HONORABLE DISCHARGE: Ray Snow, left, accepts the official honorable discharge for his father, Samuel, from Ronald J. James, an assistant Army secretary presiding over the ceremony at Seattle's Ft. Lawton. Samuel Snow was among 28 black World War II soldiers wrongly convicted in the 1944 lynching of an Italian prisoner. Now 83 and one of only two of the 28 still alive, he fell ill earlier in the day and was unable to attend. More photos >>> (Kevin P. Casey / For The Times)

It was a crime so improbable that many had trouble believing it could have happened at all: Three black soldiers stood accused of lynching an Italian prisoner of war, found dangling from a wire on an obstacle training course at Ft. Lawton in the middle of World War II.

The subsequent trial of the three men, along with 40 other black enlistees charged with rioting, became the largest and longest Army court-martial of the war, and the only recorded instance in U.S. history in which black men stood trial for a mob lynching.

By the time it was over, 28 men had been convicted on rioting charges and two of them were also found guilty of manslaughter in connection with the 1944 hanging.

Despite their protests of innocence -- and the government's own secret investigation showing the prosecution's case was poisonously flawed -- the men were sentenced to hard labor and forfeiture of military pay and benefits, and were given dishonorable discharges.

Twenty-six of the men went to their graves with the stain of wartime dishonor still on their records. It wasn't until Saturday, in a low-key ceremony on a wide lawn at the Army base in Seattle, that history switched gears. A senior Army official handed out certificates setting aside the convictions and converting the discharges to honorable status, in recognition -- 64 years after the fact -- that prosecutors' "egregious error" had resulted in a trial that was "fundamentally unfair."

"I grieve for an Army that failed to honor its own values at Ft. Lawton," said Ronald J. James, an assistant Army secretary, as he handed out the certificates to surviving family members.

"The Army is genuinely sorry. I am sorry. Sorry for your husbands, loved ones, fathers and grandfathers, for the lost years of their lives," James said, calling the ceremony a "long-overdue vindication."

Not one of the soldiers were on hand to accept the apology. One of the two still living did try to attend -- 83-year-old Samuel Snow from Leesburg, Fla. -- but he was hospitalized with heart palpitations in downtown Seattle just hours before the observance.

"My father never held any animosity," said Snow's son, Ray.

"He said, 'Son, God has been good to me. If I hold this in my heart, then I can't walk in forgiveness.' Really, it energized him. It was the fuel that drove him: 'Bring on all the things that are supposed to stop me from achieving.' This was all liquid oxygen for him."

The case of the Ft. Lawton 28 had been little known in recent years, though the court-martial in 1944 was widely covered in the news at the time.

It wasn't until former television journalist Jack Hamann came upon the Italian soldier's grave in 1986 and began years of research that archival material was uncovered, demonstrating fatal flaws in the government's case -- and pointing to the likelihood that the Italian prisoner was killed by a white man.

Immediately after the lynching, the Army inspector general had conducted an exhaustive investigation that raised major questions about the evidence against the accused.

But the Army had appointed only two defense lawyers to handle all 43 men, giving them 10 days to prepare their case, and they were not permitted to see the report.

The prosecutor was Col. Leon Jaworski, who in 1973 became the special prosecutor in the Watergate case involving the administration of President Nixon.

"Jaworski disingenuously -- and, it's clear now, illegally and unethically -- said, 'Sorry, that's not what you think it is, and you can't have it.' He fought, and got the court to agree not to let it in," Hamann said in an interview. Jaworski died in 1982.

Hamann wrote a 2005 book about the case, "On American Soil."

Based in large part on the evidence disclosed in the book, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed the case last year and ruled unanimously to overturn the convictions and grant retroactive honorable discharges.

"I don't think very often they come out and say our largest and longest court-martial of this giant war, World War II, was fatally flawed," Hamann said.