The crimes were rape and murder, and the punishments ranged from lengthy prison sentences to a date on the gallows. Many of the hangings were in public, town criers summoning villagers to gather around.
Alice Kaplan has written a book, "The Interpreter," about black and white men who did heinous things in the European theater during World War II.
It is a tale about a Jim Crow Army with strict racial mores. She seeks to show that white men who committed similar crimes received less severe punishments, especially when it came to the meting out of death sentences.
Hers is not the usual chatter about the Greatest Generation.
"Some of the reaction to the book has been, 'Why are you stirring up these bad memories?' " Kaplan says.
She answers: "Why should we refuse to remember the effects of segregation?"
It was the numbers that stunned her: Seventy American soldiers were convicted and executed in Europe between 1943 and 1946. Blacks made up 8.5 percent of the Army at the time and yet were almost 80 percent of those who swung from the gallows.
Kaplan's is not a book about heroes or gallantry, with the exception of French writer Louis Guilloux, who interpreted on behalf of the Army for French witnesses during some of the trials. Guilloux -- the interpreter of the title -- would later write a novel, "OK, Joe," about his experiences at the trials.
"I'm not arguing the innocence" of the black soldiers who were executed, Kaplan says. "I'm arguing against the system that encouraged violence and let white soldiers get off for similar crimes."
She is a Duke University historian and a Francophile. American racial history had never fascinated her until she came upon the history of the black soldiers who had been tried and executed.
At Duke, Kaplan says, her white students talked about the Greatest Generation in glowing terms. Her black students, however, shared stories of segregation and lynchings that had been passed on to them by parents and grandparents. "It really helped change my perspective on race," she says.
There are stories within stories.
In 1944, Louis Till, a black soldier stationed in Europe, raped and murdered a white woman, for which he was convicted and hanged.
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth, was kidnapped in a small Mississippi town, beaten, shot in the skull, then dumped in a river -- all for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Emmett Till was the son of Louis Till.
"There were people who wanted Europeans to believe that black men had tails between their legs and were these savages," says Clenora Hudson-Weems, a University of Missouri at Columbia professor and author of "Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement."
The Shakespearean narrative of the Till family isn't widely known now, but it was not always so, says Hudson-Weems. "During the time of the Emmett Till trial, the Klan brought up the father -- and what happened to him overseas -- and tried to make the claim that young Emmett was just a rapist like his father."
Kaplan says she didn't originally set out to probe the issues of race in the Army.
Some years back, a friend had given her a copy of Guilloux's novel. Kaplan, who also teaches Romance studies and is fluent in French, became so enamored of the book that she set about translating it. (It was published here in 2003.)
She also wondered how much of Guilloux's tale was fact masquerading as fiction. She wanted to track down the real cases.
Despite name changes, Kaplan tracked down two narratives that coincided with Guilloux's text: the story of James Hendricks, a black man hanged for shooting a white farmer and sexually assaulting his daughter, and that of George Whittington, a white officer who shot and killed a French Resistance fighter outside a bar and was acquitted.
Two stories and two lives to tell the entire saga of race and crime in World War II. "I guess they call it micro-history," Kaplan says, "where you go to a moment and then move out into the larger picture."
Guilloux himself becomes an endearing figure in Kaplan's book. He was a struggling writer who nearly starved to death during the Nazi occupation, and then found himself in the employ of the U.S. Army. "He loved the officers he worked with, yet he was appalled by apartheid," Kaplan says. "He couldn't believe that a liberating Army was working along the lines of segregation."
Kaplan believes Guilloux's outsider status gave him added insight. "He asked naive questions that only an outsider can ask: 'Is this a court only for black men?' "
Kaplan believes the Army -- grappling with segregation while liberating Europe -- did not wish to have Europeans question its commitment to justice concerning crimes against Europeans. "The hangings were public relations events," says Kaplan. "They were showing the civilians that the U.S. Army meant business."
"We mirrored society, and society was segregated. There were certain elements of racism and that carried over into the military," says Thomas McShane, director of national security legal studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
"African Americans were more apt to receive death sentences than whites," McShane says. He blames part of the inequities on the fact that the military never had enough lawyers on hand to handle courts-martial.
Elizabeth Hillman, a military historian who has taught at the Air Force Academy and now teaches at Rutgers University, says the decision-making process when it came to trying cases in World War II was often different for black and white soldiers. "A prosecutor gets to decide which cases are to be prosecuted. And during wartime that discretion is very broad." She adds: "We can't pretend that race wasn't a part of the decision-making process when it was decided what cases were to be prosecuted and which ones weren't."
In Hillman's estimation, Kaplan's book "forces us to reckon with racism -- and the poor quality of justice soldiers experienced during World War II."
One of Kaplan's subjects, Hendricks, was born in North Carolina in 1923 and spent some of his youth in the Washington area. On an August night in 1944, Hendricks, who had been drinking, began banging on the door of Victor Bignon and his family, who lived in the French countryside. The family refused to open the door. Hendricks raised his rifle and fired one shot and then another. The second round killed Bignon. His family fled to a nearby farmhouse, where the Bignon daughter, Noemie, fought off a sexual assault by Hendricks. U.S. military personnel arrested him a short while later.
Her second figure of study, Whittington, a decorated white Army captain, met Francis Morand at a bar in western France. Drinks and chatter led to some curiosity as to why Morand spoke in such a heavy German accent. Whittington imagined him a German spy. Morand, in fact, was a fighter for the French Resistance. Later that night, outside the bar -- there were no eyewitnesses -- Whittington shot Morand dead.
"The public relations issue with French allies," writes Kaplan, "in the Whittington affair was potentially even thornier than in the Hendricks case. The black quartermaster private had killed a respected local farmer, but Whittington had killed a Special Air Service paratrooper, the creme of the Resistance, in a sector of Brittany where the Resistance was sacred."
But through shrewd legal maneuvering and using his respected credentials -- "privilege," says Kaplan -- Whittington was acquitted.
"How do you draw a line between an act of war and an act of murder?" says Kaplan. "What I was trying to do in juxtaposing these two cases is show how powerful a thing privilege can be: officer privilege, white privilege." She goes on: "This isn't a book about innocent victims. It's more complex than that. It's the kind of story people deal with when they're talking about the disproportionate death sentences between blacks and whites."