Home Page








June 23, 2005

Vet recalls service as Cambridge marks founding of U.S. Army

Virgil Wright

Wearing the uniform of his country, Marvin E. Gilmore stormed the beaches of Normandy, fought his way across France and Belgium, and chased the Nazis to the gates of Berlin to protect freedoms too often taken for granted.

Those principles came under a severe test last week when protesters opposed to the war in Iraq shouted down an 11-year-old boy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a Cambridge Common anniversary celebration of the U.S. Army.

David Smith, the son of Sergeant First Class Paul Smith of Tampa, the Iraq war’s first Medal of Honor winner who was killed in the Battle of Baghdad Airport, could barely be heard over a chorus of boos.

Gilmore, representing World War II veterans at the Army’s 230th birthday event, disagreed with the protesters’ timing but affirmed their right to speak.

“We fought to protect their freedoms,” said Gilmore. “We have to respect that, no matter what. We sacrificed our lives for them. Having said that, you’d hope they’d be more respectful. It was just impolite for them to drown out that poor boy and yell while ‘Taps’ was being played. We ought to honor those who gave their lives for our country no matter what we think of the conflict.”

Police arrested seven protesters who crowded the stage and refused to fall back to a designated protest area at the edge of the Common.

After the ceremony, Gilmore, said his Army experience made him familiar with the emotional clash of ideals that played out last week near the spot where George Washington took command of Continental troops on July 3, 1775.

“You’ve got to remember, it was a segregated Army. We were not allowed to mix with the white soldiers,” said the 81-year-old veteran. “We always had to fight prejudice. In some ways, the military police were a greater threat to us than the enemy. When black soldiers went into town, we were always warned not to go alone and to always carry your gun.”

Gilmore, who dropped out of Cambridge High and Latin to enlist in the Army in 1942, hoped to join a military orchestra, building on his piano and band-leading skills, but instead found himself in a Georgia swamp, learning to fire anti-aircraft weapons. Most of Gilmore’s fellow troops were from the South and found the accent and attitude of the Massachusetts enlistee nearly incomprehensible.

“It was a hell-hole,” said Gilmore of his training at Camp Stewart. “There was more war there than in Europe. I had to fight my way every day. The southern soldiers resented me. They were raised in the fields and didn’t have much schooling. There were separate armies, one black and one white, but also separations within those armies.”

Deplorable living conditions for black troops, along with bad food, surly commanders, and severe discipline, sparked a riot among the rank-and-file at the remote outpost. Tanks rolled in from Savannah to quell the rebellion. Machine-gun fire ripped through the pinewoods — American soldiers firing upon Americans. Dozens died in one of the most underreported mutinies in American history.

Gilmore, who lay low during the disturbance, became one of the few to stay with the unit, the 458th Artillery, and soon shipped out to England on the Queen Mary with a new set of soldiers to prepare for the invasion of Europe. On D-Day, Gilmore splashed out of an LST and rushed to the beach to deploy 40mm and 90mm anti-aircraft guns to shoot down Messerschmitts as they roared out of the hedgerows of Normandy, spitting lead onto the sand and water. The dead and the dying littered the beach.

Before reaching Paris, Gilmore was wounded by a burst of shrapnel and spent a month recuperating in a hospital before sneaking out, stealing a jeep, and rejoining his comrades close to the Belgian border. His artillery unit followed Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army into Germany, but Gilmore himself finally got the musical break he’d been seeking — a training stint at the Scottish Royal Academy of Music to study piano.

The heady experience of integrating a prestigious music academy and performing recitals was tempered by the final ignominy of his Army career — being bumped off a returning troop ship because military bureaucrats refused to allow black soldiers to bunk with whites aboard the vessel.

After getting back to Dana Street, Gilmore attended the New England Conservatory of Music but found the doors of major orchestras closed. He went into real estate and eventually helped open Boston’s first black bank, the Unity Bank, and started the Community Development Corporation of Boston.

In 1968, he opened the Western Front nightclub in Cambridge’s Riverside neighborhood — a reggae stalwart in Boston’s music scene.

Gilmore, who was featured on an NBC News feature with Tom Brokaw when he received his diploma from Cambridge Rindge and Latin more than six decades after his originally scheduled graduation date, has made peace with the more painful aspects of his military service.

“Others suffered as well,” said Gilmore. “Black soldiers have always had to fight more to prove their loyalty.”

At the time Washington took command, African-Americans were not welcomed into the ranks. Appeals by Prince Hall, founder of the black Masons, directly to Washington helped convince the slave-owning Virginian that blacks could fight under the flag of rebellion. So did the fact that the British army offered freedom to slaves who carried muskets in their ranks.

“We always had to give more,” said Gilmore. “I was lucky. I got through it. Something just guided me and protected me.”

Back to Lead Story Archives

Home Page