November 2, 2005 Los Angeles Times
When a liberating army is guilty of racial injustice
Book review by 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
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
Hers is not the usual chatter about the Greatest
"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
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
"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
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
Kaplan said she didn't set out to probe the issues of race in
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.