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.

April 28, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

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.

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