Blast from the Past: The Unknown Contingent
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. The third installment is a piece from Ken Graeber on the International Brigades’ reserve ambulance corps. It was originally published in February 1991.
The Unknown Contingent
[Originally published in The Volunteer, v. 13, no. 2, February 1991]
I want to tell you something about an organization whose name I have never yet seen in print.
I cannot tell you when the First Group of Evacuation (officially el Grupo de Evacuacion Numero Uno) was formed, nor who was its first chief officer, but its function was clear – to serve as a reserve ambulance group for the entire International Brigade (IB). This meant, in practice, that these ambulances were sent to any front at which any unit of the IB was in action.
I came to Spain in late June 1937. I spent about a week in late June 1937. I spent about a week in Tarazona, training with the Mackenzie –Papineau Battalion. It was learned that I could drive, ambulance drivers were needed, and so one morning I was sent to the Plaza. There I found a medium-sized ambulance waiting with the driver, Taini, and a very self-confident individual named Harry Wilkes. A total of nine drivers were chosen and within an hour we were on our way to the French border.
At Port Bou nine new Americans ambulances were waiting, and we drove them all the way to Vill Paz, stopping overnight in Barcelona on the way. The drivers were Sam Abramson, Roy Braden, Chilingarian, Luchell McDaniels (believe it or not), Bernie Gerber, myself and some other guys whose names I cannot remember. We hung around Villa Paz for a few days. There is a gap in my memory here. I remember being in Albacete for a day or two with this same small group of drivers. If I were to guess, I would say that it was about this time that the Group of Evacuation came into existence as a formal military unit. Memory returns with me sitting high in the cab of a large evacuation ambulance, in the middle of a huge convoy along the coastal road. We are on our way to the Aragon front, but we know nothing of our destination.
We arrived too late to help at the battle of Quinto. Turning back, we drove slowly up the Mediana road in the direction of Belchite, passing the Lincolns who were moving in the same direction through the fields alongside the road. I was able to exchange a few words – for the last time – with Don Henry.
A little farther on we pulled the ambulance off the road to park on the sides of a small arroyo which led to a large culvert under the highway.
I was walking up the slope toward my ambulance when five Fiat airplanes suddenly appeared. As they came in over the highway, flying very low, the flight leader apparently spotted our ambulances and turned. The other planes followed until they almost formed a circle. As each one came into position, the pilot fired his machine guns.
I lay out on the open hillside in the middle of this rain of hundreds – oh, what the hell – thousands of bullets, ricochets, and flying rock fragments and tried to dig a hole in the rock with my bare hands. The Fiats made two or three passes and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Never had so much lead been expended to so little purpose.
As for me, I decided I was immortal.
When the attack on Belchite began, we drove there and under the instructions of some tactical genius, parked these large truck-like ambulances in an olive grove within medium rifle range of the church tower. Thus at Belchite, evacuation ambulances were used on the front.
The hospital was under a large tent just outside Azaila. We drove our wounded back down the road, cut off through Codo and then across some fields to avoid the torn-up road and up the cliff road to the town.
Even yet I find it difficult to put into words how I felt driving my first load of wounded. The roads were pitted, cratered and in places unusable, and the truck springs on those ambulances didn’t help much. I felt, somewhere inside, every jolt and every bump and felt guiltily responsible for every one of them. The pain I was causing those poor guys in the back almost panicked me. At the hospital I found my hands were white and almost frozen to the steering wheel. I got over this of course. Had I not, I would not have been able to function.
We remained at Belchite for a week after the battle, and the drove to the I. B. base hospital at Benicasim, our base as well. I discovered that I was changing color, turning yellow. I was hospitalized with jaundice and was in the hospital when the wounded from the disaster at Fuentes de Ebro came flooding in.
Awaiting discharge in the office, I overheard the following conversation.
First voice: “Send him to Battalion.”
Second voice: “We can’t do that. Grosfelt says he is one of his men.”
This was the first time I heard the name of Dr. Grosfelt, who had, after his relief by Dr. Grunblatt at Brunete, been assigned the task of organizing or reorganizing the First Group of Evacuation. It is my personal belief that he did a competent, if not excellent job.
Dr. Grosfelt spoke Polish, German and French, but no Spanish or English. He quickly discovered that my Spanish was good an that I could understand his (rather bad) German, and so I was often called on by him to serve as his “lucky” driver, since nothing bad ever happened to him when he was riding with me. “Er hat Gluck,” I overheard him say to a friend.
Because of his attitude, I was not sent out to front-line units as often as most of the other drivers, something I resented. However, I did see more of Spain, than most Internationals and, I think, almost every hospital.
Headquarters staff consisted of a number of Germans, whose function I never really knew, a Bulgarian commissar, a Rumanian paymaster, a couple of motorcyclists who were German, and two young Spaniards named Diego and Felipe. The unforgettable Joe Maier, a German-American and a man much admired by all of us, was a “responsible,” of exactly what I never knew.
There were Danish, Czech and German drivers and one ex-Palestinian bus driver names (I think) Gutman. However, the majority of the drivers were Canadian or American. They were neither members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, nor of the Medical Bureau; and this is why so little is known of them. There is no mention of them in Landis’ book nor, to my knowledge, anywhere else. Yet these Americans too made an important medical contribution.
Sam Abramson b. 1909, was a Canadian volunteer from Montreal, a high school graduate he worked as a driver and writer, he survived the SCW and served in the US Army during WWII.
Commander of the First Group of Evacuation.
Dr. Jacques Grunblatt was born in 1910 in Kolomyja, Poland and studied medicine in France. He initially served with an International Cavalry squadron on the Jarama Front, after his unit was destroyed in combat he was transferred to the XV Brigade as the BN doctor for the 24th Battalion. He joined the French Army and served until fall of France in 1940. He escaped to Mexico and moved to the United States in 1946. Grundblatt had a private practice as a rural doctor, retiring in 1975. He died January 14, 1898 in Manzanillo, Mexico.