Ft. Lawton monument immortalizes tragic, largely forgotten piece of Seattle history

SEATTLE -- There's some new debate about what to do with Ft. Lawton, a decommissioned Army base on the edge of Discovery Park in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood.

The city wants to use the land for affordable housing. The vision, according to the city's website, "is an affordable, livable community that creates opportunities for those with low incomes to live in the Magnolia neighborhood, and takes advantage of the opportunity to increase recreational and open space for Seattle."

Opponents -- who have sued to block this development in the past -- say it will lower property values and add to congestion and parking problems that already exist.

From 1900 through the 1940s -- during both World Wars -- Ft. Lawton was home to a million soldiers and their families. Today, the deserted Army base is eerily quiet, but in August 1944, at the height of World War II, Ft. Lawton was bustling, housing thousands of soldiers, along with Italian prisoners of war who were captured in Africa.

It was also the site of a bizarre, tragic and largely forgotten piece of Seattle history, an unsolved mystery that forever changed the lives of 28 soldiers.

Tucked away in the corner of the Ft. Lawton Military Cemetery -- away from all the other gravesites -- is a brightly painted white monument that's protected by railing. It's the resting place of Italian soldier Guglielmo Olivotto.

"Someone in the Italian American community in Seattle stepped forward and paid for this monument back in 1944 but nobody’s really sure who that was," local historian Feliks Banel said.

One hot summer night, four Italian prisoners of war and four African-American soldiers (better known as Buffalo Soldiers) literally bumped into each other near the barracks, and a fight ensued, Banel said.

The fight quickly escalated into a full-fledged riot. Dozens of American and Italian soldiers brawled. Many were injured.  And then the next morning, there was a grisly discovery.

One of the Italian POWs was found lynched in a tree on the Magnolia Bluff, the edge of the Puget Sound.

That soldier was 32-year-old Private Gugliamo Olivotto.

The base commander immediately ordered all evidence of the attack to be destroyed, but the riot was already national news.

A young prosecutor named Leon Jaworski, who would later prosecute Richard Nixon in the Watergate hearings, conducted an investigation.

Forty-three African-American soldiers were charged. After a five-week court martial -- the longest of WWII -- 28 African-American soldiers were convicted. They were dishonorably discharged, with many imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor.

"As it turns out, after many many twists and turns, it wasn’t the African-American soldiers. 4654 it was probably a military policeman named Clyde Lomax who had some sort of an ax to grind. The motive isn’t really clear," Banel said.

It took 63 years for those falsely accused soldiers to be exonerated by the federal government. In 2008, there was a ceremony at Ft. Lawton to honor their exoneration, but only two of the wrongly accused soldiers lived to see that day.

One of them, 84-year-old Samuel Snow, flew to Seattle for the ceremony, but was too ill to attend. He died the next day, the only one of the "Ft. Lawton 28" who was buried with full military honors.

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