The U.S. Army publicly apologized at Seattle's Fort Lawton Saturday to the families of 28 African-American soldiers who were convicted of rioting and some of manslaughter in a now-discredited 1944 court-martial.

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For decades, Willie Prevost kept his secret.

Like most of his World War II Army buddies, he never told his family about his conviction for rioting during a night of violence that left a number of men injured and one dead at Seattle’s Fort Lawton in 1944.

But on Saturday, his family was there as the U.S. Army apologized in a ceremony to clear the names of Prevost and 27 other African-American soldiers who were convicted in a now-discredited court-martial.

Sixty-three years after they were sentenced to hard labor, and nearly all dishonorably discharged, “The Fort Lawton 28” were given military honors, with an Army band and color guard, gospel choir and speeches by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and Assistant Secretary of the Army Ronald James.

Only two of the veterans lived to see the day.

One of them, Roy Montgomery, of Detroit, did not travel to Seattle. The other, 84-year-old Samuel Snow, of Leesburg, Fla., came to Seattle but missed the ceremony because he was hospitalized with a pacemaker problem. His son, Ray Snow, accepted his father’s honorable discharge on his behalf.

In total, the families of five veterans were present.

Saturday’s ceremony took place on a Fort Lawton parade ground — now part of Seattle’s Discovery Park — 60 years to the day after President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces.

The Fort Lawton incident, which led to the largest court-martial of World War II, occurred after a clash between black soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, all of whom were housed at Fort Lawton. The morning after the riot, the body of POW Guglielmo Olivotto was found hanging from wires on an obstacle course at the base of Magnolia Bluff.

Olivotto was remembered Thursday in a Mass at the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University.

Forty-three soldiers were charged with rioting and three were also charged with murder. Twenty-eight were convicted of rioting or manslaughter.

The Army Board for Correction of Military Records last year set aside the convictions after Seattle journalist Jack Hamann revealed in his 2005 book, “On American Soil,” that prosecutors gave defense attorneys only 10 days to prepare their case and withheld information from them that showed the criminal investigation was flawed and evidence suggested a white soldier may have committed the murder.

“The Army is genuinely sorry, I’m genuinely sorry, that your family members, your husbands and fathers and grandfathers, lost years of their freedom and, I expect, a measure of themselves as a result of these unfair convictions,” said Assistant Secretary James.

“They deserve your applause, they deserve the applause of the angels,” said James, whose great-grandfather escaped slavery in Missouri and fought for the Union during the Civil War. He called the convictions “a grievous wrong.”

A different view was expressed by a young man and woman, who stood silently on the edge of the crowd with signs that read, “Samuel Snow complicit in murder” and “Jack Hamann professional liar.” They left before the ceremony was over.

Walter Prevost said he learned of his father Willie’s conviction in 2006, when a friend brought Hamann’s book to his attention.

“They didn’t talk about it, they wanted it to disappear. It was a bad dream. They wanted it to go away,” said Walter Prevost. His father, who died in 1998, re-enlisted after completing his hard labor in order to have his dishonorable discharge upgraded to honorable.

Samuel Snow, who burned papers related to his court-martial — and then went on to marry and put his children through college on his pay as a church janitor — was a gentle man, said his son, Ray.

“My father never held any animosity to start with,” Ray said. “I said, ‘Daddy, you sure?’ He said, ‘Son, God has been good to me. If he’s been good to me, why should I hold animosity in my heart? If I hold it, I can’t have forgiveness.’ “

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com