Last Soldier to Die at Leavenworth Hanged in an April Storm
He was 18 when he joined the Army, 19 when he was court-martialed and three days past his 26th birthday when he was hanged.
It was the only time he ever was in trouble.
His birth certificate said he was “colored,” and his death certificate said “negroid.” Karl Menninger, the renowned Kansas psychiatrist, lobbied the Kennedy White House not to take the life of this “undistinguished epileptic Negro soldier.”
He was the last man to die by military execution and the only one put to death for rape during peacetime.
He died for raping a white girl in Austria, a country that had no death penalty. Indeed, on the eve of the hanging, the victim and her parents urged President John F. Kennedy to spare him.
He was Pvt. John Arthur Bennett. Born into a share-cropping family in southern Virginia, he hoped the Army would pull him out of poverty. Instead he spent most of his Army years on military Death Row, six years in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men--many of them multiple murderers--were saved.
When it came down to his own final day, April 12, 1961, it would be one of the busiest afternoons in the new Kennedy Administration. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had beaten the U.S. into space, and the President was preoccupied with planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Bennett, who from his isolated cell could not know of that day’s crush of history, wired the White House, begging for mercy “while I still have a few hours left.” The reply--from a White House underling--was a terse and swift no. And then, as the clock moved past midnight on a stormy Kansas night, Bennett was hanged.
It took him 16 minutes and 5 seconds to die.
“I remember they started to rush him up the ramp toward me,” said the hangman, a retired Army first sergeant who, because of his past, lives in anonymity today.
“He kept looking around and back and forth and he kept saying, ‘Where’s the chaplain? Where’s the chaplain?’
“But the last person he saw was me.”
Bennett had been convicted in January, 1955, for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl. Heavily intoxicated, he crossed a field searching for a brothel outside his Army base, came instead across a series of private homes, then staggered back across a little creek. There, he stumbled across the girl, who was returning home from Christmas shopping. He raped her and tried to drown her.
His military trial was held in just a month. The court-martial jury deliberated 25 minutes. Bennett never testified in his own defense. The sentence: Death.
Several months later, his mother, Ollie Bennett, told Red Cross authorities that as a child, John would “hear voices in his sleep.” He often rose out of bed in search of the speaker. Other times he had night terrors and was hard to wake. He “was afraid of storms,” his mother said, “and when approached would run and hunt a dark place to hide.”
“He was always different,” she said. “He would get very mad with the others, and then they would let him alone.”
The family history was replete with alcoholism, hypertension and mental illness, and Bennett suffered from epilepsy. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and learned to drink “corn liquor” and aspirin with wine. He fathered a baby out of wedlock before he left to join the Army.
Baseball was his greatest passion. For recreation he would throw a baseball at the prison walls, slamming it so hard that it would bounce right back.
Each year another black soldier was taken out to the gallows. Bennett’s time was drawing ever near. The military appellate courts confirmed his death sentence. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the death warrant. The federal courts in Kansas and Washington refused to reopen his case. Twice he was given last-minute stays of execution, once while he was eating what was to be his last meal.
A third date was set: a minute after midnight on April 13, 1961. Bennett found a civil rights attorney from Danville, Va., J. L. Williams, who uncovered new evidence suggesting his client might have been having a seizure at the time of the offense.
In Washington, officials debated how best to proceed. According to transcripts of White House conversations between Lee White, a presidential counselor, and Army Brig. Gen. Alan Todd, race was an overriding issue.
“I assume Negro soldiers are more difficult because of education and having leanings toward getting into trouble,” White said.
“That’s true,” said Gen. Todd, “but it’s something that, without hard and fast statistics, you just can’t talk about.”
In another conversation, White added: “The last thing I would want to do is let this boy out because he is colored.”
They also thought that if the Army could contact the victim and her family and the family would agree to mercy, then maybe Bennett should not be hanged.
Days before the execution, the family responded, asking that Bennett be spared.
From the mother: “I suffer terribly with my only child, but Bennett’s death cannot give us back her health.”
From the father: “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”
From the victim: “Even his execution could not eradicate what has happened.”
After closely considering the appeals, Kennedy still did not act. “I think the President did what he thought was right,” White said in a recent interview.
In one final shot on his last day, Bennett wired the President. “I beg in the name of God . . . “ he began the short telegram. It ended: “Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”
The President, busy with world events, did not reply. It fell to White to turn down Bennett’s last plea. The word came just after Bennett had finished a final dinner of fried shrimp, fresh frozen peaches and his favorite, hot rolls and biscuits.
He was whisked from his cell and into the rain and up the scaffold. He had been so afraid of rainstorms, and so by his side hurried the Rev. Thomas Carter, the prison chaplain, using a penlight to read--shout, actually--the 23rd and 46th Psalms as they rushed Bennett to the arms of the executioner.
The soldier’s last words: “May God have mercy on your souls.”