John Gilman and Family

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This family photo shows John Gilman seated with his wife, Helen. In back (from left) are their children: Herman, Glenn, Jenn and Rose. Credit: Family photo

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Meri, Rose, Ingrid, Dan, and Jenn (2019) in Milwaukee


Article By Amy Rabideau Silvers of the Journal Sentinel
In war and for peace, John Gilman fought for what he believed was right.

He fought as an infantryman during World War II and was twice wounded. Commendations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor awarded for military service. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor.

His patriotism was later publicly questioned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, as he was questioned about his involvement in organizations deemed to be Communist.

Gilman refused to testify or to implicate anyone else. He also brought some of his military medals displayed in a large frame, much to the ire of one questioner who told him to "put those under cover."

Gilman did not.

Years later, he gave up answering the are-you-a-Communist question. Moreover, he did not think he should have to.

"I consider it a smear which beclouds the issues," Gilman said in 1971.

Gilman died of congestive heart failure Tuesday. He was 90.

He remained a social activist throughout his life. In the 1960s, he was involved in civil rights efforts, especially toward desegregation of Milwaukee's neighborhoods and schools, with activists including Father James Groppi, Father Dismas Becker and the Rev. Lucius Walker.

That led to the 1966 firebombing of his flooring store on the south side. The grand dragon of the Illinois Ku Klux Klan was later convicted in connection with the bombing.

He proved to be a rabble-rouser even in high school, including when he began agitating for a new school in Chester, Pa., because the existing one was so crowded that students attended in shifts.

He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a year before working in wartime plants and trying to join the U.S. Army.

By then, he already had something of a reputation as a left-leaning radical. Even after being allowed to join the Army in 1943, "they didn't want to send him overseas, because he was considered a potential security risk," said his son, Herman Gilman.

Gilman insisted. As someone from a Jewish family, he considered the war against Hitler to be a just war.

He received the Distinguished Service Cross for exceptional heroism in 1945, following a recommendation by Gen. George Patton. Wounded in that attack, he was credited with single-handedly destroying a Nazi tank, and killing or wounding the enemy combatants involved.

All of that meant little when Gilman's politics again came under scrutiny in the 1950s. He was then executive director of the Wisconsin Civil Rights Congress.

At a first hearing held in Milwaukee, Gilman repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment on questions about whether he was then or ever had been a Communist.

"Every time you plead the Fifth Amendment, this gold star (for a veterans' organization) on my lapel wants to come off," declared Sen. Clyde Doyle, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. "I can't understand how you, with a fine war record, can remain in the Communist Party."

"Could I write to you sometime about my war record?" Gilman asked.

"It's your peace record I'm interested in now," Doyle said.

He was subsequently ordered to appear in Washington, D.C., in connection with the Rosenberg case. He again took the Fifth, but lobbed his own anti-Semitism charge against U.S. Rep. Francis Walter.

Gilman earlier made two unsuccessful bids for office, running for the state Senate as a member of the People's Progressive Party in the late 1940s. He first met his wife, then Helen Lerner, at a party conference.

In his personal life, he long ran the flooring company started by his late brother, Herman Gilman.

He fought for union rights and against racism. He was long involved with cultural exchange programs, including humanitarian aid to Cuba. He became involved in the Vietnam War protests.

"I am not a pacifist," he once said. "I believe in defending myself, but I know what war is firsthand, and I'm sure it's worse now."

For all the turmoil of war and fighting for peace, Gilman also knew moments of incredible joy.

One of the sweetest came in 1985.

Gilman traveled to Torgau, East Germany, where World War II veterans from the U.S. and the Soviet Union marked the 40th anniversary of joining forces to defeat Nazi Germany. The event was also held to build support for U.S.-Soviet nuclear disarmament agreements.

He will be buried with full military honors Monday in a private service. A public memorial will be held at the War Memorial Center in June.

"He really wanted to show that he was proud to have served his country," his son said. "He really thought of himself as a true patriot."

Survivors include his wife, Helen; daughters Rose Corso and Jennifer Gilman; sons Herman and Glenn; sister Edith Silverstein; brother Jack; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.