Six Dishonorable Deaths: US Military Executions, Rape, and Silence in World War II's Southwest Pacific Theater

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Columbia 8 (Washington Hilton)
Nancy Shoemaker, University of Connecticut at Storrs
At Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines lie the bodies of six black American servicemen executed by the U.S. Army at Oro Bay, New Guinea, on October 2, 1944 after a courtmartial found them guilty of mutiny, rape, and attempted rape. In contrast to the countless monographs, textbooks, and documentaries detailing the racial injustice that sent most of the Scottsboro Boys to prison in the 1930s, silence about how race and rape factored into military executions occurring a decade later has prevailed, both during the war and later, among historians. The few scholars who have written about the high rates of military executions of American G.I.'s of color during World II have focused on the war's European theater, where most incidents involved civilian victims. In the New Guinea case, white American nurses were the victims, and throughout the Southwest Pacific Theater, women in the military were confined behind barbed wire and in other ways restricted in their mobility for fear of rape by American soldiers. Using the New Guinea incident as a case study, my paper examines the role of secrecy in the military's handling of rape. I show how military advocates of secrecy usually had some pretext justifying its necessity, such as sensitivity for the shame rape victims would feel or sensitivity for the shame the families of the executed men would feel. However, secrecy had other benefits. It prevented outsiders from interfering in military affairs, thereby preserving the military's autonomy, and it privileged white, male officers' elite status within the military by authorizing and allowing them control over the sexuality of women and enlisted men.