Battle of Launceston Court-Martial
EVIDENCE AT COURT-MARTIAL (written as reported at the time)
On Friday there was a sequel to the shooting affair which took place in the Square in the centre of a Cornish town on the night of Sunday, September 26th. It took the form of a United States court-martial at Paignton, when 14 American coloured soldiers of the 581st Ordnance Ammunition Company were charged with mutiny, shooting with intent to murder two sergeants and other people, rioting, unlawfully taking and firing firearms, and making inflammatory statements in the presence of other soldiers.
The accused comprised a technical sergeant, a sergeant, and 12 privates. Each pleaded “Not guilty” to a total of ten charges or specifications.
Altogether there were six charges and “specifications,” The first was that on September 26th accused did commit riot in that together with certain other unknown soldiers they wrongfully and unlawfully and in a violent manner assembled to usurp the peace of the camp and vicinity, and so assembled did wrongfully and unlawfully in riotous and violent manner bear arms, and disregarding the lawful authority of superior officers did depart from their quarters to the centre of the town, defy military and civil authority, and assault two sergeants by shooting, also shooting at other people in the vicinity of the Market Square, whose names are not known, and caused terror and disturbance.
The second charge accused them of attempting to murder and committing an assault on Sergt. J. Cocks, by shooting with rifles and tommy-guns, and the third charge was similar in relation to Sergt. Ralph Simmons.
The fourth charge accused them of seizing arms and ammunition, bearing arms, and recklessly discharging firearms, making inflammatory statements, and firing on United States Army Military Police and other persons.
The fifth charge was that they voluntarily joined in a meeting which began in camp against the lawful authority of the military police and attempting to usurp, subvert, and override that authority and taking up arms and firing on military police.
The sixth charge was that they voluntarily joined in mutiny against the authority of the commanding officer of the station and other officers, seizing arms, and ammunition, bearing arms, making inflammatory statements, and disregarding lawful orders proceeded to the town to usurp, subvert, and override the lawful military authority.
They all pleaded ‘Not Guilty” through their defence counsel.
TWO MILITARY POLICEMEN WOUNDED.
Prosecuting Counsel said the evidence would show that on the Sunday night in question a certain group of soldiers, among whom accused were members, were in the town. They had been frequenting public-houses. There was trouble. The men proceeded to camp, armed themselves with guns, and obtained ammunition. They moved back to the town in a body to the Market Square. There they found several military policemen and other soldiers. They proceeded to within a few paces of the military police, and one of the groups made certain statements to the military police. Immediately firing started and two military policemen were wounded. The crowd was dispersed and the wounded were given treatment. The prosecution contended that all counts in the charges would be substantiated by evidence.
MOANING AND SCREAMING.
The first witness called was Capt. F. P. Scott, of the military police, who said he was on duty on the night in question in the Cornish town. At about 10:20 in the Square he saw a group of men who were armed. A soldier in a long coat fired near him from the hip. Witness took his revolver out.
Across the Square someone was moaning and screaming, and it was obvious they had been hit. The group was growing larger all the time, and there was yelling in every direction. Soon the men started to filter away to the streets leading from the Square. Witness went into a hotel to ‘phone his camp for reinforcements, but could not get through. He found two of his sergeants laid out on tables in an inn.
Answering questions, he stated that nine military policemen were on duty in the Square that night. In the Square also were some W.A.A.F.s and Land Army girls. He saw no British soldiers. On the previous night he had heard there had been trouble at a dance in the Town Hall.
Sergt. Neilson, also of the military police, said everything happened very fast. There was no command “hands up”-shots were just fired. He and others nearby threw themselves on the ground. The men continued to fire as they retreated from the Square. After the incident he found the tyres of his jeep punctured by machine-gun bullets. He thought that in all 40 or 50 rounds were fired.
Another sergeant said that one of the soldiers in the Square asked a military policeman just before the shooting why the men were not allowed a free run of the town.
Pte. Rasen, a jeep driver, said there were 25 to 30 men gathered in the Square.
Mr. Tom Gossett, and employee of an hotel in the town, said the affair took place about 10:20, and three of the men came into the hotel with a gun, knives, and a cosh. He got them out without any trouble, but then he heard from outside about 20 shots. He was unable to recognize any of the accused as taking part.
Sergt. Ralph Simmons, who came into court on crutches, said some time after ten o’clock he saw a crowd gathering and shooting suddenly stared. He was hit in both legs and taken to hospital.
Medical officers from the hospital described how Sergt. Simmons and Cocks were admitted with wounds. Cocks’s injuries were more severe, including a compound fracture, and he would likely to be in hospital from four to six months and have a permanent disability.
Two investigating officers attached to the United States Army said that several of the accused made voluntary statements on the day following the shooting. These statements ran as follows: “Pte. Tom Ewing: “On September 20th, in the evening a friend woke me up and said there was trouble in town. I got up and went along with a rifle and ammunition. I saw Sergt. Austin handing out ammunition. Several of us went to town”.
Sergt. Rupert Hughes: “ I went into the town without a pass with others from the camp. We went to a pub. Sergt. Austin had words with a soldier. Two began to fight. We said we said we would stick together. We saw some military policemen and one of us spoke to them saying ‘Put your hands up.’ Then a tommy-gun was fired and I ran away back to camp.”
Pte. C. Barrett: “I went into the town on an official pass. When I got there I heard shots. I went back to camp and to bed.”
Pte. C. Geddies: “I went into the town without an official pass. Austin and Barrett asked if we could all stick together. We returned to the camp and got arms. Someone said to a military policeman ‘Why don’t you want us in town?’ After the shooting we disposed of our guns near the church.”
Pte. A. Shaw said that Barrett was the instigator.
Pte. F. Blake said he had no pass when he went into the town, He took his bayonet, and after the firing he ran back to the camp.
A similar statement was made by Pte. C. M. Henderson, who said that he had no pass, but also no gun.
Corpl. A. Joseph. A soldier stationed at the same camp, said he saw Barrett with a gun and saw him shoot. Joseph admitted he was absent without leave.
The Court adjourned to the following day, when the first witness called was Pte. Edwards, who said that at 7 p.m. on September 26th he went into the town with others. They returned to camp for guns and Sergt. Austin handed round ammunition. They then returned to the town, directed by Clifford Barrett who had the tommy-gun. Shooting was directed at the military police.
Staff-Sergt. Blanchard said he got a rifle and was given ammunition for it. They went back into town. All of them had guns. It was Barrett who suggested they should arm themselves.
Capt. Bossom, adjutant of the camp, said that only one of the accused had a pass for that night. The whole camp was under restriction, and the men were expressly forbidden to go into town, partly because they had not suitable uniforms. At the camp there was no secure place to lock up the arms. Each man was responsible for his own. The last arms inspection before the shooting had been on September 6th.Lieut. R. E. Goss said he was in bed and was awakened at 11 p.m. on September 26th and was told there was trouble in town. He apprehended Pte. Lindsey the following morning. Lindsey was walking down the road and had a rifle under his coat. He also had a bayonet and six live rounds of ammunition.
A Second-Lieutenant said four men were missing from a section he checked that evening. Their arms were also missing.
Lieut. Francis H. Bloodle, after giving similar evidence, failed to identify one of the accused when asked to do so by the prosecution.
Capt. J. Stevenson, Assistant Inspector-General, Headquarters Southern Section, United States Army, was the first witness called for the defence. He produced a statement made to him by Austin, denying that he (Austin) issued any ammunition, nor did he have a gun, though he was in town that evening. A similar statement was made by Rupert Hughes. James Lindsey made a statement also, saying that someone took his rifle from his tent. He chased the man and recovered handing it to a lieutenant on his return to camp.
Sergt. Bury said he was on M.P. duty in the town on the evening of September 26th. In a public house some coloured men were refused drinks. The M.P.’s had order to chase all coloured men back to camp, as they had no passes. At a dance at the town hall some coloured men were ordered out by M.P.’s.
On the Sunday in an hotel lounge some of the coloured men were refused drinks, and some of the white American soldiers walked out. On the Saturday two British soldiers told the military police they were picking on by the coloured soldiers.
The panel of ten United States Army officers sat for nine hours on Sunday behind closed doors to consider their findings, and on their return to court, the president stated that the Court had decided not to announce their findings. Previous convictions were recorded against none of the fourteen prisoners.
In his concluding statement the Trial Judge-Advocate held that the charges had been proved.
Defending counsel said the men had been “restricted” in America and also when they arrived in England. On the night in question, they were threatened by one of their own. Most of them were innocent of any part in the events of that night.
(We are indebted to the Western Morning News for the above)
The account was given to the American Embassy who said they were found guilty and sentenced to death or life imprisonment and sent to the prison at Shepton Mallet. According to the prison records 18 American soldiers were executed there for rape or murder. 16 were hanged, 2 were shot by firing squad. Of the 18, 10 were black, 3 were hispanic. But there was no mention of the shooting in the town. (With thanks to Robert Downing).