The sudden appearance of Tondalaya in the SSA’s baby name data in the mid-1950s had me stumped for a long time.
- 1956: unlisted
- 1955: 11 baby girls named Tondalaya
- 1954: unlisted
Why? Because “Tondalaya” was so suspiciously close to “Tondelayo,” the name of a character from the 1942 movie* White Cargo. The character was a mixed-race African character played by Hedy Lamarr.
But the spelling didn’t match, and the timing was way off.
Finally, years later, I happened to find the link between these two things: a photo in a 1955 issue of Jet magazine that featured an 11-year-old girl named Tondalaya. Here’s what the caption said:
Paroled after five years imprisonment for disobeying Army orders while a lieutenant in Korea, Leon A. Gilbert is reunited with his wife, Kay, son Leon, and daughter Tondalaya at Los Angeles’ International Airport.
(Further research revealed that her name was actually spelled “Tondalayo.”)
So that solved the mystery of the name, but…who was Leon Gilbert?
Up until mid-1950, he was a decorated WWII veteran serving with the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea.
But on July 31, he refused an order and was arrested on the spot.
Seems like an appropriate outcome for a disobedient soldier during wartime…until you consider that the 24th was an all-black unit, that the 24th’s commanders were all white, and that this particular order amounted to a multi-man suicide mission. (The order would have had Gilbert leading about a dozen men back to a location that had been abandoned due to heavy enemy fire.)
Leon Gilbert was court-martialed. At the trial, which lasted about four hours, no witnesses were called on Gilbert’s behalf, medical reports indicating that he suffered from acute stress reaction were ignored, and the defense attorney didn’t bother to make a closing statement. Leon Gilbert was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Back home, the case was being followed closely by the press — particularly by the black press. The sentence angered many Americans, and “petitions calling for [Gilbert’s] freedom were sent to Washington from around the country.”
An investigation carried out by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall found that Gilbert was one of “many blacks and no white troops who had been charged with misconduct in the presence of the enemy.” He also said that “[i]t seems apparent that some of [the black soldiers] are being made scapegoats for the failures of higher personnel.”
In late November, President Harry Truman commuted the death sentence to 20 years in prison.
Ultimately — as mentioned in the photo caption — Leon Gilbert served five years in a military prison before he was released on parole in 1955.
- “Korean War conviction haunts soldier to his grave.” Pocono Record 5 Apr. 1999.
- Leon Gilbert – Wikipedia
- Ollove, Michael. “A Soldier’s Disgrace.” Baltimore Sun 28 Apr. 1996.
- “Once-Doomed Officer Freed.” Jet May 5, 1955: 5.
*The movie was based on play of the same name from the 1920s. In the play, the character’s name was spelled “Tondeleyo.” The play was based on the novel Hell’s Playground (1912) by Ida Vera Simonton, but Tondeleyo did not appear in the novel. Playwright Leon Gordon created (and named) Tondeleyo by combining the attributes/histories of two of the book’s female characters, Ndio and Elinda.