Blast from the Past: John Brown’s Body
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.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.
John Brown’s Body, Etc.
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 8, Number 1, April 1986.]
The first commander of the French 14th Brigade of artillery, under whom the John Brown Battery served, was a fascist spy and saboteur with a wooden leg, named Marius. He attempted to have the entire three hundred Americans, French, English, Italian and Canadians in the outfit massacred by the Junker bombers in the heaviest of the three bombings to which Albacete was subjected.
As the story goes he got his wooden leg as a hero of Verdun in 1914. It is more likely he got it jumping out of a whorehouse window.
Comrade Marius was later hauled before a court martial and jailed, but we never learned if Andre Marty had put him against a wall or not. We fondly hoped he had.
The first wave of Junkers came over Albacete not an hour after all the Chatos1 in the airbase left for an offensive on the Madrid front. Franco’s informers were pros; the liaison was perfect.
It was a splendid night for airborne homicide; a faultless summer sky, with the kind of full moon one sees only in Spain, and the Northern Lights on the horizon like distant fiesta fireworks, only much more beautiful.
A few sad forlorn bops came from our single antiquated anti-aircraft battery before the Nazis put the poor comrades out of business. Then – total silence.
All three 14th Brigade Batteries were barracked in a school recently built by the Spanish Republic and Marius put an armed guard on the door so that no one could take cover in the surrounding vineyards.
The entire population of the town was underground in the excellent shelters designed by a Canadian doctor whose name I believe, if my memory hasn’t failed me, was Flemiming. Most of the cities of Spain had similar bombproofs, the tops decorated with flower gardens. After the war Flemming went to China to build the same type of shelters for protection against the Japanese.
The first stick of bombs hit somewhere in the center of town. The next came close to the school and though the concussion lifted me a couple of inches off the deck and knocked the wind out of me, a Frenchman named La Puce (the louse) did not bat an eye, but kept peacefully snoring. He was stone-deaf, but what amazed me was that the concussion did not keep him awake. Perhaps it was the rotgut we were issued with our meals, for La Puce not only downed his own rations, but also that of a half-dozen Yanks.
The next stick of bombs really came close and, squeezing the cheeks of my ass together with all my might, I ran for the chiotte [latrine], one of those Turkish squat jobs where I got a douche everyplace but where I needed it: topside on the head, below decks the cold water torture on my poor cojones. I also twisted an ankle when my foot slipped into the hole, for I was not the only one in the outfit whose bowels had no respect for his heroic idealism.
However, if I might deviate for a moment, the toilet in the school was head and shoulders above the one in the Valencia reception center, where one needed a pair of rubber hipboots. It was far wiser to go outside and relieve oneself against a wall. I later learned the commander of the Valencia post, also a Frenchman, was hauled before a court martial. One met very respectable and well dressed citizens at the cathedral walls. I made the acquaintance of the Mayor of Almansa there. He wore a black suit, a black hat and rested his chin on hands folded on the handle of his cane. For me the Almansa cathedral wall was also the beginning of a sentimental romance.
When I got back to my sack, I found La Puce still peacefully sleeping. And by now it was really raining bombs. Three more trips to the chiotte. My first worry was to preserve my trousers, for we were lucky to get one issue. The short pauses between the bombings were almost as bad as the explosions and we sent a delegation to see Commandant Marius. The son of a bitch was nowhere to be found…
Thus began the strange and often frustrating corrida [run] of The John Brown Battery in the bloodied land of Don Quixote.
1. Chato [snubnosed] was the nickname for the Polikarpov I-15 fighter airplane supplied by Russia to the Republicans.