On American Soil

Published By: Algonquin Books

Book Category: Non-Fiction,

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Reviewed by Connie Anderson

The subtitle of this On American Soil says it all: Murder, the Military, and How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II. Seattle journalist Jack Hamman stumbled onto "a story" 18 years ago about an Italian soldier dying while in a prisoner of war camp in Seattle—and finally wrote the story when the documents were declassified.

Some Italian soldiers had been captured after years of toiling under Fascist rule, fighting without buying into the politics. Over 200 of the POWs, those who were not troublemakers, were moved to a camp near Seattle. These prisoners made up the Italian Service Unit (ISU) where they did the work of American soldiers, dressed in plain uniforms.

The Italians were allowed to go into town to visit Italian-American homes for a family dinner. Also in this encampment were the black soldiers, whose primary job was loading and unloading ships (thus called Port soldiers). A small scuffle ensued one night after three Italians returned to the camp. The black soldiers were furious with how poorly they were treated as American soldiers—and the privileges the POWS had.

The alarm went out to deal with the Italians who had hurt "one of our boys." A riot ensued for almost an hour, without MPs arriving, and violence was meted out without discerning if they were badly beating Italian or American soldiers.

The camp commander was so embarrassed by the riot—and lack of response by the MPs, that he ordered everything cleaned up immediately—removing fingerprints and other evidence needed to deal with the intruding soldiers. More than 40 black soldiers were charged for the riot.

On American Soil becomes the story of how one Italian POW was found hung. At first it was ruled a suicide, unlikely as that seemed as there were no footprints under his body. As this was August 1944, in the midst of the war, any mistreatment of POWs on our land could mean more mistreatment of captured Americans. Someone had to pay…and that leads up to a trial prosecuted by Leon Jaworski (later of the Nuremberg Trials, Kennedy's assassination and Nixon's impeachment fame).

I'm not going to reveal anything else. It is a fabulous read and would make a great movie—if we really wanted to know a true but unbelievable story of segregation, POWs, wartime problems here and abroad, ineptness of commanders—the list goes on.

The author has done a thorough job of research and Armchair Interviews says On American Soil is a two-thumbs-up book.

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