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Updated Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 08:31 PM

Roy Montgomery, wrongly convicted in POW's lynching, dies at 91

By Ken Armstrong
Seattle Times staff reporter

Roy Laine Montgomery's life traversed some of the 20th century's most notable story lines — the Great Migration, discrimination in the military and confinement in what had been a Japanese internment camp.

Charged in an infamous crime committed on the bluffs overlooking Elliott Bay, he was convicted in 1944 and cleared in 2007.

But to his family, he was silent on what he had endured. To his family, he was a carpenter and a supporter of dreams, attending the ballet with his daughter and accompanying a grandson on his rise to the National Basketball Association.

Mr. Montgomery, the last surviving soldier wrongly convicted in connection with the World War II lynching of an Italian prisoner of war at Seattle's Fort Lawton, died Thursday at a grandson's home south of Chicago. He was 91.

"All three of his grandsons were sitting there, holding his hand," said Patti Gill, wife of Mr. Montgomery's grandson, Kevin.

Mr. Montgomery didn't discuss with his family all he had gone through. He didn't want to burden them, is how he put it to one writer. But he remembered.

In 2005, the University of Washington Press published Jack Hamann's "On American Soil," a book about the court-martial and convictions of 28 African-American soldiers after an August 1944 brawl that ended with an Italian private being killed.

Although 60 years had passed, Mr. Montgomery could recall "astonishingly tiny" details, Hamann said. Asked about his co-defendants, Mr. Montgomery provided the author with "nicknames, physical characteristics, quirks," most of which later were confirmed by contemporaneous documents.

Lynda Gill, Mr. Montgomery's daughter, said she learned of the court-martial through Hamann's work. Her father was bitter about what had happened, she said: "I really think they changed all of those soldiers' lives forever."

Born in 1921 in the Mississippi Delta, the second of eight kids, Mr. Montgomery had light skin that set him apart. Three of his grandparents were black. The fourth, his mother's father, was part Irish and part Cherokee, according to "On American Soil." In time, he got tagged with an unwelcome nickname "Mulatto."

After finishing eighth grade, Mr. Montgomery went to Detroit and worked in an airplane factory, joining an exodus of African Americans leaving the South. In 1943, he was drafted into the Army — at the time, segregated — and sent to Fort Lawton. With his skin color, he experienced racial enmity from both black and white soldiers, he told Hamann.

Mr. Montgomery was 23 when Italian private Guglielmo Olivotto was found dead at Fort Lawton, after a melee involving prisoners of war and black soldiers. Although witness accounts depicted Mr. Montgomery as more a peacemaker that night — and no evidence linked him to Olivotto's lynching — he was charged with rioting.

Felled by pneumonia, Mr. Montgomery spent days in court in a wheelchair. A lieutenant colonel referred to him as "Mulatto Montgomery," and, in an exchange recounted in "On American Soil," said: "Montgomery, the doctor has informed the court that you are a sick boy."

"Yes, sir," Mr. Montgomery answered.

He was convicted and sentenced to two years. He served his time at a rehabilitation center in Turlock, Calif., that had been used to inter Japanese Americans. His days were filled with marching, he later recounted. Afterward, he re-entered the Army and wound up with an honorable discharge.

He married Josephine Hayes and moved to Chicago, where he designed and built caskets. Lynda, their sole child, said her father had diverse interests and was "very supportive of dreams." He embraced her love of dance, enrolling her in dance schools, taking her to the ballet, accompanying her to the Harvest Moon Festival, where they were the only African-American family at a celebration of all kinds of dance, including the polka. (He also embraced his daughter's love of cars, taking her to stock-car races.)

Lynda had three sons. One now owns a ranch that boards horses and offers riding lessons. Another, Kendall Gill, became a basketball star at the University of Illinois and went on to a long career in the NBA. Mr. Montgomery enjoyed accompanying him on his travels, which included two seasons, in the 1990s, with the Sonics, a stint that brought him to Seattle.

Patti Gill wrote of her husband's grandfather: "He was one of the few men that took on nonconventional roles for his era. ... He cooked, cleaned, and would even take you to the tavern, regardless of your age."

In 2008, the Army held a special ceremony at Fort Lawton, apologizing for the "fundamentally unfair" trial in 1944 and the "grievous wrong" done to the 28 soldiers. Only two of the soldiers were still alive. Samuel Snow, of Florida, flew to Seattle to receive his honorable discharge — and died hours later, at Virginia Mason Medical Center, of heart failure.

Mr. Montgomery didn't attend. So, Assistant Army Secretary Ronald James flew to Illinois to apologize, in person, to him. Because of the conviction, Mr. Montgomery had lost about $700 in military pay. James handed him two checks totaling $42,254. Almost all of it was interest.

The Southtown Star, a newspaper south of Chicago, quoted Mr. Montgomery as saying: "This is a great satisfaction. Now I can forget about the whole thing. That's all I ever wanted to do."

Patti Gill said Saturday: "We're blessed that he lived such a full life."

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com



Roy Montgomery




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