Blast from the Past: Keeping Promises
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. As we approach the anniversary of the Belchite Offensive which began on August 24, 1937, we publish Bill Bailey‘s promise to Bill McCarthy to return his ashes to the Spanish earth and, in particular, to Belchite where the two survived the Nationalist counterattack.
A Promise Remembered
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 10, No. 2, August 1988.]
It was 27 years ago that Bill McCarthy put the question to me: “. . . if I pass on before you, would you promise me, now, that you will get my ashes to Spain and bury them at Belchite so I can rest at peace among my brave comrades and friends who died in the war . . . ?
I looked at him to see if he was serious, or if it was some more of his Irish humor. He was serious. Very serious.
“Of course, “ I replied. How dare I say no to such a serious request of an old comrade and soldier. “I’ll see to it personally.”
Well, Bill’s final wish was carried out. On April 25th, at that war-torn wreck of a city, Belchite, about a hundred yards from the church bell tower, in precisely the same fox-hole I shared with McCarthy, Joe Bianca, Al Kaufman, Emery Reddon, “Coffe-An” Nelson, Mike Pappas and a few others, McCarthy’s ashes found their final resting place.
It was a cold, chilly morning. Rain came down gently at first and then commenced to pour and soon the rubble of a city that personified the force and brutality of Franco Fascism took on a muddy character.
I suppose I could have sprinkled his ashes around the city and leave it to the rain and wind to mix it with the Spanish earth, but I felt that Bill had left the decision with me and I concluded that his passing should have a little more meaning than a mere sprinkling of his ashes. Belchite in the heart of the Aragon, was left in ruins. It remains in ruins to this day. Franco wanted a symbol of his power, his strength to suppress and destroy. Belchite remains at this moment the way it looked when he lobbed his last shell at the city to rout the Republican forces. Unlivable. But it also represents something to us. It was city that we started out to liberate on our way to Zaragossa and eventually, we hoped, the rest of Spain.
It was also, to many newer members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, our second battle, with Quinto being the first. Belchite was not easy to take. The battle was tougher, longer. We lost a larger number of comrades. But, in the end we won the city.
It gave us a good feeling of accomplishment. To us it meant one more nail in the coffin of Fascism. It also gave us a feeling of knowing ourselves and our fellow comrades.
McCarthy made his contributions for that cause. He did other things too, besides his volunteer service in support of the Spanish Republic. He did his share of helping to organize the National Maritime Union and make it a formidable force for bettering the economic and political life of many American seamen. He did his part too, in protesting America’s role in the Korean War. In one such demonstration in New York City, he was beaten by the police so severely that one eye was made useless and he would endure devastating neck and back pain for the rest of his life.
With all that in mind, I felt that since Belchite was so meaningful to us, (and soon perhaps, it will be made into a National Park or War Memorial, according to those in the know in Spain) and since thousands of natives and tourists visit Belchite yearly, I decided that something of a continuing or lasting monument should be left to Bill’s contribution and memory so that the oncoming generations, be they native or foreign, could see his “rock-pile” and read the inscription which says:
Bill McCarthy 1912-1987
Voluntario Soldat De Las Brigadas Internationale, Battalon Lincoln-Washington, EEU.
“That my ashes be buried in Spain so that I can be among my brave comrades and friends who fought and died in the war”… 1936-1939…(April 25, 1988)
And so it was that, from amid the rubble of Belchite, a hole was dug, his ashes buried. Some four feet of rock was piled neatly over the spot an a marker placed on top. A promise had been kept. Bill’s wish had been carried out. He has now found his true peace, among his fallen comrades. And while the wrecked city of Belchite remains Franco’s symbolic solution, Bill McCarthy’s “pile of stone” will surely signify that as long as there are men in this world like the Francos and the Hitlers there are people like Bill McCarthy who will always defy them. AND THAT IS OUR FAITH FOR THE FUTURE.