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Haunted by the Story of John Bennett and Other Black Soldiers’ Lives on Death Row

By Richard A. Serrano

Military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where John Bennett and eight other black soldiers would be hanged between 1955 and 1961.
Military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where John Bennett and eight other black soldiers would be hanged between 1955 and 1961.

For years, I have carried around in my head a haunting tale—that of a handsome young black army soldier named John Arthur Bennett, and what occurred along a snowy winter creek in Austria and deep in the bowels of death row basement at the army’s Fort Leavenworth prison.

The story for me reared up whenever I heard of another soldier condemned to die, or another April 13 shadowed the calendar. It especially hit home in 2003, when I witnessed a black man legally put to death for raping and killing a white female.

I first learned in the late 1970s of John Bennett, a descendant of southern Virginia plantation slaves. I was then a cub reporter for the since folded Kansas City Times, once the morning newspaper in my hometown. Still young at the craft, I pulled Sunday duty and often sat around the newsroom with Jim Fisher, a legendary reporter, columnist, and editor. He regaled me with past newspaper triumphs, including how he had once officially witnessed an army hanging at nearby Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He especially talked of Bennett, condemned to die for raping a white girl in Austria. Covering a hanging, Fisher instructed, was a rite of passage for any budding newspaperman.

Instantly, I was mesmerized. A decade later, in the mid-1980s, while a city desk editor, I would drive night after night to Leavenworth to interview retired army officers and prison guards, lawyers and chaplains, eventually the army’s hangman himself. I papered the federal government, the courts, and the Pentagon with FOIA requests for more on Bennett, and filled boxes with transcripts, court records, army reports, and other material, including stark black-and-white photographs of Bennett and other condemned soldiers. Driving out to Southern California in 1987 to start a new job with the Los Angeles Times, I detoured to Waco, Texas, to interview Bennett’s prison chaplain and stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to visit a husband and wife who had known the soldier and his victim in Austria.

And still the story traveled with me—to the nation’s capital where I later worked for years as a Washington correspondent and eventually to Indiana to cover that one legal execution. Only when I retired from newspaper work at the end 2015 did I examine deeper the Bennett case and compare it with his fellow death row prisoners. Then the story morphed from one condemned soldier to a much larger account of racial injustice. All eight of the white soldiers were commuted and paroled and returned home. In those same years, the late 1950s, those crucible early chapters of the Civil Rights Movement, the army hanged only black prisoners.

How could that be?

Even at that late date, the army still largely resisted the order to integrate the US Armed Forces, demanded by President Truman a decade earlier. White prisoners, as a rite of birth, enjoyed a vaulted privilege. The army, the courts, and the Eisenhower administration repeatedly found ways to commute their sentences and spare their lives. Local politicians and official Washington lobbied for leniency. The press clamored for clemency, too.

Black soldiers could claim no friends in high places. Their individual files at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in nearby Abilene, Kansas, are often thin, maybe a mere letter or two from a desperate mother in the Deep South, barely able to correctly spell her words in pleading for help.

The guards themselves, those death row officers who watched over the condemned men day and night, recognized that dual system of justice. Even then, they realized that justice did not shine fairly upon black soldiers. Some of the black men had committed far less heinous crimes than the whites, and yet white men were reprieved while black soldiers were marched from their cells to the army gallows.

Many hoped, expected even, that Bennett would break this tragic trend, and live. Twice, many of the white guards celebrated when Bennett won two stays of execution. Some agreed with army psychiatrists who concluded Bennett may have been suffering from a mental impairment when he raped the white girl in Austria, and should be spared. Above all, they knew that Bennett had killed no one, unlike all the white men, and hoped he would beat a third execution date of April 13, 1961.

Indeed, when his case rolled into the early months of 1961 and was taken up by President Kennedy, a Catholic, a Democrat, a liberal, many at the old army prison believed surely the new commander in chief would end such a disgraceful tradition of hanging blacks only, and always at the 12 AM hour

Or would Bennett too, like all the other black soldiers before him, be summoned at midnight?


About the Author 

Richard A. Serrano is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He spent 45 years covering the Pentagon, the wars in Haiti and the Middle East, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the War on Terror. He is also the author of four books: One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City BombingLast of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil WarAmerican Endurance: Buffalo Bill, the Great Cowboy Race of 1893, and the Vanishing Wild West; and My Grandfather’s Prison: A Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City. Serrano lives in Fairfax, VA.