Five Questions for Jack Hamann

By Christopher Werner February 23, 2009 Published in the March 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Jack Hamann was a TV reporter on assignment at Discovery Park when he noticed the gravestone of a WWII Italian soldier lynched at Fort Lawton. Upon learning that a suspicious verdict found African Americans guilty of the crime, Hamann began the history-making investigation recounted in his book, On American Soil, which he’ll read from March 6 in the Suzzallo Library at UW.

Why would you say this story was so under the radar? In part it was because—as now everyone has admitted, including the U.S. Army and Congress—the army kept top-secret information that would’ve dismissed all of the charges against these men. Much of it has to do with the fact that we were at war, and at the expediency of war we were looking for quick justice. If that sounds familiar to issues and concerns we have today, it certainly is. In that environment of fear and finding easy targets of people who are either minority or [from] a different religion or country, it became expected for people to believe stories that maybe really in retrospect didn’t add up.

What was your goal when you started researching—did you imagine that Congress would demand that the Army reopen the case? Oh, we had no idea! We couldn’t have been more shocked when we uncovered this army report that essentially put a lie to the whole prosecution—it was just part of this mountain of raw data we were sifting through. Suddenly [my wife Leslie] grabbed me and goes, Oh, my god. The army’s highest court spent 13 months vetting this. One of the lawyers called me and said, ‘I had to go into the library, the archives, and everywhere you went to check each and every detail of what you had found.’ We told our publisher we thought it would take about a year to do the research and a year to write. It ended up taking more than twice that.

So did you know that report was the clincher? Yeah, we didn’t really have the story until we found that, to be honest. It wasn’t that we weren’t going to try, but we were grabbing at the edges and there were so many questions. It’s scary as shit, I have to tell you. When the book went out we were afraid. We thought, “Oh, my god, what if we missed something and somebody comes up with a document that says, ‘Ah, you reporters are such shams. You didn’t see this or find that major document.’” We would’ve been just slaughtered if that had happened.

But were you confident in what you finally published? I know that we had worked about as hard as we could. It is a frightening feeling to release an investigative, nonfiction book, because you are going after peoples’ reputations—not going after them, but calling them into question. They have every incentive to try to prove you wrong. You don’t really think about that until suddenly it’s on the bookshelf and it’s being reviewed.

The scenes are re-created with incredibly vivid detail. How are you able to write with such authority? We had database after database. We had to cross-check and double-check. Essentially, we would say, “All these descriptions here and way over here and in this big pile and that file—they’re all describing this particular event. Then you bring them all together, you compare who’s speaking, and you say ‘Aha!’”

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