Dishonorable Dead

Were These U.S. Soldiers Executed Because of Their Race?

Of the U.S. servicemen put to death for crimes committed during the war, 79 percent were black. While their crimes were heinous, were they given harsher sentences?

03.12.16 5:01 AM ET

Shortly after midnight on March 12, 1943, a U.S. Army chaplain and two military policemen walked into a cell in Shepton Mallet Prison, a grim, centuries-old facility in southwest England. The two MPs handcuffed the cell’s sole occupant and, with the clergyman trailing behind muttering prayers, escorted the prisoner down a hallway, through a crude wooden door, and onto a sturdy wooden gallows built within a two-story brick room.

The MPs halted the prisoner a few feet from the square trap door in the floor of the gallows and 73-year-old Thomas Pierrepoint, one of England’s official executioners, quickly stepped forward and with the help of his nephew Albert wrapped restraints around the prisoner’s upper torso and legs. The condemned man stood quietly as an American officer read both the charges against him and the sentence that was about to be carried out. The formalities over, the elder Pierrepoint slipped a white linen hood over the prisoner’s head, moved him into position atop the trap door, placed a simple slip-noose around his neck, then stepped back and quickly pulled the large handle that opened the trap and dropped the man to his death.

Though the execution mirrored in most details the hangings of Axis spies and Allied traitors during World War II, the man who died that day almost exactly 73 years ago was neither. He was, in fact, a 21-year-old U.S. Army private from Alabama named David Cobb, and he was the first of 18 American service members put to death at the British-owned but U.S.-operated prison between 1943 and 1945.

From December 7, 1941, through February 22, 1946, a total of 141 U.S. military personnel were executed for crimes committed during the war years—one for desertion and the rest for murder, rape or both. Seventy of those men were put to death in the European Theater of Operations, which encompassed the British Isles, with the largest single number meeting their end at Shepton Mallet.

Given that more than 405,000 American service members died of all causes in World War II, the executions conducted at the forbidding British prison would be little more than a grim historical footnote were it not for the fact that they were representative of a larger and very disturbing trend: Of all the men put to death in the European Theater 55, or 79 percent, were black, as were 11 of the 18 men executed at Shepton Mallet. Simply put, African Americans were disproportionately represented among those executed in Britain, just as they were in the total number of U.S. service members put to death theater-wide.

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First opened in 1625, by 1930 Shepton Mallet was deemed by British prison authorities to be unnecessary and was put into caretaker status. The 1939 outbreak of World War II prompted His Majesty’s Government to reopen the facility, which was initially used to incarcerate British military prisoners. However, the increasing numbers of U.S. service members arriving in the British Isles after December 1941—a number that eventually reached some 1.2 million—made it necessary to establish a large, central prison that could replace the unit stockades established to house Army and Army Air Forces troops who had committed serious military offenses such as desertion and dereliction of duty (Navy, Marine and Coast Guard members were held in Navy-run brigs). A cooperative agreement signed between the British and American governments early in 1942 turned Shepton Mallet over to American control and also stated that U.S. military personnel charged with criminal offenses under local law would be tried by general courts martial, rather than in British courts. The majority of those convicted of serious crimes were sent to Shepton Mallet.

And the 18 U.S. service members executed at the prison had indeed been found guilty of serious offenses—nine were tried for murder, six for rape and the others for both—with 16 of the crimes committed in England and the other two in Northern Ireland. The victims included both U.S. military personnel and British civilians; among the latter were a 7-year-old girl, a pregnant wife, a 75-year-old-woman and renowned explorer Sir Eric Teichman, murdered by two GIs he caught trespassing on his estate. The Americans were all convicted either as a result of their own confessions, on the testimony of witnesses or surviving victims, or through forensic evidence—including blood and semen studies, hair and fiber samples, and footprint comparisons—that was compelling even at that early stage in the development of what we now call crime scene investigation.

Indeed, that the men executed at Shepton Mallet had actually committed the crimes with which they’d been charged is beyond reasonable doubt. What does come into question, however, is whether skin color was a determining factor in the decision to execute some men for crimes for which others received lesser punishments.

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Armed forces are always a reflection of the nations that produce them, and the American military of World War II was spawned by an extremely race-conscious society. African-Americans served almost exclusively in segregated units—as, of course, did Japanese-American personnel—and soldiers, sailors and airmen of color were just as likely to encounter racism from their white counterparts in the service as they were from white civilians on the streets back home.

As Professor J. Robert Lilly of Northern Kentucky University has pointed out in his pioneering research into the administration of military justice in World War II, while the roughly 1 million African-American men who served in the nation’s armed services constituted less than 10 percent of the total force, they made up a much larger percentage of those given harsh sentences for serious offenses. Blacks were far more likely to be put to death for murder or rape than their white counterparts—in the European Theater 25 African-American men were executed for murder versus 4 whites; 22 blacks and 6 whites were put to death for rape; and 8 of the 12 killed for rape and murder were men of color. These percentages are roughly reflected in the numbers executed at Shepton Mallet.

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All of the American service members put to death in the austere British prison—16 by hanging and two by firing squad—were initially buried in unmarked graves at Brookwood Cemetery, some 83 miles west of their place of execution. In 1948 all 18 sets of remains were ordered transferred to the Oise-Anse American Cemetery in France—a burial place for U.S. dead from World War I—as were the remains of the 52 other men executed elsewhere in the European Theater and several put to death after the war for crimes committed while stationed in Europe. All of the remains were buried in a section of the cemetery referred to as Plot E, which is separate from the main facility and hidden in thick forest. There the executed American servicemen—known collectively as “the dishonorable dead”—lie beneath small markers bearing only numbers.

All but one, that is. For reasons that remain unclear, when the Shepton Mallet remains were moved to France those of David Cobb—the young soldier who had the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. service member executed in Britain—were repatriated to his hometown, where he lies today.

Stephen Harding is the editor of Military History magazine and author of the forthcoming The Castaway’s War.