Blast from the Past: Death on the Ebro
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. A brutal death during the Ebro Offensive has reverberations far beyond Spain. Bill Wheeler responds to a request made in the mid-1990s by former ALBA board member Eunice Lipton, a testament to the strong ties that continue to bind the extended Lincoln Brigade community.
A Death on the Ebro
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 18, No. 2, Fall 1996.]
The following letter is in response to a request by Eunice Lipton for information about her uncle, Dave Lipton, a Lincoln vet killed in the Pandols in 1938…
Dear Ms. Lipton,
I do remember your Uncle Dave Lipton and now thanks to you, he has a name that time and flagging memory had erased.
His death, more than any of the too many others that I have witnessed, has haunted me to this day. Dave and I first met aboard the ship that was carrying several new volunteers and seven [of] us who had been sent home and were returning for the second time. That would have been early spring 1938. Dave and I were both assigned to the third Company of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. After a short period of training, about the end of June or the beginning of July 1938, we were assembled on the banks of the Ebro River in preparation to launch the Ebro offensive.
We were at rest the evening before the crossing. Dave handed me a letter written in Yiddish, asking me to mail it to his brother (as I recall) if anything happened to him. I remember telling him, “You will make it OK. Just remember to keep your head and fanny down.”
The next morning he asked for the letter back and tore it to bits. That morning we crossed the Ebro and proceeded on a three-day march with no food or water to the first town abandoned by the fascists as we approached.
We found some food, cans of salty fish, but were unable to drink the water as the fascists had contaminated the wells.
Tired, parched and hungry we moved on to Hill 666;1 a rocky height, completely barren of any vegetation due to the repeated bombardment; not enough soil to dig trenches, the parapets piled-up rock that added to the danger when struck by artillery shells.
Company Three occupied the right flank of the battalion’s position. One of our squads was short-handed and requested a replacement. Dave’s sergeant sent him to reinforce the squad. While with that squad Dave was sent with a detail to the bottom of the hill for grenades, much needed in the event of an attack.
It was shortly after this that I was checking our position at the front when Dave walked over towards me asking if he could return to his regular squad. Just as I yelled to him to get down, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet, sinking him slowly to the ground in front of me.
In war one becomes inured to death but Dave’s has haunted me ever since. He was young, he was brave, sacrificed on the altar of fascist aggression. It was not a “civil war” but a war of intervention by the fascist powers – aided and abetted by England and the United States who did nothing to aid the democratically elected government of Spain.
Please call me if I can be of any help. Ione (my wife) and I are going to get your book Alias Olympia. It sounds very interesting.
1. The forward momentum of the Republican Army’s Ebro Offensive in the summer of 1938 was halted outside Gandesa. In early August the Republicans transitioned over to the defensive. The Sierra de Pandols outside Gandesa offered a strong natural defensive position with Hill 666 a key element. The hill was barren and arid and the troops assigned to hold the position were unable to dig entrenchments in the rocky ground. Nevertheless, the XVth BDE held the positions against repeated Nationalist attacks, suffering heavy casualties primarily from artillery. See Harry Fisher’s piece on Marty Sullivan for more on the Ebro Offensive and Hill 666.