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Army pays black vet $725 for ’44 wrongful conviction

Rory Marshall

SEATTLE — In 1944, an Italian prisoner of war was found lynched following a night of rioting at Fort Lawton in Seattle.

Forty-three black soldiers were tried in one of the largest courts-martial of World War II. Of those 43, 28 were found guilty of rioting and sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison.

In late October, the Army’s Board of Corrections of Military Records ruled the trial was “fundamentally unfair and improper.” It said the soldiers should be given honorable discharges and compensated.

About two weeks ago, one of the men, Samuel Snow, got a check.

For $725.

The Army said that was the amount he would have been paid between the time he was convicted and the time he was released from prison about 15 months later.

The compensation, says Rep. Jim McDermott, is far less than Snow deserves. The amount — based on Snow’s wages at the time of $50 a month — was not adjusted for inflation or to reflect any interest for the 63 years the Army withheld the money.

“I am writing to ask you to reconsider and increase this award, as well as the awards to others who qualify under the Board’s decision,” McDermott, D-Wash., wrote in his letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren. “As I am sure you will agree, a check for $725 is not fair to Mr. Snow.”

An Army spokesman, Maj. Nathan Banks, said the amount was in keeping with regulations.

“There is no provision in law or regulations that provides for interest, damages, pain or suffering or attorney fees, [and] no adjustment for inflation,” Banks said. “These have been on the books for years.”

McDermott said in an interview that he didn’t want to fault the Army and credited it with investigating what was “clearly an egregious injustice.”

But as for the compensation, “somebody didn’t think this through,” he said. “I realize that this is a very rare occasion, but $725 is not fair.”

McDermott said he did not have a “fair” figure in mind, but suggested that at least adjusting for inflation, or calculating what $725 would have earned in a bank account, would be a way to approach the problem.

Snow said he doesn’t hold animosity toward anyone about his case. Still, “I think it’s pretty poor, for all the time it’s been,” he said of the check. “I was anticipating much more.”

Snow, now 83 and living in Leesburg, Fla., said he hadn’t cashed the check, because it came with a letter that said if he did, he would forfeit any rights to appeal. His son is investigating possible avenues to appeal.

Snow previously appealed his dishonorable discharge and had it upgraded in 1975 to a general discharge, making him eligible for Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits — but not the financial compensation.

Only Snow, who wound up working more than 40 years as a janitor, and one other of the convicted soldiers are still believed to be alive.

So far, Snow and the relatives of three deceased vets are the only ones who have petitioned the Board of Corrections since McDermott and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., requested the review.

McDermott said he thinks a memorial to the wrongly convicted soldiers should be arranged at the Fort Lawton site in what is now Seattle’s Discovery Park.

(Associated Press)