Blast from the past: Si Podolin on John Delehanty
Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. Here, to start, is a piece by Si Podolin on John Delehanty, aka “Dely,” which ran in February 1987.
By Si Podolin
[Originally Published in The Volunteer, v. 9, no. 1, February 1987]
I received a letter from John Delehanty’s mother. Would I please tell her about her son? How he died? Did he suffer? How did we live in the John Brown Battery? The letter broke my heart. What could I tell her?
Dely was killed aboard a Liberty Ship, along with some thirty-eight shipmates off Bear Island, on the Murmansk run. No one suffers when an ammunition ship is hit. She is loaded like a sea-going torpedo. The forepeak compartment, fo’rd of number one hold carries the block-buster fuses, delicate stuff like TNT and nitro glycerin, mustard gas; next come the blockbusters in number one, two, three, four and five holds. She might burn a few minutes, a few seconds, then she disintegrates like and atomic bomb, more violent than the explosion of The Challenger. As a rule all hands go with her, and it is better that way.
I took a case of butts to the hospital in Grenock where shipmates were taken after they were fished out of the Arctic waters. All amputation cases. One leg gone, two legs, ears, noses, one sailor with legs carrying another with none. I had one hell of a time holding back my tears until I got outside.
I had more luck than Dely. We took a torpedo in number one hold, fourteen miles out of Bone, North Africa, but we had already unloaded our hot cargo. The eighteen hundred Italian prisoners we were carrying had less luck. Four-hundred-eighty-four of them blown to pieces. A bloody seagoing slaughter-house. The ship’s dog gnawing a human jawbone on deck, holding it in place with his bloody forepaws.
But this story is about Dely. He was a proletarian thespians from a WPA project in Akron, Ohio. We held down the battery’s observation post on the Toledo Front. We had dug a trench from the Spanish infantry line out into no-man’s land for about fifty meters. We had a powerful French artillery boussole [compass] and could spot people in the streets of Toledo; nuns, monks, priests, Falangists with their red berets, even the battered Alcazar Fortress on the other side of the Tagus river. Some river! If all the men in the battery pissed together they would make more water than flowed in the Tagus river.
Our job was to count all outgoing and ingoing traffic to detect a possible buildup for an attack on Madrid. On a clear day we could make out, in the distance, the capital, its white building reflecting the sun, rising out of the misty earth like a phantom city in a children’s book.
When Dely and I were not in our observation post, we holed up in a chavola [shelter] dug into the side of the main trench. It was a tough winter.
We burned green wood in the dugout, cut from the olive grove in which the trenches were located. The smoke was unbearable; day and night we were half asphyxiated. Lucky we had the commissar of the Spanish Brigade with us. He played the guitar and sang wonderful folksongs.
It was from our observation post above Toledo that we observed the first shot fired in anger by the John Brown Battery. Our underground in Toledo said the 156 hit the cathedral; others said it hit the oldest synagogue in Europe, others said it was a Casa de las Putas [House of Whores].
Because of the numbing cold it was an heroic effort to relieve ones bowels. First of all you had to climb over the parapet to get to the chiotte [latrine], and you stood a good chance of getting knocked off by a sniper. Secondly, and more dangerous, was the possibility of going down with a pair of frost-bitten cojones [testicles/balls]. Dely said it didn’t matter because we had no immediate use for our cojones anyway.
After we fired our one shell the fascist artillery, perhaps a dozen pounded the trenches and the hills behind them for hours, searching for the John Brown Battery. If they ever saw our antique, Russian artillery pieces – we called them Tukechevsky’s last stand – they would not have wasted a single shell on them. They were vintage Napoleonic Wars, with new breeches build into them. No recoil, except on their shaky wooden wheels. They came plunging back like some prehistoric monster and God help the poor sadsack who did not get his ass out of the way.
The lines, at some points, between our observation post and the Franco lines were not more than a good stone’s throw apart, and the fascists used to shout: “Rojos Cabrones! Hijos de putas!”, which would echo in the hills. “Putas!Putas!Putas!” Dely would yell back: “Fascists Mother F@#$%^s.” Echo: “F@#$%^s! F@#$%^s! F@#$%^s!”
“That’ll hold the bastards he would add. You know how the Latin people worship their mothers?”-
In 1942 Dely and I made the same troop carrier, The Brazil. We were carrying over five thousand GIs and six hundred nurses to the South Pacific. And was there frigging in the rigging! The poor crew stood by with their tongues hanging out, watching some of the most redoubtable fornication conceivable.
The day before we sailed Dely was dragged off the ship, kicking and screaming, by the FBI. He was a premature anti-fascist. The old Thespian had no intention of piling off peacefully.
“Lousy homegrown fascists,” he bellowed. “whose F@#$%^g side are you on anyway?”
Many times during the war I asked myself the same question.
Why didn’t they drag me off, too? I too had been branded a premature anti-fascist. I even won a book for recruiting aboard The Brazil. It was one written by Stalin. On the other hand if I had been dragged off I would have been on the Murmansk run with Dely.
 John Alphonse Delehanty was killed when the Mary Luckenbach was torpedoed on September 14, 1942. American Merchant Marine at War, US Merchant Marine Casualties During World War II http://www.usmm.org/killed/d.html
 Greenock, Scotland, Ravenscraig Hospital was requisitioned by the Admiralty after the outbreak of WWII. In 1941, the Canadian Navy took over the hospital. BBC, WW2 People’s War, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a2449983.shtml
 Mikhayl Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky was the Soviet officer responsible for the modernization of the Soviet Army. Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608576/Mikhayl-Nikolayevich-Tukhachevsky.