A Soldier's Disgrace He was an officer unwilling to die for his country. He was a black man in a Jim Crow army. And while time has not altered its verdict of cowardice for Leon Gilbert, perhaps history should.


When he was a much younger man, Leon Gilbert often quoted a line from "Othello" to his daughter: "I have done the state some service," he would recite, "and they know 't."

Leon Gilbert is an old man now; his heart is bad, his kidneys no longer functioning. But Othello's declaration still resounds in his mind, a protest against all he has suffered and all he has lost. "I have done the state some service."

He is sitting in his weary little rowhouse in York, Pa., but his eyes no longer see anything in this dim, wood-paneled room. They are focused on events from long ago, on the punishing advance against the Germans in the Italian Apennines toward the end of his first war and on the merciless fusillade from the North Koreans at the start of his next.

But soon his memory comes to rest on the most troublesome image of all, the one that has haunted him for 46 years, the one of himself as a young Army officer listening to them build a scaffold for him outside his prison cell.

And the old man again ponders how you can be a hero one day and a coward the next.

For that was his country's final declaration on 1st Lt. Leon Gilbert: a once-decorated soldier who shrank from his duty in time of war, an officer who abandoned his troops in the face of the enemy. Along a riverbed in Korea one afternoon in 1950, his country determined, Leon Gilbert traveled the expanse from hero to coward.

But in the fog of war, nothing that happens to a soldier is ever so clear. And when race is the overlay, nothing is ever so simple. Not for Leon Gilbert and not for his infantry unit, the legendary 24th, the last all-black regiment in the American military.

Were Leon Gilbert not a black man, his personal catastrophe might well have been lost amid the far larger one that was unfolding in the early days of the Korean War. But because he was black, his disgrace would not be his alone. The 24th Infantry Regiment would become one of America's most maligned military units, and Leon Gilbert would become its most vivid embodiment.

In the simplicity of public discourse, the 24th would confirm for some a race's unreliability as soldiers. For others, the unit's misfortunes would represent the pernicious effects of a country's racism.

Leon Gilbert and the 24th would become familiar to hundreds of thousands of American blacks and would eventually occupy the attention of men of enormous influence: Douglas MacArthur, Thurgood Marshall and Harry Truman.

Nearly a half-century later, many of the surviving members of the 24th remain preoccupied by what happened to them. They feel wronged, not only by their treatment during the Korean War but by history's assessment of them. For years, they insisted on a re-examination of their wartime experience. They will get their wish tomorrow, when the Army releases a draft of its new history of the 24th Infantry in Korea.

The revised history should have relevance for an American military that continues to harbor racial tensions in its ranks, that still struggles to incorporate women, and that remains hostile to gays in its services.

But for the soldiers of the 24th Infantry Regiment, the new work is likely to prove only that the past sometimes will not conform to our expectations or to our wishes.

As for Leon Gilbert, the Army's new book leaves history's first impressions undisturbed, preserving the coward's stain upon him.

The authors of the new history, however, never examined all there is to know about Mr. Gilbert on July 31, 1950.

Mr. Gilbert has himself shrunk from some of what happened on that day. He has chosen to ignore or he has forgotten the very facts that would make possible his own revised history, one that he long has deserved.

The past may never come out to Mr. Gilbert's satisfaction. Perhaps, though, it can come out better than he had believed.

Mr. Gilbert turns over in his hands one of the models he has meticulously assembled of a U.S. Army tank. Proudly he shows off its guns, its treads, its armor -- all of it, he says, just like the original.

His interest in the military is of such long standing that its irony has to be pointed out to him. He once planned a long career in the Army. "I didn't have anything else in my mind. I thought I'd be in for 20 or 30 years." Instead, he has had to content himself with models like this one and the military histories that line the bookshelves of his den. The book he is reading now is "My American Journey," the autobiography of Colin Powell, the retired general Mr. Gilbert greatly admires.

A light-skinned man of 75 with blue eyes, gray hair carefully parted on the left, and a forlorn expression, Mr. Gilbert disappears into his bedroom and emerges a few moments later unfurling a faded old black and white photograph.

It is a picture of his officer training class at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1942. Like all the newly commissioned officers in the photograph, Lt. Leon Gilbert is wearing crisp Army khaki. Like all the black officers, he is consigned to the lower left corner.

If many of his comrades resented serving in a Jim Crow army, Mr. Gilbert remembers no such concerns on his part. He was no rebel, "a go-with-the-flow guy," he says, and he was frankly more comfortable in a segregated unit. The truth was, for a bookish, young black man, the military -- segregated or not -- offered far more opportunity than York and its promise of a lifetime of menial labor.

The son of a blacksmith, he'd already had enough dreary work waiting tables at the elegant Yorktowne Hotel. One day in the summer of 1940, his brother told him he'd spotted an Army recruitment poster about the formation of an all-black, anti-aircraft unit. The next day, Leon was at the post office signing his papers. Two days after that, his nose pressed against a train window as his eyes took in cotton fields for the first time. He was on his way to basic training in North Carolina, his first trip outside Pennsylvania. He was 19, and his life's adventure had finally begun.

The beginning of his story emerges easily from Mr. Gilbert. His voice is even as he remembers his Army training, which took him to bases in Philadelphia and California and, to officer training in Georgia. But every so often, knowing where his story must eventually lead, Mr. Gilbert cannot help getting ahead of himself. Abruptly a tone of bitterness steals into his voice. "If it weren't for that damn fool major, I'd probably be a lieutenant colonel by now," he says. "If I'd never seen that son of a bitch, I wouldn't be in this fix."

As suddenly, he returns to his chronology, back to October 1944, when he shipped out to Italy. From the moment he enlisted, he knew he was headed for war. "The danger," he says, "didn't cross my mind." He says he even chose the infantry to make sure he wouldn't miss out on his share of the action.

He needn't have worried. During the bitter winter of 1944-45, he was a platoon leader in the all-black 365th Infantry, part of the painstaking American drive that knocked the Wehrmacht back across the Swiss border.

At war's end, with combat medals on his chest, he mustered out of the Army. But he stayed a civilian only long enough to discover that prospects hadn't improved much for a black man in York. After 20 months, he returned to the one life he knew he enjoyed.

"It was more or less like I belonged there and nowhere else."

By early 1948, he was headed overseas again, this time toward Japan and his new assignment with the storied 24th Infantry. He would soon participate in its final, unhappy chapter.

Pleasant existence

That the 24th Regiment continued to exist as an all-black unit into the 1950s was testament to the Army's hidebound character. Though President Truman signed an order in 1948 to end discrimination in the armed forces, the Army resisted, leaving the 24th what it always had been, a regiment of blacks commanded by whites.

The regiment was formed after the Civil War in recognition of the contributions of black soldiers to the Union cause. The regiment fought on the Western frontier against the Indians; in the Spanish-American War, where it participated in the assault on San Juan Hill; in the Philippines; and in the Pacific during World War II.

At the end of that war, the 24th was comfortably situated in Gifu, Japan, as part of the occupation army. On his arrival there, Leon Gilbert found Gifu the most pleasant existence he had known, with leisurely football games, swimming in the regimental pool, movies and theater. He lived with his young family in comfortable quarters with Japanese servants and enjoyed privileges at the officers' club. Promotions came swiftly and he was soon named Company A's executive officer, second in line only to the company captain.

It was all very satisfying, but in the summer of 1950, it came to an end. On June 25 came word that North Koreans were pouring across the border into South Korea. Within two weeks, Lieutenant Gilbert and the 24th again headed into battle.

In just two short months, he would be back in Japan awaiting execution. And his regiment would be facing dissolution after proving itself, in the words of the division commander, "untrustworthy and incapable of carrying out missions expected of an Infantry Regiment."

'Just like that'

Mr. Gilbert sits at his kitchen table, puffing heavily on his cigarette. He is agitated, rising to his feet, pacing the room, fumbling with his coffee cup.

"Here we go again," he says to his wife, Doris. "Bringing all this up again. What good does it do? What good will it do me?"

But it is what we are here for, and he knows it, to hear his version of what happened that afternoon. In a life of 75 years, it was his crucible, a few hours that would lead to a death sentence, to his rejection by his family, to his name being headlined in black newspapers across the country. And 46 years later, the events of that day would cause an old man to cry out in despair in his bed at night.

He gathers himself, and begins.

As part of the 25th Division, Mr. Gilbert and the 24th Regiment were among the first to arrive in Korea and the first to discover that their enemy was both dangerous and determined. Along with everyone else in the 8th Army, the 24th was badly beaten up that July as the North Koreans pushed the undermanned, underequipped and undertrained Americans all over South Korea.

"We were getting run off position after position," Mr. Gilbert says. "That was a pretty desperate time for the whole Army. There was no hope then of advancing. We were just waiting for other units to come."

As Company A's executive officer, his job was to see that the four platoons got food, supplies and ammunition and that communications were in good order.

But he was never far from the fighting and often found himself under fire. "I remember when I was under direct fire of a machine gun and I had to play like I was sleeping to get the fire off me. That same day, our own artillery blew us off a hill."

July 31 found the 24th exchanging fire with the enemy west of Sangju, a village in central South Korea. "I was carrying a radio wire up to a platoon. What I didn't know on my way up there was that the platoon had been hit pretty hard. They were at a streambed. There were 10 or 12 of them. They had just been run off a hill by a big force.

"They were still under fire by a battalion of North Koreans on the hill. We couldn't hardly move on account of the fire. A messenger comes up and says there was a major back there that wanted to see an officer. He was in a copse of woods off the road. I crawled back to where he was. He told me to take those men back up that hill.

"Now I was not the platoon leader. In fact, I didn't know where the platoon leader was at the time. I said with only 12 men, it's impossible to take that hill against a battalion. I'm not the platoon leader, I don't even know these men. Under the conditions, I know it's impossible to take that hill. He said, 'Well, you either go up that hill or consider yourself under arrest.'

"So I reported to headquarters, and it was over that quickly.

"My career was destroyed just like that."

A suicide mission

It wasn't just like that.

Mr. Gilbert's account of the events of that day is accurate, but it is far from complete. His memory has taken an afternoon of events and compressed it into a single, crucial conversation with one superior officer, Maj. Horace Donaho. He has overlooked or ignored a number of facts, some of them quite damning.

Whether he was treated fairly remains open to question.

First, the blanks, many of which are filled by the transcript of his court-martial.

As July 31 began, Lieutenant Gilbert was put in charge of Company A due to the absence of the company captain. At midday, the company was arrayed on and around the hill Mr. Gilbert remembers. As the fighting ensued, he and a group of 12 or 15 men came off that hill, leaving others in the company to defend it.

That afternoon, he encountered Major Donaho and two other superior officers, all of whom ordered him to return to the line with his men. Each testified that he refused.

In their testimony, the officers said Lieutenant. Gilbert gave various reasons for his refusal: he was afraid that the enemy would cut him off in the rear, he was simply afraid, and that "he had a wife and children to consider."


Col. Horton White, the 24th's regimental commander and the last officer Lieutenant Gilbert encountered that day, testified that he warned the lieutenant that failure to follow the order could end in a court-martial and lead to life imprisonment or even a death sentence. Both Colonel White and his chief executive officer, Col. Paul Roberts, testified that Lieutenant Gilbert said he understood the consequences of his refusal. He was then placed under arrest.

Mr. Gilbert today says he has no memory of being given second, third and fourth chances to comply with the order. As justification for his actions, he says attacking that hill against a drastically superior force would have been suicide. Four other men who were there that day agreed with his assessment in recent interviews. "If I had followed the order to the letter," Mr. Gilbert says, "we probably all would have been killed."

It is a weak defense. Major Donaho testified that when Lieutenant Gilbert refused to follow the order, he assigned Sgt. Clarence Paul to lead the men back up that hill. Sergeant Paul testified that he did not regard the assignment as a suicide mission. And a log of the 24th's activities shows the regiment suffered no casualties that afternoon.

But even if it were a suicide mission, Lieutenant Gilbert would have had no justification in refusing the order. "Sometimes military necessity requires that one group dies in order that another one survives," says Henry Karlson, a former Army judge and a law professor at the Indiana University School of Law. "Unfortunately, 'My God, if I do that I'm going to get killed' is not a defense in war."

That apparently was the perception of Lt. Robert B. Ellert, Lieutenant Gilbert's counsel, who did not attempt to justify his client's disobedience on strategic grounds.

Mr. Gilbert insists that Lieutenant Ellert offered no defense at all. He is wrong. Lieutenant Ellert mounted a shrewd defense. It is one, however, that Mr. Gilbert does not volunteer to reveal.

'A little shocked'

Mr. Gilbert's selective memory begins not with Korea but World War II. He describes the harrowing combat experience, but he leaves out the effect the fighting had on him.

It is supplied by military records. On Feb. 13, 1945, Lieutenant Gilbert had to be evacuated from the front lines. The reasons were medical. According to a medical report, Lieutenant Gilbert was suffering from "exhaustion, mild, manifested by fear, fright, instability and nervousness." The lieutenant "was jumping at slight noises," so much that he had to be sedated and, according to one record, held out of battle for the rest of the war.

In other words, Lieutenant Gilbert suffered from shell-shock or combat fatigue, what today would be considered combat stress reaction or post-traumatic stress syndrome.

When that medical history came to Lieutenant Ellert's attention, he saw a possibility for Lieutenant Gilbert's defense in 1950. The new medical exam he ordered cinched it. The three-man medical board, which included a psychiatrist, found that Lieutenant Gilbert was suffering from identical -- if not more severe -- symptoms on July 31, 1950, as he had during World War II.

"At the time of the alleged offense," psychiatrist William Krause said in a hand-scrawled report, "Lt. Gilbert was suffering from a nervous illness, classified as anxiety reaction, acute, severe, which would prevent him from carrying out his duties as ordered."

In other words, a mental breakdown on the battlefield rather than a willful act of defiance lay behind Lieutenant Gilbert's behavior.

Lieutenant Ellert was precluded from presenting evidence about Lieutenant Gilbert's World War II breakdown. However, he entered the medical board's report into evidence and buttressed it with eyewitness descriptions of Lieutenant Gilbert on July 31.

Lt. Charles Zipp: "It seemed like he was depressed to the extent where he wasn't aware of the few things happening around there. In fact, he wasn't even aware or conscious of the sniper fire sitting up near the tree."

Sergeant Paul: "He was acting a little shocked. He was sitting down. He wasn't saying anything to anyone"

Lt. Charles Perilli: "I would say I would think twice about following him at that particular time."

Lieutenant Ellert also submitted statements from Lieutenant Gilbert's fellow officers, saying that he had always performed his duties capably.

Although each of the officers whose orders Lieutenant Gilbert had refused testified they had seen no signs of mental breakdown, Lieutenant Ellert managed to raise doubts as to whether they would have recognized those signs. Colonel White and Colonel Roberts testified that they barely knew Lieutenant Gilbert. Major Donaho said he had never met him before that day.

It would not be enough.

Two days before Lieutenant Gilbert's arrest, Gen. Walton H. Walker, commander of the 8th Army, had become so disgusted with the horrendous showing of the 25th Division that he had ordered American soldiers "to stand or die."

And now, the prosecutor made his closing argument. "It is understood," he told the jury, "that anyone who fails before the enemy should receive the severest of penalties."

The court agreed. After a trial that lasted four hours and 11 minutes, Lieutenant Gilbert was found guilty of "misbehavior before the enemy." He was 29, and he would have to die.

'I am not a coward'

While Lieutenant Gilbert's downfall received attention in many American newspapers, it was a cause celebre in the black press during the fall of 1950. The Afro-American declared Leon Gilbert a "household name" and called his case one of the year's biggest stories.

His wife then, Kay Gilbert, helped ensure that it become so. Despite suffering a miscarriage that fall, she mounted a campaign to gain attention and legal help.

His lawyers pressed several points in his appeals. Despite Lieutenant Ellert's wise focus on Lieutenant Gilbert's mental breakdown, they said he had made crucial errors. (Before enlisting, Lieutenant Ellert had never tried a case; Lieutenant Gilbert would be among his first clients.) Most notably, he had failed to insist on the presence at trial of key defense witnesses, including Dr. Krause, and he neglected to give any closing argument, incredible in a capital case.

The lawyers also pointed out that the jury was entirely white and that some of the proceedings had occurred so close to the front lines that firefights could be heard outside. It was not an appropriate setting to deliberate on a man's life, the lawyers argued.

While the appeals proceeded, press reports stirred public reaction. Americans, black and white, wrote congressmen, who in turn made inquiries to the Army.

NAACP chapters from around the country appealed to President Truman, as did black labor unions, schools and veterans' groups. One church in Baltimore collected nearly a thousand signatures pleading for mercy for the doomed soldier.

Many of the letter writers perceived the hypocrisy of America's fight for freedom in South Korea. "Being a Negro myself, I also understand just how this man must have felt about sacrificing his life for something that we have always been promised but never had," wrote one World War II veteran from Georgia. "Hasn't this man already [done] enough good for the country which owes him so much but gives him so little."

Wrote another veteran, a white from New York, "I accorded special tribute to the Negro soldiers because they performed their duty while courageously facing two enemies -- the Nazis and the insulting Jim Crow policy."

Lieutenant Gilbert was either too isolated or too distracted to notice the public outcry on his behalf. Confined to his cell in Japan, he perpetually believed that guards might come for him at any moment to carry out the sentence, especially after he heard work begin on the scaffold.

"Kay, this is really the worst that could happen," he wrote his wife. "I can't take much more of this."

reporters, he insisted he had done nothing wrong. "I considered it my duty as an officer to show that the order meant certain death," he said. "I am not a coward and would walk back to combat now if they would let me."

But to his father, a veteran of World War I, he confided more in a letter home: "I told [Donaho] I would go and I meant to with all my heart, but when I tried to move, I couldn't and I began to shake all over uncontrollably."

His hopes were raised in early October when an Army appeals board recommended overturning his sentence because of the medical evidence. Six weeks later, though, the higher level Judicial Council came to the opposite conclusion.

In the interim, the Army Surgeon General's Office, without the benefit of its own medical examination, had contradicted Dr. Krause's finding that Lieutenant Gilbert had not been mentally responsible. Relying on that new conclusion, the Judicial Council upheld his conviction.

A guilty verdict, the council wrote, "must be enforced to deter cowardice and panic."

But the council, noting Dr. Krause's report, recommended that Lieutenant Gilbert's life be spared. Secretary of the Army Frank Pace agreed.

President Truman concurred. On Nov. 27, without explanation, he signed the order commuting the death sentence. The next morning, guards escorted Lieutenant Gilbert to the office of the prison commander. "I knew what it was about. He was going to tell me either I was going to die or I'd be cut loose."

It would be neither. "LT. GILBERT GETS 20 YEARS," the Afro-American blared that day.

'Characteristic of the people'

Lieutenant Gilbert was not Lieutenant Ellert's only client. During the summer of 1950, the young lawyer was representing between 40 and 50 other black soldiers, almost all of them from the 24th Regiment. They were charged with everything from desertion to disobedience to sleeping on duty.

The courts-martial stemmed from the Army's terrible mauling at the start of the war. American units were being overrun everywhere, an embarrassment for what was supposed to be the world's mightiest military. The result had been General Walker's "stand or die" order.

Lieutenant Ellert seemed to discern a motivation for the courts-martial that had little to do with justice. A week after Lieutenant Gilbert's conviction, Lieutenant Ellert wrote to the condemned man's wife, telling her that the death penalty had been "a direct result of the hysteria of the crisis in Korea. The military authorities wanted to make an example of someone and through circumstances your husband was selected."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People surmised that the same was true for many of the 24th soldiers facing courts-martial. In 1951, the civil rights group sent its young general counsel to Japan and Korea to investigate. His name was Thurgood Marshall.

Mr. Marshall met with most of the accused, including Lieutenant Gilbert. He also talked with their commanders. In his report to General MacArthur, he determined that black soldiers were being arrested and convicted at a much higher rate than whites and their sentences were far more severe. He concluded that the black soldiers were victims of racial hostility from white officers and were also being used as scapegoats for a military suffering setbacks. The solution, he wrote General MacArthur, was to integrate, as the Air Force and Navy had.

Gen. William Keane, commander of the 25th Division, meanwhile, had made up his mind that the 24th was hopeless. The soldiers panicked in the face of the enemy, they ran in uncontrolled retreats, they abandoned their weapons, they wouldn't stay in their foxholes. Their abysmal behavior, General Keane insisted, endangered the entire Army in Korea. Three days after Lieutenant Gilbert's conviction, he recommended dismantling the regiment.

The Army responded to Mr. Marshall's report and General Keane's recommendation by launching two secret investigations. The goal was to determine why black soldiers performed so poorly and what to do about them.

It would be hard to imagine so patronizing an inquiry today. The underlying assumption was that black soldiers were a different order of being. Typical questions were: Would the soldiers of the 24th hold their ground? Would they stay in their foxholes? Would they respond to superior leadership? Invariably, the answers from white officers were no.

Lt. Houston McMurray: "They have no feeling of group cooperation but every man for himself. I think it is characteristic of the people."

Col. Arthur Champeney: "They get to thinking too much and imagining too much and they are apt to get panicky. They can't or don't stand pressure."

Col. John Corley: "These men are afraid of the dark, are terrorized if anything happens at night and can't stand artillery or mortar fire."

Ironically, the conclusions of the Army investigators were the same as Mr. Marshall's. The best resolution was to integrate the Army under the theory that inferior black soldiers would improve when grouped with whites.

But integration is not exactly what happened to the 24th. On Oct. 1, 1951, everyone in the regiment was transferred to other units. Rather than being integrated, the 24th suffered the indignity of being obliterated.

Official histories

But the indignities did not cease for the 24th after its extinction or even after the war's end. In 1961, the Army published its official history of the Korean War. Written by Texas military historian Roy Appleman, the voluminous work, titled, "South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu," sealed the 24th's reputation as a pitiful fighting unit.

In Mr. Appleman's telling, the 24th was mainly a collection of bumblers who lacked guts, grit and competence. Again and again, he showed them running away from the enemy. "The tendency to panic continued in nearly all the 24th operations west of Sang[j]u," he wrote at one point. "Men left their positions and straggled to the rear. They abandoned weapons on positions."

While he stopped short of attributing the regiment's failings to race, he did not fail to emphasize that the 24th was an all-black unit. "Ever since its entrance into combat in the Sangju area in July the Negro regiment had given a poor performance " Despite strong leadership, he said, "the 24th Regiment constituted a weak link in the division line that might break at any time and bring disaster to the division and possibly the whole army."

Mr. Appleman's history stung the 24th's veterans. In 1987, they organized themselves into the 24th Infantry Regiment Association with the primary goal of persuading the Army to re-examine its Korea experience, hoping for a repudiation of Mr. Appleman.

The Army agreed to do a new history and assigned a black, Vietnam-era officer, John Cash, to undertake the task.

Colonel Cash conducted more than 300 interviews and led an expedition to Korean battlefields. His discoveries, he says, disappointed him. "I didn't want to find out that they broke and ran," he says. "I would have thought I was going to write a morality play. It didn't work out that way.

"What Appleman said is true. They were not a good unit."

During the years he worked on the project, he often attended regimental association meetings and was frequently introduced as the man who was going to exonerate the 24th. The meetings became quite awkward for him. "I'd be looking out at guys who I knew had broken and run."

After the death of his wife, Colonel Cash decided to retire, and now, as the history is about to be published, he's glad he did. "Hey, I'm still black," says Colonel Cash, who now teaches history at Morgan State University. "I kept saying to myself, 'Do I want to be the one to throw dirt at these guys?' "

That task fell mostly on William Hammond, a historian at the Center of Military History. His book, which will be released late this summer, reveals moments of heroism in the 24th, but it also confirms the failings uncovered by Mr. Appleman.

But in stark distinction from Mr. Appleman, Dr. Hammond attributes the regiment's failings to the Army's Jim Crow policy.

Many of its white officers resented being in the unit and were assigned to it because they were considered inferior commanders. Many of its black soldiers resented the constraints put on their careers because of their race. Officers and troops lacked rapport and trust. In a battle, those lapses were a prescription for disaster.

"Segregation," says Dr. Hammond, "sets up a system where you're bound to fail. The 24th is a case study of what happens to people who don't have equal opportunity."

That conclusion, however, is not what many in the 24th anticipated or wanted. They were expecting an account that would judge their Korean performance as the equal of any other unit, not one that merely excused a terrible showing.

"We were no better and no worse than anyone else," says Edward Grande, a sergeant in the regiment who lives in Woodlawn.

While the Army's new history provides a more sympathetic interpretation of the 24th's performance, it extends no such mitigation to Mr. Gilbert, whose failings, it suggests, exposed the whole regiment to danger. "In his case it was not a matter of race," says Dr. Hammond. "They didn't want to court martial him, because it was a black mark on the whole regiment. That's why they gave him every chance to go back."

But Dr. Hammond acknowledges that in his research, he devoted little attention to the Gilbert case. He did not review the court-martial transcript or assess the fairness of his trial and was unaware of Lieutenant Gilbert's psychiatric record.

That record, however, was not surprising to David Marlowe, a senior scientist in the division of Neuro Psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. The outbreak of the Korean War was "one of the most terrible periods in which American soldiers were ever subjected," says Dr. Marlowe. It also coincided with a near collapse in the Army's ability to deal with wartime, psychological trauma, which, Dr. Marlowe says, often went unrecognized and untreated.

That "hemorrhage," says Dr. Marlowe, did not end until the Army had built back its psychiatric medical corps much later in the war. Too late for Leon Gilbert.

Life after Korea

Mr. Gilbert's memories of prison life in a California military barracks are characteristically muted. "I didn't have any kick with it," he says. "I never seen any hard time there. Other than you were behind barbed wire, you didn't know you were in prison."

He learned garment cutting and earned an associate of arts degree. At night, he attended lectures on classical composers and studied their music.

But he was in despair. In his four years at Camp Cooke, he received mail only from Kay. She was also his only visitor. She made the trip to California once and was allowed an hour with her husband.

He never saw his children, and from his mother and sister (his father died while he was overseas), he heard nothing. Disgraced by his conviction, his mother supposedly told reporters, "We are a military family."

When he was paroled after five years, Kay and their children, Tondalayo and Leon III, traveled to Los Angeles to try to establish a new life. Mr. Gilbert landed a job as a garment cutter, and the couple had another daughter, Tia. But Mr. Gilbert's melancholy became oppressive. He drank heavily, and the alcohol made him mean or weepy.

The marriage foundered. "I remember my mother once saying that she thought about him all the time when he was in prison, but that the moment she saw him again, she knew she didn't love him anymore," says Tia Gilbert, now a clerk at Temple University.

Years later, Kay Gilbert would write to a friend, "Leon's moral structure and his pride as a man has been shattered."

After five years, Mrs. Gilbert returned to the York area with the younger two children. (Tondalayo married and remained for a time in California.) Mr. Gilbert stayed on unhappily for another two years and then followed. He lived separately from the family, though, and in 1970, he and Kay divorced. (She died in 1989.)

By then, Mr. Gilbert was living with Doris Hamilton, a friend from rTC childhood who in the fall of 1950 had collected signatures in York to send to save his life. They married in 1980.

For 17 years, Mr. Gilbert worked as a cutter with Jonathan Logan, a woman's clothing maker in York. He took pride in the work, but he never stopped believing it was beneath him. "I wasn't content with myself," he says.

Once Tia said to her father, "Gosh, Dad, have you ever been happy?" Yes, he replied, in Italy.

Something else that brought him a measure of contentment was when his son enlisted in the Army. But Leon III's time in the service ended nearly as unhappily as his father's and with a hauntingly familiar echo. By the time he departed Vietnam, Leon III was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, an illness that recently caused his hospitalization.

Mr. Gilbert never joined any veterans groups, but after survivors of the 24th formed the association, he was extended a membership. He has never attended a meeting. He says poor health -- he has had heart surgery, and bad kidneys require dialysis three days a week -- keeps him from traveling. Doris says he's just too embarrassed.

Although some in the association say Mr. Gilbert did irreparable harm to the 24th's reputation, even his harshest critics believe he was used as a scapegoat. Most remember him fondly, and believe he was treated unjustly.

One of those is Melvin Schools, a corporal with Company A and recipient of three Purple Hearts. He agreed completely with Mr. Gilbert's assessment of the tactical situation that day. "It would have been suicide going up that hill with them dug in up there," says Mr. Schools, who retired as a medical corpsman after 17 years at an Army hospital. He always thought that white officers ordered black troops to take far greater risks than they would white units.

When the company pulled out after Lieutenant Gilbert's arrest that afternoon, Corporal Schools, too, remained behind. "I said to myself, 'The company might go up that hill, but they're going up without their communications officer.' "

Two years ago, Mr. Schools and two other veterans traveled to York to visit their old executive officer. The men talked about their time in Japan but skirted the subject of Mr. Gilbert's tragedy. When the weekend was over, Mrs. Gilbert took the men aside to thank them. "This was the first time I've seen him laugh in years," she told them.

Doris long ago grew accustomed to her husband's sullenness, to his long, solitary walks, his frequent visits to the bar and his nightmares. "Sometimes he wakes up hollering," she says. "It's getting worse, not better."

She offers comfort. "I tell him 'Leon, you saved your men. Those men had children. You don't know the good that you did.' "

Mr. Gilbert is now sounding a similar note. "I don't feel guilty about nothing," he says. "It's not that I refuse to feel guilty. I have nothing to feel guilty about."

Yet, when pressed, he acknowledges what any soldier knows, that you do not have the option of refusing a superior's order, and that is exactly what he did.

"I feel like I'm being tried all over again," he complains, but then offers this: "I wasn't the suicide type officer; I didn't intend to be a hero on the hills of Korea."

It is a damning, perhaps inadvertent admission to make here, toward the end of his life. He was a soldier who was unwilling to die for his country.

But that is only his explanation. There are others. He was a soldier in a war that America, to its embarrassment, was finding itself losing. He was a black soldier in a black outfit that was demeaned by its white leadership. He was a soldier who was not mentally fit for combat.

L Even now, he resists taking refuge in this last explanation.

"There were so many confusing things happening that I probably was in a daze," he says. "Then Donaho comes with all his stuff and people were firing everywhere so I probably was confused. I probably wasn't all that rational."

Then, he draws back. "The individual never thinks, 'OK, I'm a medical case.'"

Sometimes, though, even if history cannot make someone a hero, it can explain why he is not a villain.

So it is for Leon Gilbert and the soldiers of the 24th.

A soldier's story

Nov. 9, 1920: Born York, Pa.

!Aug. 18, 1940: Enlists

Oct. 1944: Joins fighting in Italy

Feb. 7, 1946: Discharged

Oct. 2, 1947: Re-enlists

June 25, 1950: Korean war starts

July 11, 1950: Joins combat

July 31, 1950: Arrested

Sept. 6, 1950: Sentenced to death

Nov. 27, 1950: Sentence commuted to 20 yrs.


Pub Date: 4/29/96

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