Funeral scheduled for last of 28 wrongfully convicted in WWII riot
CHICAGO — Roy Laine Montgomery carried a quiet hurt and shame with him for 68 years, ever since the World War II veteran's country wrongly imprisoned him.
He was one of 28 African-American soldiers falsely convicted in connection with the lynching of an Italian prisoner of war in 1944.
Montgomery, 91, of Park Forest, who died last week, was the last known living soldier falsely convicted at Fort Lawton in Seattle. His friends and relatives will mourn him — and remember the iniquity of Fort Lawton — at his funeral Wednesday in Country Club Hills.
Those wronged in Seattle were eventually exonerated by the Army, the elderly men or their next of kin given honorable discharges and reparations checks decades later.
"But he always carried it with him," said Montgomery's daughter, Lynda Gill of Matteson. "That was something to be ashamed of. It still was shameful. I don't think he ever got over it."
On Aug. 15, 1944, military police found the body of the Italian POW Guglielmo Olivotto hanging from a rope tied to an obstacle course at Fort Lawton.
Forty-three African-American soldiers were accused of spurring a riot that led to Olivotto's murder in a trial that would go on for five weeks, six days a week, with no recess even for Thanksgiving.
"And can there be any doubt in anyone's mind but what that boy's terror, terror-struck as he was, what he must have felt when he found he was in the hands of those negro boys?" the prosecutor told the court in closing arguments, according to transcripts.
Twenty-eight of the defendants were convicted of rioting, including Pvt. Roy Montgomery, who was in his early 20s and sick with pneumonia, skinny and dehydrated. Two of them, not Montgomery, were convicted of manslaughter.
The light-skinned private, who was one-quarter white, was taunted during the trial as "Mulatto Montgomery," according to transcripts.
"You could tell that years later that still burned in him," said Seattle author Jack Hamann, whose book "On American Soil" unveiled new evidence in the case through previously classified documents, leading the Army to exonerate the soldiers.
Hamann said some of the evidence indicated the defendants were misidentified. Some documents also pointed to another potential suspect in the hanging, a white member of the military police, but that evidence was never brought forward at trial.
Montgomery was imprisoned for about a year at a site of previous oppression: Turlock, Calif., a former Japanese-American internment camp.
After the war he went on to marry, raise his daughter and become a successful carpenter, building and designing caskets in the Chicago area.
His oldest grandson, Kendall Gill, was a basketball star at the University of Illinois and had a long career in the NBA, including a stint with the Chicago Bulls. Montgomery treasured time with his three grandsons: traveling with Kendall Gill, teaching carpentry to Keith Gill and watching golf with the youngest, Kevin Gill.
He didn't really talk about the war, trial or subsequent punishment, family said.
For so long the only trace of that injustice in the Montgomery home was transcripts of the case that Lynda Gill remembers stumbling on while playing in the attic when she was about 4 or 5.
Once she learned how to read, the transcripts disappeared, she recalled. His only child knew nothing of Fort Lawton until about nine years ago, when Hamann began interviewing the at-first reluctant Montgomery for the book.
"He said he wanted to be finished with that," Lynda Gill said. "He didn't want to be associated with that."
Montgomery kept that distance even after the Army overturned the Fort Lawton convictions in 2007, spurning ceremonies in honor of the vindicated. Fellow soldier Samuel Snow of Florida traveled to Seattle in July 2008 and accepted a plaque from the Army. He died early the next morning, just hours after receiving his apology.
Montgomery didn't want to be part of the festivities. So the Army came to him.
In the fall of 2008, Ron James, then-assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, traveled to the south suburbs to apologize in person on the Army's behalf, with a reparations check and an honorable discharge.
"I decided to go to him, because it was the right thing to do," James said. "The Army has this code, never leave a fallen soldier behind. But what the Army did to these men … they left them behind."
Montgomery said a quiet "thank you" and shook James' hand.
Keith Gill recalled that his ever-reserved grandfather was actually overjoyed. "It was probably one of the happiest days of his life," he said.
The last known survivor of the Fort Lawton 28 died Thursday, surrounded by a chaplain and relatives all praying over him.
Keith Gill held his left hand. Kendall Gill held his right hand. Kevin Gill stood at the foot of the bed.
"I thanked him for all he had taught me," Keith Gill said. "I said it was OK for him to leave us now. He took his last breath."
Lynda Gill said she understands why her father was reluctant to talk about those dark days of the war and imprisonment. But she's proud he told his story and helped prompt an apology and redress.
"There are many stories like this concerning minorities and women," she said. "We have to make these stories known so we don't make the same mistakes again."