynchers are black.
"If it exists, I haven't found it yet."
The delayed reporting and the strange lynching were enough to pique Hamann's interest. In 1987, due to his persistence and interest from many of his colleagues and friends in the newsroom, KING TV aired an hourlong program about the event. "It was an accurate reflection of what the newspapers had found," stated Hamann.
But it wasn't the real story. Faced with the nagging feeling that the correct story had not been told, and bolstered by encouragement from friends to write the book, Hamann took on the project. More than 15 years after he initially encountered the story, "On American Soil," Hamann's first book, offers an in-depth look at what really happened within the pitch-black woods of Discovery Park.
"Jack is a powerful writer," added Tigani. "The way that he uses the primary sources - the diaries and the letters - he contextualizes them really well."
Hamann and his wife Leslie traveled to more than 30 states to conduct interviews. They spent hours, days and months sifting through U.S. archives searching for relevant documents about the case. Often, they were the first to get to the libraries and the last to leave.
"I wanted to be as correct as I knew how," stressed Hamann. "By not taking sides and simply trying to report it in the way it was. I think that is what journalists do. You raise questions."[[In-content Ad]]