Witness of the last day on the line: A biography of Harold Hoff
Harold Smith Hoff was born in Kansas in 1906 and moved with dust-bowl refugees to El Centro California with his father, a Church of the Brethren Elder. In 1920, the family gave up farming and moved to Glendora CA. Harold attended Citrus Union High School and had one year of college at LaVerne College before the depression hit. In 1930 he trained as an actor at Pasadena Playhouse with others such as Robert Young and Lillian Gish (he actually got a better review than Robert Young in one play). During the Depression, he worked at odd jobs in factory work and became increasingly disillusioned with capitalism. He voted Republican in 1928, Democratic in 1932 and Communist in 1936. He worked writing and distributing materials for the CP in Los Angeles up to leaving for Spain in 1937. He sailed to Spain on the Aquitania and arrived at Albacete in early September 1937. Hoff’s service in Spain is well documented in his carnet, which still exists. After a short training period in Albacete, he was assigned to Company 3 of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion in Quinto and his first action was Fuentes del Ebro.
Hoff was spotted three times in the movie on the Lincoln Brigade made by Henri Cartier-Bresson at Quinto. Perhaps his acting credentials forced him to the front of the camera.
He was company clerk of Company 3 from mid October 1937-November 5, 1937 when he got the “grippe”(possibly dirt fever which he was treated for at least four times in Spain). He wrote Art Landis in 1966 that “I never really saw much action in Spain and I spent most of my time in the hospital”. That statement doesn’t match with his carnet. He was in Castellejo from November 6 to December 21 of 1937, with his paysheets signed by Art Munday. He rejoined the Lincoln Washingtons prior to Teruel and there is a photo of him, probably at Aguaviva.
His carnet states that he went into action with the Lincoln-Washington Brigade Machine Gun Company with Captain Jack Cooper on January 20, 1938. Shortly thereafter, the Lincolns were pulled back and his next action was at Segura de Los Baños in February. Later in life in the very few times he talked about the war to me, he mentioned Bill Titus’ death at Segura but I don’t know if he was in his Unit or still with the Brigade Machine Gun Company.
In March, he lists his next battle as Letux. There is considerable confusion about where the Brigade Machine Gun Company was on March 10 when the great counter-attack by the Fascists started. There is information that the Brigade Machine gunners were placed north of the Fuentetodos-Belchite road and also information that they were 2 km NW of Letux. Assuming he was with the latter groups, they lost their weapons on the 10th and retreated to Azuara where Edward Cecil-Smith noted that the Brigade Machine Gun Company straggled in that afternoon without their weapons. He likely retreated with the Mac-Paps through Lecera, Urrea de Gaén and Híjar. He lists Lecera and Híjar as actions he “fought in” although without weapons it is unclear of what role he played. It is known that Machine Gunners from the Mac-Paps held off the Fascists south of Azuara and near the cross-roads south of Lecera in order to provide cover for the retreating Brigade. Mac-Pap gunners also covered the retreat at Híjar so it is possible he joined the Mac-Pap machine gunners. In Caspe, he was formally reassigned to the Mac-Paps and served with them throughout the rest of the retreats to the Ebro.
On April 2, he was one of the group of Mac-Paps who were assembled in Mora del Ebro. He reported on his exit interview that he “went across the Mora bridge 20 minutes before Copic blew it up”. This is almost exactly the same time as mentioned by Alvah Bessie in Men in Battle.
He was sick in Darmos and went to hospital twice for grippe. When he came back, he was reunited with the Brigade Machine Gun Company where he regrouped with them until June 20. Then he was moved to the Battalion Machine Gun Company (company V of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion) under Bill Wheeler. He crossed the Ebro on July 25 and lists Asco and La Fatarella as actions he was in. From August 1 -7, he again was sent to hospital with the grippe and this was at the point where the Ebro advance stalled. It is unknown whether he rejoined the Lincolns in the Sierra Pandols but he does not list that in his action list. One of two 35th Division HQ was near the Lincoln Battalion HQ in the pass below Hill 666. The other HQ was just north of Corbera. He mentioned to me that he spent some time in Corbera and he may have been returned to action in August in the area north of Corbera. He was clearly back with the Lincolns in September and I know that he was involved in the action on the last day, September 23, 1938, on Hill 287.
On a tour with Alan Warren of Barcelona in March 2013, I visited the two hills where it looked like my Dad would have been on September 22 and 23, Hill 287 and Hill 281 on the Corbera – Mora Road at km 808. I went up Hill 287 (the closer one to Corbera). Where we stopped, we were right next to a barranca (gully, Fig 3a) that ran up to farm fields at the level of the Corbera plain. I walked up the side of the gully on a road that broadened out into farm fields, which were fallow, and on the upper terraces were planted in grapes. The picture to the right is a mid-level terrace that led up to the top of Hill 287. This was very similar to what my father described as his position.
And finally, I saw what he described to me many, many times. On the top of the hill, the picture on the left is the view from the trenches on Hill 287. It would be difficult to find a better place to put a machine gun emplacement. The Lincolns had a field of fire for nearly 2km to Corbera, with the road on the left. The right photo shows one of the best shots of the trench, but most of it was covered with sagebrush. The zig-zag trenches were about 3 feet deep and there were holes cut into the bedrock which looked like foot emplacements for a maxim. There was a sapper trench cut back into the bank that looks like it had been plowed over by the very topmost terrace. There also were some deep holes down into the hill that could indicate that there were bunkers below or storage for munitions. It is all collapsed over now and would need some serious exploration.
My father’s story was that he was manning a maxim submachine gun and was in a four man squad in the Brigade Machine Gun Company (Company 5). Two of the squad were young Spaniards, 16 and 17. If I remember my father’s story correctly, the Quintos were feeding the bullets in the pan of the machine gun. Jack (Julius) Eggen (my father pronounced his name as Egan) was the Sergeant and was spotting for the gun. My father said that they were flanked by the Nationalists. All the time I was growing up, I visualized this as them having been attacked from the left but it looks like it is much more likely that they were hit from the right.
The situation was not good since the 59th Battalion was holding the right flank for the Lincolns. On the 22nd, the 59th crossed over at night in front of the hill and moved to the left of the road to back up the 57th Battalion. This left the right flank (the western flank) wide open. There are several very good books on the movements (Caubin, La Batalla del Ebro, 1977; Revette, La Batalla del Ebro, 2003) and Art Landis’ Abraham Lincoln Brigade describes this action in some detail. Caubin described the movements of troops in the Battle of the Ebro and indicates that Italian two-man tanks of Yagüe’s 13th Brigade maneuvered between Hill 287 and 281 cutting the Lincolns off from retreat. If so, it is possible that the tanks maneuvered behind 287 and came up the same roads I did to get to the top. An audiotape in the Tamiment (Lawrence Cane, 1965) confirms that three tanks were between the Canadian and Lincoln positions. It could be that the tanks hit the trenches from the left. Otherwise, the slope to the right of the trenches is pretty gentle and easily attacked by a tank coming up from the right. Either way, the tanks got on top of the hill and on top of the trenches.
In my father’s words, he saw the tanks coming down the trenches mowing down everyone in the trench with their machine guns. He said that the two Spanish kids got hit right away and fell. My father kept firing but Jack Eggen was not making sense in the orders he was calling out. My Dad turned to him and said “What the fuck, Jack?” But Jack had a small hole in the center of his forehead and a stream of blood was pouring out like out of a gourd of wine. Eggen kept calling out orders that were gibberish but he was still on his feet. My Dad said Eggen fell over and he was alone. He always felt that he had the dilemma of abandoning the machine gun and running for it or staying and holding on. I am fortunate that he made a run for it. He went over the trenches, apparently to the rear of the hill. (Arthur Munday from the Landis tapes says that Munday left this hill about 2 pm and moved back with a Polish group that had set up 75 m behind on another hill; I interpret this to be Hill 281. Larry Cane said he could see Butch Goldstein being chased out of his trench on the Lincolns’ Hill – probably 287 – and making a run for it). My father said as he ran, mortars and hand grenades were bursting around him. He thought that they were targeting just him. Arthur Munday recalled that they had observers firing artillery at a single person. “If they could see you, they dropped a shell on you”. My father recalled that there were three mortars and he could hear the “whump, whump, whump” as they were fired and he would hide behind a terrace until the mortars hit. Then he would make a break for the next terrace, drop behind it and wait for the next “whump, whump, whump”. He was hit by shrapnel in the back and right shoulder but kept going. He carried that shrapnel with him until he died as an old man. He said after several terraces, he found a barranca that led under the road and back to the Brigade Headquarters. This clearly is what I saw on 287.
The road that runs off is not really a road in the barranca any more, but clearly it is a way for the farmer to get to the fields on the other side of the highway. The 58th Brigade Plaza Mayor would have been down this road back up on the hill on the far side of the valley. They could retreat down the Mora highway towards Mora del Ebro.
Left: looking across the upper terrace to the west. The Nationalists came from that direction. The trenches are all hidden in the sagebrush in the foreground. Right: Looking uphill towards where the Battalion Plaza Mayor would have been. Over that ridge and it is downhill to the Ebro.
To finish this part of my Dad’s story, when he got to where the 58th HQ should have been, everyone was gone. Remember this was September 23 and the IB’s were being pulled out. Nobody got to him to give the order to him and Eggen. What a waste of life. It was said that James Lardner was killed this day and was one of the last killed in battle for the International Brigades. If he was killed before or after Jack Eggen is really unknown.
My father said that it quickly got dark and he holed up in an old barn. Later that evening, some Spanish kids (presumably Republican Quintos) found him and saw he was injured. My Dad said they walked over the next day and night down to Mora but stopped in another farm building. The Spanish kids had garbanzos in cans and olive oil. He said one of the kids went out in the morning and found some snails and they cooked snails and garbanzos in oil. He said he’d never eaten snails but they may have kept him alive. He said he walked for another day until he connected up with units near the River. After being patched up and he was again taken to Mataró Hospital on September 27 to October 1, 1938 with fever and pleurisy. I don’t have any more info on him until late October when he was in Ripoll. His “exit interview” was extremely blunt. He made the comment “Next time we need leaders who worried more about protecting their flanks better than protecting their image back in the States”. His interview said he was a “good cadre”. He came out of Spain in the first week of December, was with the Brigade when they caught the Paris to the US and was back in the US on December 15. Here are two photos with him in it, one on the Paris and one on the docks in New York City.
When he came back from Spain, he lived again in Hollywood and got work as a bit player in the movies. He always said that he appreciated Hollywood Director Fred Zinneman giving the Vets jobs. He worked on Abe Lincoln in Illinois (how appropriate) and had a minor speaking part as one of Jack Armstrong’s Gang (Jack was played by Howard De Silva). He had a part in “I Stole a Million” but if he didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, his part lasted a microsecond. Eddie Fliegle, another Lincoln Vet, is listed in the cast. He had a part in “In Name Only” where he is seen serving a bottle to Cary Grant. Two other minor parts are listed on the Independent Movie Data Base (IMDB.com).
In Hollywood, he continued to be a member of both the Communist Party and VALB. He edited the Westcoast Volunteer, which was a publication in 1941 from the Henry Eaton Chapter of VALB in LA. He fell away from the CP before he entered the service in 1943. He once told me that he was disillusioned when the Party was so infiltrated with FBI that it only existed because J. Edgar Hoover paid dues for the plants.
In 1943, he was drafted into shore batteries in Los Angeles and served a year improving his suntan and staring at the ocean. Later in the year, he was shipped out to Borneo where he worked in Macarthur’s staff mailing home “Dear Mr. and Mrs…” letters. He moved with Macarthur to the Philippines and had numerous stories of how Macarthur feathered his own private bed. He watched the teletypes and saved the announcement of Hermann Bottcher’s death. He wrote Mrs. Bottcher afterwards. In 1944, he was 38 and got released before the War’s end. He returned to LA.
Back in Los Angeles, he continued with VALB activities and in 1947, gave a lecture on the meaning of Spain to public audiences. Lini Fuhr De Vries dragged Ida Rainman to one of these lectures. Ida, my Mother, said “He looked like a Nazi with a brown shirt, short mustache and blonde hair”. But he must have been more charming than that since in 1947 they married and I was born in 1948. Lou Stouman (Lini Fuhr’s husband) took their wedding photo and Lini stood up for them at the wedding.
Harold was a carpenter for the rest of his working life, first building houses in the San Fernando Valley (yes, I am Encino Man), and later moving to South Lake Tahoe to build houses with his two brothers. He was a Business Agent for Carpenters 1789 in South Lake Tahoe and kept every union card from 1940 on. He was an inveterate letter writer, writing to the Sacramento Bee, and having a column in the local Tahoe Daily Tribune as “D. Bunker”.
He and Ida returned to Spain once in the 1980’s after Franco died. His visit was frustrating since so much had changed, he could not recognize Gandesa or Corbera. I feel sad that he did not go on an organized tour so he could be shown sites he was looking for.
He passed away in 1998 of a heart attack. On his last day, he was listening to Rush Limbaugh on TV (he had gone blind from glaucoma in the 1990’s). Harold yelled at him and my Mother heard quiet. He had a massive heart attack yelling at Limbaugh. To this day, I say that Rush Limbaugh killed my father. But he went out the way that he wanted. Political to the end.