Blast from the Past: Marty Sullivan
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. Harry Fisher waded through the war with fellow volunteer Marty Sullivan. Sullivan was fearless and selfless in combat yet simultaneously wrestling with alcoholism. Fisher, a lifelong activist and author of the memoir Comrades (1998), saw Sullivan a final time in New York in the 1950s.
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 5, Number 1, February 1983.]
One of the closest friends I had in Spain was Marty Sullivan. I can’t remember when I first met him, but it must have been when I rejoined the Lincolns on the last day of 1937. For the rest of my stay in Spain, almost a year, Sully and I worked with the transmissions unit and were together through the battle of Teruel as well as both the Ebro offensive and the retreat across the river.
Sullivan was the ideal companion in tense situations because he was a compassionate and trustworthy friend who always remained cool during a crisis. But, sadly enough, Sully was also an alcoholic. Though he’d never drink while at the front – perhaps because he couldn’t get anything to drink there – just as soon as he’d get to [the] rear he’d drink, and sometimes he’d go on that way for days. Then he’d be sick, terribly sick, and by the end of the binge he’d be filthy and miserable and out of control. I’d try to clean him up and get him bedded down and to sleep, but it was an awful job and more than once I felt like giving up. His drunken periods would last a few days and then he would sober up again. If we stayed at the rear long enough, this cycle would repeat itself again and again … a few days of drinking, a few days of sobering up, and then another binge. But never at the front.
While at the front, Sully did his job methodically, as though he had no fears at all. But he was as scared as I was. I knew because he often told me of his terrible fears.
Though Sully and I teamed up and went on all our missions together, there was one mission that I know I’ll never forget. It was a day in August, and the shelling at Pandols, Hill 6661, had been going on for hours. There was no communication between the companies on the hill and headquarters. The lines were cut again and again by the ferocious shelling. For hours, we weren’t asked to make the repairs because everyone knew it would be suicidal to try to fix the lines, the shelling was so intense. But when learned that a fascist attack was expected when the all-day shelling ended, we knew it was imperative that we reestablish communications with the men on the top of the hill. Sully and I were asked to lay a new line.
We started to climb to the top of the hill. I remember passing headquarters and seeing Wolff looking at us and shaking his head sadly, as if to say, “I’m sorry fellows, but we have no choice.”
When we reached the top of the hill there was nothing green. It was [a] picture of hell … even the huge rocks were burnt black. And the place stank of death and destruction.
On his back, Sully carried a spool of wire which was connected to headquarters. Bullets whistled over our head and every minute or so a shell would explode on the hill, raising more dust, and sending shrapnel into the air. Finally, Sullivan turned to me and said, “Listen Harry. There’s no need for both of us to go through all this. You stay behind this rock till I finish the job. When I get back we’ll make a dash to safety…”
I gratefully accepted his offer and watched from behind a huge boulder as Sully walked on. He hadn’t gone more than ten yards when a shell landed a few feet in front of him. I looked but saw no movement, nothing but smoke and dust. And the acrid smell of the powder was overwhelming. I rushed from behind the rock into the smoke and tripped over Sully’s body. I could barely see him through the dust; he lay so still, I was sure he was dead. The dust cleared. And then from Sully, “Boy, that was a close one.” He got up as though nothing had happened, put the spool of wire on his back and continued laying the line… but this time I went with him. Miraculously, the mission was completed without any more crises, and we returned to our safe positions to wait for the next call.
I went through months and months of combat with Sullivan, and together we survived a great many bombings and shellings. In spite of his being an alcoholic, you couldn’t find a more reliable or courageous man to be with at the front. I also found him to be [one] of the most considerate, gentle, and decent men I ever knew.
But Sully was a sick man – very sick. Years after we returned home, Sully left his wife and went to live in New York City’s Bowery. The VALB tried to get him medical help, but he wouldn’t cooperate and would always leave the hospitals he was sent to, and return to the streets.
One day in the fifties, the receptionist in my office told me there was a man to see me. I went to the reception room, and there was my old friend Sully. He was sober, but I never saw him looking so bad. He was the picture of an alcoholic from the Bowery. His clothes stank from stale, dried vomit. His eyes were red, bloodshot… but worse than that. How can I describe them? His eyes were like those of a scared, beaten dog. His clothes were filthy and ragged. His face was red with splotches, and his nose was swollen. He was thin, and looked as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks.
“Hello Harry,” he said. “I’m a mess, ain’t I?”
“Aw, it’s great to see you again, Sully. You don’t look so bad.”
“Look Harry, I know you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you from your work. But I’m broke and I could use a few bucks for some food.”
I gave him about $15, which was all the money I had in my wallet. I could see his unspoken gratitude as his eyes popped open when he saw the money. But he was in a hurry to get away.
“Thanks a lot, old buddy,” he said.
“Why don’t you stay awhile and talk?” I asked hesitantly.
But Sully understood. “I’ve got to go, but thanks a million. This will buy a lot of bread. And I promise you I will never bother you again.”
Before I could utter another word, he was out of the door. I watched him go down the long corridor, first slowly almost limping, and then faster and faster, in a desperate hurry to get some lousy booze.
After Sully left, I went to the men’s room and cried. I never did see Sully again. About six months later he was found dead in a Bowery gutter.
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.