Friday, 12 April 2013

Crime and punishment in WW II

Prompted by Beer Nut's comments to my last post, I've been poking around the newspaper archive looking for rape trials of US servicemen in WW II.

This is one of the things I found:

The Editor of the 'Echo' has received a number of letters appealing for the lives of two coloured American soldiers who were sentenced to death by court-martial at a West Country military establishment last weekend, for the forcible rape of a 16-years-old Bishop's Cleeve girl.

In each letter the point is made that the sentence suggests racial discrimination —that white Americans would not have been so severely punished.

This view is entirely discounted by statement the Editor has received from official sources.


U.S.-Army spokesmen, asked to comment on the complaints, said that the case was one of several in the United Kingdom in which American soldiers had been sentenced to death.

They pointed out that a specific article of war provides this penalty for rape and that it is the Army's duty to enforce military law regardless of the individual's colour or creed.

Both white and coloured men, they said, had been similarly sentenced to death in the United Kingdom.

They added that the case automatically would be heard by a review board and that it would be judged entirely on its merits.

A selection of the letters, all in a similar strain, is published below :

Sir will you please allow the undersigned, war workers at a local factory, to make an appeal for the lives of the two coloured American soldiers sentenced to death for the rape of a Bishop's Cleeve I girl?

While we agree that rape is a serious crime, we feel that if these men die it will be because they are coloured.

In England we have learned the meaning of equality and freedom and we are revolted by the unjustness of the American laws concerning  negroes.

In our opinion, birching and prison with hard labour would be more fitting a sentence for all who commit this crime, whether they be black or white.

William Kurn,D. Johnson, E. Tarling, H. Collier. M. Barnett, J. Collins, V. Howse, E. Lewis, M. D. Lunn, J. Bessent, J. Carter, O. G. Barrett, D. Cordwell, T. Tandy, F. Betteridge, R. Hare, D. M. Harvey, R. Sears, P. Higgins, A. Scott Blair, M. Powell, E. Aldridge, C. Collins, E. Jones, L. Freeman, E. French, M. Price, P. Brookes, K. Peacock, B. Bettany.

Sir,—Our committee would appreciate space in your paper with regard to the sentence of death recently passed on two coloured American soldiers for the forcible rape of a girl working in this factory.

Shop stewards in all departments in the factory have been approached by the workpeople with requests to take some action to obtain commutation of the death sentence to one of imprisonment. There is in the factory and in the village very strong feeling against such a severe sentence in the case of these men.

It is the almost unanimous opinion that this severe sentence, when compared with the sentences of imprisonment passed on white American soldiers for similar offences, suggests a racial discrimination that will be deplored by all peoples fighting against this very thing in the war against Fascism and racial persecution.

In view of the subscription of all the United Nations to the principles of the Atlantic Charter, and the principles of complete freedom for all peoples of all nationality and colour, we sincerely hope that the sentence on these two men will be commuted to a similar sentence to that given to white men for a like offence.
Shop Stewards' Committee, Smith & Sons, Evesham-road, Chelt.

Sir, —We, the undersigned, wish to protest against the sentence of death passed on two negroes for rape on a Bishop's Cleeve girl.

We know that this is a serious offence, but surely there are other ways which they can pay for this crime, without paying with their lives.

We feel had these men been white such a sentence would never have been passed.

These men came to fight for us, so if they can fight and risk their lives, let us treat them as equals.

Joan Channing, M. Birt, P. Timms, V. Holland, J, E. Jenkins, J. Walker, M. Holder, W. Dunster, K. Francis, G. Richards, A. P. Dent, B. E. Mudd, A. Brock, W. P. May, N. Meluish, T. N. Hill, G. Romans, S. C. Preater.

As outlined above, the American authorities point out that the law is the same for any offender, white or coloured."
Gloucestershire Echo - Friday 05 May 1944, page 3.

I'm not sure I believe the claim of the American authorities that everyone was treated the same. I've found cases of white soldiers found guilty of rape who only got 25 years hard labour.

Many locals clearly didn't believe them either.

Apologies for the lack of beery content.


The Beer Nut said...

Damn bleeding hearts, with their birching and hard labour.

Thanks for the articles and sorry for hijacking your blog.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Nut,

no problem. I'm glad you set me off looking. The Shepton Mallet thing is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously because of what I'm about to say and I'm not sure the family would want this information tied to their name. I would have sent by email, but couldn't find an email address on the site.

My wife's grandfather was a member of a military police unit in Italy during WWII. He told lots of stories, including such colorful anecdotes as how he and several other soldiers stole a railcar full of cigarettes from the French.

Anyway, as his health failed and eventually he was in hospice, my wife and I visited one day where he was going through boxes of stuff. We found this little notebook where he wrote down what was going on.

Most of his duties involved driving high level American Army officials around Italy and keeping them from getting killed in the process.

I flipped through the book, reading with interest (I love history) and then I came across a series of entries that jolted me.

One of his unit's other duties was to carry out the executions you're talking about in your post. The entry started by talking about how several black soldiers had been convicted of raping some Italian women and were sentenced to hang.

His journal talks about how none of the MP's wanted to do the actual execution and his struggle with eventually saying he'd do it as well as some pretty stark details that clearly haunted him. Subsequent entries really revealed how much it impacted him, especially the fact that it seemed to him that they got that sentence because they were black.

After I'd read that section, I asked him about it. I had no idea what his reaction would be. This was a guy who, in the years I'd known him was a fairly regular source of racially charged statements (lots of the kind of things people often write off as just the way 90 year old men sometimes are). Given that background of racism in his speech, the journal entries' revealing of it deeply bothering him really stood out.

When I asked him, you could see the snap of emotional pain in his eyes. He didn't say much that the journal entries didn't, but did say that of all of his regrets, participating in that was his greatest. It was abundantly clear to me that those hangings followed him for his entire life and bothered him in ways that other violent incidents (like watching his commanding officer lose his head to a sniper, etc.) didn't.

Ron Pattinson said...

Anonymous, thanks very much for that.