The Interpreter: A Witness to Race and Injustice in World War II

Alice Kaplan's new book tells the aftermath of two American courts-martial

In the weeks following D-Day in 1944, a French writer found himself working as the official interpreter for the U.S. Army in two courts-martial of American soldiers accused of murdering French citizens. One soldier was African-American, the other a white officer. The black man was executed by hanging, while the white officer was found innocent.

The French writer walked away from the experience disillusioned. Weeks after he welcomed the American army as liberators and befriended several officers, he was left feeling the army he admired had one set of rules for whites and another for blacks. He carried his ambivalence with him for three decades before writing about the trials in a novel.

" The Interpreter" (2005, Free Press), Alice Kaplan's latest book, tells the story of the French novelist, Louis Guilloux, and the two American soldiers, James Hendricks, the African-American, and Capt. George Whittington. Kaplan, the Gilbert, Louis and Edward Lehrman Professor of History and professor of literature and Romance studies at Duke University, is author of "The Collaborator: the Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach," which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history.

The book is Kaplan's third in which trials play an important role. There's also a personal, family interest in courts. In an earlier book, French Lessons, Kaplan writes that as a child she went through the papers of her father, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremburg War Trials. She also teaches a course on trials, in which students start with the trial of Socrates, work their way through Kafka and Camus, and conclude with a study of a contemporary trial.

Inspired by "OK, Joe," Guilloux's 1976 novel, Kaplan traveled across America and Europe, uncovering the extraordinary personal stories of the three men while shedding light on the pervasive racial bias in the American military justice system during World War II and also on the little-known accomplishment of African-American soldiers in the then-segregated army. Her research uncovered unknown facts about the trials and, in the end, provided the families involved in the cases information that had been withheld from them for decades.

Between the years of 1943 and 1946, the American military executed 70 of its own soldiers for crimes committed in Europe. Fifty-five of the executed were African-American. That meant that African Americans, who constituted only 8.5 percent of the army, accounted for nearly 79 percent of the executions.

Kaplan said Guilloux saw first-hand how race affected the justice system. A resistance fighter in Brittany who was bilingual, Guilloux immediately became useful to the liberating American solders as a translator for the JAG (Judge Advocate General) division of the Army.

Guilloux was already well-known in France for his fiction and, after the war, was part of an intellectual circle that included Albert Camus, Andre Gide and Albert Malraux. The Americans knew little about his reputation, but the officers befriended him immediately.

"He was respected for his moral conscience," Kaplan said. "He had written an important anti-war book about World War I. He had translated Claude McKay's Harlem Renaissance classic, 'Home to Harlem.' And he had been in the resistance. He was delighted as anyone to see the Americans, but after he was hired to serve as an interpreter for these courts-martial, he started looking at who was being arrested and who was being convicted and saw the racial disparity.

"He didn't have the statistics I have, but he knew that something was wrong. And it troubled him. He didn't understand why, as he said, 'the greatest democracy in the world' had apartheid in their army."

Shortly after the Americans hired Guilloux, he was sent to act as an interpreter for the Hendricks trial. A few weeks before, Hendricks, drunk, had attempted to enter a French farm house. When denied, he fired a shot through the wooden door, killing Victor Bignon. He assaulted Bignon's widow.

His trial lasted two days. He was defended by a young officer inexperienced in criminal defense cases, much less capital trials. Guilloux watched the trial proceedings with despair, Kaplan said. "James Hendricks was no hero," Kaplan said, "but the procedures were so flawed, the Army reformed its entire system of military justice after the war and established a court of military appeals."

Guilloux's apprehensions were heightened a few weeks later when he again served as an interpreter for Whittington's trial. As with Hendricks, Whittington was drunk when he shot a Frenchman in a fight outside a bar. Unlike Hendricks, Whittington had a hero's track record. A veteran of D-Day, the captain had led his team up the cliffs at Omaha Beach, in a scene that was later captured in book and on film in Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day."

Whittington also had an experienced criminal attorney who brilliantly played on his war record and successfully cast blame for the incident on the victim.

The story doesn't end with the trials, Kaplan said. Guilloux returned to civilian life shortly afterwards. His literary fame grew, but she said he remained troubled by what he had experienced. It wasn't until the late 1960s, with France filled with student-led protests and the civil rights movement blooming in America, that he started to put down his experiences in fiction.

"He was conflicted," Kaplan said. "He struggled with his personal approval of the American officers and with his disapproval of segregation. It took him 20 years of reflection to start writing and to find a form for this story. He never condemned the American army. He wanted to show and not editorialize: That's the power of fiction, to be able to evoke a scene and show an injustice and allow the reader to struggle with the issues."

Kaplan's book does more than retell this story. Doing archival research across two continents, Kaplan tracked down Jeannine Bignon, Victor Bignon's daughter, as well as family members for both Hendricks and Whittington.

"The first thing Jeannine Bignon said to me was 'No American has been to visit me since 1944," Kaplan said. "It was very meaningful to her to know someone cared about what had happened to her father. She didn't know anything about Guilloux's novel, where an account of the murder appeared with precise details, but without any place names or proper names. She was gratified to learn that her family tragedy had a place in French literature."

Whittington's story is unusual. He returned to Kentucky after the war to become a community leader and a philanthropist. He took a courageous stand in the 1960s for integration and civil rights. He became, as Kaplan said, "a man of justice."

Hendricks' family was closer to home, in nearby Macon, N.C. They never knew anything about the trial, Kaplan said. All the army ever sent them was a letter saying he had died because of "willful misconduct." When Kaplan approached the family, they learned the truth for the first time.

"I started exploring this book out on the beaches of Normandy, and ended up in my backyard in North Carolina thinking about the legacy of Jim Crow," Kaplan said. "In the end, following Guilloux brought me home."