The news of the scandal about the lack of recognition for Black and Asian soldiers who died serving the “Empire” in WW1 made me think back on the initial reaction to a book of mine. Over a decade ago now, I pigeonholed a senior editor at a major publishing house about an idea for a novel. One I had completed in draft. He listened to my pitch, which was based on true events, and gave his verdict. ‘Does anyone really care about a bunch of executed criminal GIs, some of whom might have been hanged by mistake?’
Well, it turns out I did and do, because I am still writing that book. The fact that the GIs in my book were Black and Hispanic means the story is still relevant with a chilling modern resonance to crime and punishment here and in the USA.
The basic facts are these. When US troops poured into the UK in preparation for D-Day, they were subject to the Visiting Forces Act (1942), which allowed the US military to conduct courts martial on British soil and gave some immunity to our allies from British law. One anomaly was that rape was a capital crime for US servicemen, although it was not under domestic law.
There were 19 executions of GIs in England. Most were hanged; two were killed by musketry, as the US Army quaintly called a firing squad. Of the 19, nine were convicted of murder, six of rape, and three of both. Eleven of the 19 executed were African-American, with three others of Latin-American or Mexican-American heritage. None was higher than a corporal, with most privates. No white American was executed for rape. When the black soldiers were sentenced to a custodial sentence for rape, it tended to be twice the length of the equivalent incarceration for a white man. Several were condemned to mental institutions indefinitely. Jim Crow definitely came over with the US army.
The hangings were carried out at Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset, familiar from the opening of The Dirty Dozen, where Lee Marvin offers the condemned men a way to cheat the hangman. The hangman, incidentally, was Tom Pierrepoint, who (if you’ll pardon the terrible pun) taught the ropes there to his more infamous nephew, Albert.
There were some US soldiers who had a narrow escape. Leroy Henry, for example, was convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Although he admitted having sex with the woman, he claimed she denounced him when she asked for £2 instead of the usual £1 for her services and he refused. He avoided the noose because a petition of 33,000 locals found its way to General Eisenhower. He not only commuted the sentence but dismissed the entire case, leaving Henry to walk free and return to his unit.
Researching the book uncovered (for me) plenty of other examples of how Black soldiers were treated differently, both before and after the war, including the case of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. A segregated unit (Black gunners, white officers) it played a crucial role in covering the retreating US forces at the Battle of the Bulge and in defending Bastogne with their howitzers. When the Germans first broke through, some of the unit’s positions were overrun and some taken prisoner. Eleven African-Americans managed to escape and hide out. They were sheltered by locals but were betrayed by a Nazi sympathizer and handed over to the Waffen SS. At 7am on December 17th, 1944, the German troops drove the eleven deep into the Wereth forest, tortured them – including cutting off fingers and driving over them with army vehicles – and executed them. Whereas the 84 white soldiers massacred by the Waffen SS at Malmedy on the same day were the subject of an investigation and a trial of the perpetrators after the war, the eleven were written out of history until 2017, when Congress finally recognised as the victims of a war crime.
So what of the original novel inspired by all this? Well, I have recently re-worked and updated it (which I have been doing periodically for ten years). It concerns the discovery of a GI ‘s skeleton in a field in Wiltshire, the local police response, and the US investigators brought in to examine the body. It is called Beyond the Bones and it has a tag line that seems to fit with the recent news about those WW1 soldiers. In war, as so often in peace, Black lives don’t always matter.
Let’s hope it finds a more sympathetic editor this time.