The Fortunate Life of Samuel Snow

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Jul. 30th, 2008
Subject: Samuel Snow

In 1944, the Army tried and convicted Samuel Snow for a crime he didn’t commit. Now, more than 60 years later, his name would finally be cleared.

Awards:
Honorable Mention, Personalities (Profiles), 2008,
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter


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Samuel Snow felt fortunate.

Even though he’d been wrongly convicted of a crime while stationed at Fort Lawton in 1944, even though he’d spent a year in a stockade, and even though he lost military benefits that made some days a struggle, Snow still thought good fortune had blessed his life.

How could he feel otherwise? After all, here he was on Friday, July 25, having returned to Seattle to have his honor restored some six decades later.

And as he sat in the opulent dining room of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Snow, 84, considered the gift of his life. He always knew something good would come from what befell him and 42 other Black soldiers during WWII. “I want to be clear,” Snow said, as he began a mental journey through time, hurtling back to the evening where everything changed: Aug. 14, 1944.

It was a warm night. Snow had only been at Fort Lawton, located in what’s now Discovery Park, for two, maybe three days. The next day, he was preparing to ship out overseas. Back then, the Army segregated soldiers and at the base, white servicemen had their own barracks, while Black servicemen lived in the “Colored Area.” A number of Italian prisoners of war found themselves at Fort Lawton, too, housed near the Black soldiers.

Snow was upstairs in the orderly room with other Black soldiers, just shooting the bull, when he heard it: a whistle. “There was quite a few boys middling [around]” he recalled. “I asked what was the whistle was all about.”

The whistle meant to fall out. Snow did just that, leaving the Black barracks and heading into the night. Racial tensions smoldered on the base, with antagonisms flaring between Blacks and Italians, as well as white Americans and Italians. That evening, a fight had broken out between Black soldiers and Italian POWs. Snow ran down to the Italian area. “And I got hit over the head.” By whom, he didn’t know, but blood stained his jacket. “From that point on, they taken me to the hospital and I didn’t know anything else about it.”

It.

That evening, someone killed an Italian POW named Guglielmo Olivotto. He’d been lynched, his body hanged from wires attached to an obstacle course.

Snow, along with the rest of the Black soldiers, heard about it the next morning. “I was a little astonished. Matter of fact, the Army was a little astonished and our company was a little astonished.”

The Black soldiers, Snow said, knew what it meant: bad news. Not that he thought any of them would have lynched Olivotto. “Black guys going and hanging an Italian prisoner of war?” Impossible, he thought.

Though on one level, the truth didn’t matter. Snow and the rest of the company were aware history was weighed down with sad tales of innocent Black men accused of horrific crimes.

Even though Snow had spent that evening in the infirmary, military police arrested him, tossing him in the stockade. “Then they came back and got me and carried me to 2 FBI [agents] and they asked me what happened,” said Snow. He told them he didn’t know. “And they said, ‘We ain’t got nothing on you,’ and they sent me back to the barracks.”

But “nothing” somehow turned into something. MPs arrested him once more, tossing him back into the stockade where he stayed in a cage encased in barbed wire. There, he waited for news.

Even though he knew he was innocent, anger at the injustice, he said, never consumed him. “If you get bitter and you get mad, it’s gonna be hard on you.” Instead, he put his future in the hands of his Lord Jesus. Besides, being in the stockade only mirrored his life’s experiences. “They taken me from segregation to segregation,” said Snow. “That’s why I could handle it.”

In all, Snow and 42 other Black soldiers went on trial for the events of Aug. 14, 1944. Three soldiers faced charges of first-degree murder in Olivotto’s death — for which a guilty verdict, ironically, would amount to death by hanging — and rioting. The remainder, including Snow, looked at rioting charges. Prosecuting the case for the military was Leon Jaworski, a man who would later gain fame as the Special Prosecutor during the Watergate hearings. Jaworski had months to prepare. Two defense attorneys, representing all the Black soldiers, had less than two weeks.

In late Decemeber 1944, the soldiers looking at murder and rioting charges were found guilty of manslaughter, thereby escaping the noose, and rioting. Guilty verdicts for rioting were handed down to 18 others, with sentences ranging from six months to 10 years of hard labor. The rest were acquitted or had their cases dismissed. Snow received one year hard labor and a dishonorable discharge.

He’d spent the entire trial in the stockade, and taking into account time served, that left him with four months of labor, picking up trash and cleaning latrines. He waited it out. When personnel came to get him to set him free, one passed on some advice: Whatever you do, don’t look back.

Home in Florida, Snow found a job in a nursery, cutting ferns, working there for8 years. His father worked in a Chevrolet plant and wanted his son there with him. All Snow needed was more education, which the G.I. Bill covered. Trouble was, his dishonorable discharge cancelled all military benefits, including the G.I. Bill. Snow had to pass on being a mechanic.

He put in 12 years at a Minute Maid plant. As he aged, certain work became more difficult and the only job he could find was as a janitor at a Methodist church. A whites-only Methodist church. He stayed there 20 years.

While he held down these jobs, Snow got married and started a family, raising two boys. But his wife and children, they never knew what happened at Fort Lawton. “I didn’t say nothing to none of them.” He had a stack of documents from the court-martial that towered four feet high. Trying to forget the ordeal, he burnt them up. “I regretted it. Ohh, I regretted it.”

But sometimes, the past won’t be silenced. And in 1986, a reporter named Jack Hamann came across Olivotto’s headstone at Fort Lawton. He produced a TV show raising questions about the court-martial.

In 2002, a Seattle Times article recapped Hamann’s TV piece, the reporter tracking down Snow. Later that year, Snow, who had spent decades not speaking of that night, flew to Seattle, where the Army apologized for Jaworski’s egregious error.

Three years later, in the book “On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II,” Hamann recounted the events of the riot at Fort Lawton and the tainted court-martial. Hamann believed that a white military officer, by then deceased, had lynched Olivotto.

Then, one day last year, Snow received an envelope from the Army at his Leesburg, Fla. home. Inside he found a reimbursement check, meant to cover the salary he lost while in the stockade. “Seven hundred twenty-five dollars. I thought it was ludicrous,” Snow said. “I think I deserved more money, for all my time.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle) thought so, too, and he pressed the Army for compensation for the soldiers and their families. Snow said they were still waiting for an answer.

But the dishonorable discharge. While he sat last Friday in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel — the same hotel where Jaworski stayed during the 1944 court-martial — Snow still had that mark on his record. But even that, he knew, would soon be removed. Snow had ventured to Seattle this third time to take part in a ceremony at Fort Lawton. There, as part of a public tribute, Snow and the rest of the soldiers would have their honor restored. His dishonorable discharge would be changed to honorable.

Snow, one of the court-martial’s two surviving soldiers and the only one planning to attend the ceremony, said he bore no ill will against the Army, just the people who tried him unfairly. As for the court-martial, he chalked that up to the workings of the Devil. “He’ll do anything. He don’t care what it is.”

And just as faith helped him weather the stockade, it buoyed his life while he waited to have his name cleared. “I have been very fortunate.” He looked around the elegant restaurant. After all, he acknowledged, “I’m sitting here this morning.”

But by early Saturday morning, Snow experienced chest pain. His family, in town with him, took him to Virginia Mason Hospital in a taxi. His pacemaker. His heart was struggling. Unable to attend the Saturday honoring, his son, Ray, went in his place, receiving a plaque.

Hamann, who says that Snow would sometimes call, just to ask how he was doing, says that restoring Snow’s good name, reminds us that injustice has consequences, whether it occurred decades in the past or the present. “Who wants to apologize 60 years from now for things we’re doing today?” he says.

When Ray arrived at Snow’s hospital bedside, staff were preparing to take him to the Critical Care Unit. Ray showed his father the plaque. “I went and read it to him and he just smiled,” says Ray.

And in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 27, 2008, more than 13 hours after receiving his honorable discharge, Samuel Snow’s heart stopped. But by then, what he dreamed of had finally come to pass. After nearly 64 years, his honor, his recognition, all had been restored.

“My father has been discharged from this world,” says Ray, “and received a greater honor.”

And Samuel Snow’s fortunate life lasted just long enough for him to die a happy and honorable man.


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