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The Phantom Attack

Updated on August 26, 2011

When America entered the Second World War in December 1941, hundreds of thousands of GIs flooded into Britain. Maintaining discipline was always a major problem and it was one that the US military authorities solved by taking over the prison at Shepton Mallet in Somerset, about 120 miles southwest of London. At its peak in 1944, Shepton Mallet Prison – or "The Headquarters 2912th Disciplinary Training Center - APO 508 United States Army" as it was officially known – housed no fewer than 768 servicemen, but it is chiefly remembered as being the venue were military executions were carried out.

An aerial view of Shepton Mallet Prison
An aerial view of Shepton Mallet Prison | Source

The numbers weren't vast. In three years of operation, 18 men were executed within the walls of Shepton Mallet – 16 by hanging and two were shot by firing squad in the prison yard – but what would later cause controversy was the racial makeup of those condemned men. Of those 18 men, 10 were African Americans, and three were Hispanic. Considering that the U.S. military in Britain was 90 percent white, these numbers were troubling.

More troubling still was the fact that six men – none of them white – were executed for rape. Under the Visiting Forces Act (1942), the U.S. military authorities were allowed to try their own soldiers in their own courts martial, even though the victims were British and the crimes had been committed in Britain. So although rape had not been a capital offense in Britain for more than a century, under the U.S. Military Code it could still carry the ultimate penalty.

The Execution Block at Shepton Mallet
The Execution Block at Shepton Mallet | Source

The one demand insisted upon by the British government was that any hangings had to be carried out according to British procedures. This called for the construction of a special execution block at the prison. It was a small, two-story, squeezed tightly between two much larger buildings, at the rear of the prison. Also America had to agree to forsake its use of a four-coiled slip noose and a standard drop of five feet for every prisoner – which often meant a slow death from strangulation – in favor of the British system, in which the drop was carefully calculated according to weight and musculature, with everything designed to break the neck instantly.

Albert Pierrepoint - Britain's busiest hangman
Albert Pierrepoint - Britain's busiest hangman

Family of Hangmen

When it came to working out these complex calculations nobody had more experience than the Pierrepoint dynasty. They had ruled the roost in British hangings since the early 20th century. Henry Pierrepoint came first, followed his brother, Tom, and Henry's son, Albert. Between them, Tom and Albert conducted all 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet during the war. Both looked forward to the commissions. At a time of brutal rationing for most in Britain, the chance of a trip to an American Army facility was like opening a culinary treasure chest. Before each execution, they were treated to a mighty banquet, with thick, juicy steaks, all washed down with unlimited supplies of canned beer.

Oddly enough, the most famous occupant of the Shepton Mallet death house never came face to face to with the Pierrepoints. His name was Leroy Henry, a 30-year-old black GI from St. Louis and the details of his case are as follows: In the early hours of May 5, 1944, a soldier called at a house in Combe Down, Bath, and inquired the way to a nearby village. The woman who answered the door told the man who then asked her to write it down as his memory was not too good. She did so.

Late Night Attack

The man then asked her if she would mind accompanying him for a short while as he thought he might lose his way in the dark. She agreed. However, after having walked a short distance with him, he knocked her down, threatened her with a knife and raped her. After her ordeal the woman staggered back home and the police were called. She described her assailant as a black GI whom she had never seen before. It didn't take long for the military police to locate the potential culprit. Leroy Henry was baffled. Yes, he'd sex with the woman, but said that it had happened several times before, after all she was a known prostitute. On their last meeting there had been a dispute about the money and he presumed that a craving for revenge had provoked the accusation of rape.

Court-Martial

To his astonishment and bitter dismay, on June 1, Henry was court-martialed. The hearing lasted less than a day and ended with him being sentenced to death. He was taken to Shepton Mallet to await his date with the hangman. The verdict and especially the sentence outraged the villagers of Combe Down ,where the alleged victim had a notorious reputation for loose morals. Everyone agreed that this was 'a phantom attack' that had never happened. Eventually these doubts filtered through to a national newspaper, the Daily Mirror. Their inquiries confirmed what the villagers had said about the woman and, in concert with the League of Colored People, the newspaper set about organizing a petition for a reprieve. In just a few days they managed to gather 33,000 names from people in the Bath area. The petition was forwarded to the "Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, U.S. Army."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower
General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Upon reading this extraordinary document, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was stunned by how the fate of a seemingly insignificant black soldier had aroused such anger among the British public. He immediately ordered a fresh inquiry. This confirmed that Henry had been the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. Eisenhower's finely tuned political instincts began twitching. Unwilling to further antagonize British opinion, on June 13 he wrote privately to John Carter, of the League of Colored People:

Dear Mr. Carter, – Extreme penalties are never approved by responsible American authorities except where the circumstances are of a most aggravated nature. In the particular case to which you refer I have been informed that there are many mitigating circumstances; therefore, I feel safe in saying that final review of the sentence will unquestionably result in amelioration of the sentence. – Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower Acts

Six days later it was publicly announced that Eisenhower "disapproved with the finding of guilty in the sentence of death…because of insufficient evidence." Ordinarily in such a case the authorities would reassess the sentence or order a new court martial. In this instance they did neither. Within days of Eisenhower's announcement, Technician Fifth Grade Leroy Henry was removed from the death house at Shepton Mallet, and back on active duty. After the war the soldier whose plight had troubled a nation's conscience returned to St. Louis, where he died on December 1, 1971, at age fifty seven.

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    • profile imageAUTHOR

      ccbrookes 

      7 years ago

      Glad you liked it.

    • Luke Zelleke profile image

      Luke Zelleke 

      7 years ago

      Wow!

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