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When a liberating army is guilty of racial injustice

Alice Kaplan's book looks at black soldiers executed in Europe during World War II.

November 02, 2005|Wil Haygood | Washington Post

The crimes were rape and murder, and the punishments ranged from lengthy prison sentences to a date with the gallows. Many of the hangings were in public, town criers summoning villagers to gather around.

Alice Kaplan has written a book, "The Interpreter," about black and white men who did heinous things in the European theater during World War II.

It is a tale about a Jim Crow Army with strict racial mores. She seeks to show that white men who committed similar crimes received less severe punishments, especially when it came to the meting out of death sentences.

Hers is not the usual chatter about the Greatest Generation.

"Some of the reaction to the book has been, 'Why are you stirring up these bad memories?' " Kaplan said.

She answers: "Why should we refuse to remember the effects of segregation?"

The numbers stunned her: 70 American soldiers were convicted and executed in Europe between 1943 and 1946. Blacks made up 8.5% of the Army at the time and yet were almost 80% of those who swung from the gallows.

Kaplan's book isn't about heroes or gallantry, with the exception of French writer Louis Guilloux, who interpreted on behalf of the Army for French witnesses during some of the trials. Guilloux -- the interpreter of the title -- would later write a novel, "OK, Joe," about his experiences at the trials.

"I'm not arguing the innocence" of the black soldiers who were executed, Kaplan said. "I'm arguing against the system that encouraged violence and let white soldiers get off for similar crimes."

She is a Duke University historian and a Francophile. American racial history had never fascinated her until she came upon the history of the black soldiers who had been tried and executed.

At Duke, Kaplan said, her white students talked about the Greatest Generation in glowing terms. Her black students, however, shared stories of segregation and lynchings that had been passed on to them by parents and grandparents. "It really helped change my perspective on race," she said.

There are stories within stories.

In 1944, Louis Till, a black soldier stationed in Europe, raped and murdered a white woman, for which he was convicted and hanged.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth, was kidnapped in a small Mississippi town, beaten, shot in the skull, then dumped in a river -- all for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Emmett Till was the son of Louis Till.

"There were people who wanted Europeans to believe that black men had tails between their legs and were these savages," said Clenora Hudson-Weems, a University of Missouri at Columbia professor and author of "Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement."

The Shakespearean narrative of the Till family isn't widely known now, but it was not always so, said Hudson-Weems. "During the time of the Emmett Till trial, the Klan brought up the father -- and what happened to him overseas -- and tried to make the claim that young Emmett was just a rapist like his father."

Kaplan said she didn't set out to probe the issues of race in the Army.

Some years back, a friend had given her a copy of Guilloux's novel. Kaplan, who also teaches Romance studies and is fluent in French, became so enamored of the book that she set about translating it. (It was published in the U.S. in 2003.)

She also wondered how much of Guilloux's tale was fact masquerading as fiction. She wanted to track down the real cases.

Despite name changes, Kaplan traced two narratives that coincided with Guilloux's text: the story of James Hendricks, a black man hanged for shooting a white farmer and sexually assaulting his daughter, and that of George Whittington, a white officer who shot and killed a French Resistance fighter outside a bar and was acquitted.

Two stories and two lives to tell the entire saga of race and crime in World War II. "I guess they call it micro-history," Kaplan said, "where you go to a moment and then move out into the larger picture."

Guilloux becomes an endearing figure in Kaplan's book. He was a struggling writer who nearly starved to death during the Nazi occupation, and then found himself in the employ of the U.S. Army. "He loved the officers he worked with, yet he was appalled by apartheid," Kaplan said. "He couldn't believe that a liberating Army was working along the lines of segregation."

Kaplan believes Guilloux's outsider status gave him added insight. "He asked naive questions that only an outsider can ask: 'Is this a court only for black men?' "

Kaplan believes the Army -- grappling with segregation while liberating Europe -- did not wish to have Europeans question its commitment to justice concerning crimes against Europeans. "The hangings were public relations events," Kaplan said. "They were showing the civilians that the U.S. Army meant business."

"We mirrored society, and society was segregated. There were certain elements of racism and that carried over into the military," said Thomas McShane, director of national security legal studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

"African Americans were more apt to receive death sentences than whites," McShane said. He blames the inequities in part on the fact that the military never had enough lawyers on hand to handle courts-martial.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces.

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