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