Blast from the Past: Last Months in Spain

September 24, 2015
By and

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.

Last Months in Spain by Ben Iceland

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 12, Number 1, May 1990.]

In July 1938, and after many weeks of confusion and disorganization when the fascists had cut through to the sea, many of the Americans were stationed first in Alcira, and then in Alcoy – two small cities south of Valencia. Some of us had been in the hospital train that was bombed near Vinaroz, and then later with the 35th Anglo-American heavy artillery in the hills south of Teruel. We had left our guns behind to a Spanish outfit and were waiting for a new assignment. It had been a great relief to get rid of those heavy, lumbering guns which were so rarely fired. The rumor was that we would be getting new Czech anti-tank guns, and after some training, we would be sent to the Levante front, where the enemy was slowly advancing south towards Valencia.

But till the guns came there was nothing much to do. So there was the usual griping about the food and the lack of tobacco, and the endless waiting. It was not for nothing that the song “waiting, waiting, waiting – always bloody well waiting,” sung lugubriously to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” was a favorite of ours.  Once the outfit bought a couple of hundred eggs, and that was a memorable event. How wonderful the eggs sizzled and fried in olive oil, and how good they tasted! But that was only once. For the rest, it was the usual garbanzos, or lentils, or rice, and not much else. Food was becoming scarcer in Loyalist Spain, and the restaurants all had the signs reading “No hay comida.” We were getting paid regularly now, but there was nothing to buy for our money except cigarette paper. The fascists had the tobacco.

Some barbershops were open, and once when I asked a young boy the whereabouts of a certain barber shop, he directed me to a street in the “Barrio Judio.” “Are there Jews in this town,” I wondered out loud. He wagged his forefinger at me strenuously, and looked perplexed at the question. Hundreds of years after the Inquisition, the name of the quarter hadn’t changed. As I walked through medieval, narrow streets and looked at some of the people in front of their houses, especially the women, they did seem so much like the Jewish women sitting in front of their houses in New York City. I knew that in this section of Spain many Jews and Moors had lived before they were driven out.

Because Spain had been cut in two, communication between the two zones was difficult. There had been no mail for months now, and this caused us much anguish. But then, one day, a batch of mail did arrive. I received many letters, and a package from my wife, and one from my brother. The packages felt strangely light, and with many of the men looking on, I opened them.

They had been opened before, probably in Barcelona, and the edges looked as if they had been nibbled at by mice. I knew what to expect, but still hoped that maybe, maybe, there would still be some cigarettes. There were none—just some crumbs of tobacco, and the smell. Not even enough for one butt. In one package all that was left was a tin of salmon and a tin of sardines – with the R. H. Macy label on them. In the other package there was a half-eaten box of chocolates and a pair of socks. Newspaper had been stuffed into the packages to fill them out. It was the missing cigarettes that caused the most pain. We consumed the food on the spot. “What do you expect from the Trotskyites and Anarchists of Barcelona?” one of our guys observed. “They hate us. I saw a slogan of their’s on a wall calling us “Los gansteres de Stallin.”

Another soldier said it had nothing to do with politics. “How do you know it isn’t one of our own guys in Barcelona that did it? If I was in the post office there, I might have done it myself.”  We heard these arguments before. But I grieved for my filched cigarettes. Then followed a discussion of the Trotskyites and Anarchists of Catalonia which wandered far from the plundered packages. The well know story about the soccer games that the Trotskyites (or in some versions, Anarchists) used to play with the fascists on the Aragon front was retold.

The letters were a different matter. How we rejoiced when our name was called out and the letters tossed to us! I kept reading and rereading them, devouring all the precious news from home. Every detail, no matter how petty was important – the restaurant my wife had a meal in – what Harry and his wife were fighting about – the bellyache she had after a trip to a Michigan lake. It all filled me with longing for home.

“Honolulu Ski” Frank Buturla

“Honolulu Ski” Frank Buturla

Some of the men didn’t get any letters. They shared the letters others got. My buddy, Frank (Ski) Buturla[1] rarely got any mail. He read mine with me almost at the same time I read them, commenting and chuckling, and rejoicing with me. Frank Ski Buturla was known by many as Honolulu Ski. I met him the first day I was in Tarazona, the town where we trained. We had just come from Albacete, and been assigned a pile of straw in a bare, cold, stony room in an empty house. We were scared and apprehensive, and in strode Frank in that jaunty walk of his, and pulled out a bottle of that awful, wartime Spanish cognac from his pocket, and offered us a drink. I took to him at once.

Frank had been wounded in Brunete, hospitalized, and then assigned to the Armory in Tarazona. He was an expert with the machine gun, and was attached to our newly formed machinegun squad. He loved that squat Russian Maxim, and we learned a lot from him. Frank never did or said anything ordinary. Every thought, every remark, had an original twist to it. He was the hero for a story by Ted Allen which appeared in the New Masses called “A Gun is Watered.”[2] As you may guess, he used his own piss to cool off the gun.

Frank was born in Hartford, Conn. Of a poor Polish family. While he was still and infant, the family moved back to Poland, where they had a small farm. After some years the family came back to America. That may account for Frank’s mystifying accent. He spoke English with a Polish flavor, and when he learned a little Spanish, it had a Polish-American ring. His formal schooling ended in sixth grade, and he received his college education, he used to say half-boastfully, in reform school. Early in the depression he drifted out west, became a seaman, and then shipped out to Honolulu, and used to sell the paper of the newly formed National Maritime Union (NMU). He was fascinated by print, and if he could not write for the paper, he was only too happy to sell it. He would always, with great pride, mention the low number of his Union book. After Tarazona we drifted apart, but then met again in the hospital at Denia. In the intervening time Ski had received a citation for bravery on the Levante front for holding up the advance of some fascist troops with his machine gun. He loved to show off that citation in his military book.

Bill Martinelli,[3] also a seaman, received a couple of letters from a girl named Helen, whom he had met only a few days before he sailed for Spain. Helen, he told me proudly, was a social worker, and she had put him up in her apartment in N.Y. She wrote lengthy letters, but since they did not know each other so well, missing were all the little homey details we longed to hear. They sounded a little as if they had been lifted from items in the Daily Worker. But at the end of the letters she appended her love, and indicated she would like to see him when he returned. Bill was a very poor speller, so he asked if I wouldn’t write the answers for him. After that I became his regular amanuensis.[4]

In Alcoy there was a wine shop, its doorway shaded with hanging beads, where we would often go to escape the heat of the afternoon. There you could always find Bill Gresham,[5] a lanky N. Y. magazine writer, huddled over a glass of wine. Gresham had thick glasses, and wore a Trotsky-like beard. No matter how hot it was, he was always wrapped in his poncho and with a scarf around his neck. With him, usually, was Spike, a mid-western steeplejack, who had also been a carnival worker. Bill Gresham would pump Spike [6]for details of his life, and would see to it that his glass was always filled. Occasionally he would write in a little notebook that he kept with him. Some years after he returned from Spain, Bill wrote a novel about carnival life. Much of the material, I am sure, he got from Spike, in that wine shop in Alcoy.

Butch Gordon,[7] with whom I had shared a dugout in the mountains south of Teruel, was often in that wine shop. His constant companion was Gus Heisler,[8] a cynical, gruff but good-hearted plumber from New York. He and Butch were always together. Butch was a great raconteur, and Gus was always egging Butch on to tell his stories. Butch didn’t need much urging. He had a favorite scatological story about “un grand artiste,” which wound up with the words “take zis for zat, and shit for shat, and vive La France.” It was a story we had heard many times, but since Butch was such a good actor, and since it was a little different every time he told it, we enjoyed listening to him. Once he told it in a café in Valencia, and when he shouted the final “Vive La France,” a startled Frenchman at a nearby table jumped to his feet, and shouted back “Vive La France.”

We were still in Alcoy, waiting for guns and a new assignment when the news of the crossing of the Ebro reached us. It was very welcome news, because from the little we could glean from the Spanish communiques about the war, we were aware that the fascists were advancing south toward Valencia. Towns where we had been, were suddenly reported to be in enemy hands. A “slight rectification of the lines,” very often meant the loss of much territory. So when the news of the Ebro crossing was headlined in the papers, it renewed our hope that we could yet win this war. It was very much like the early news of Teruel. There were rumors too, that the French were opening their borders and selling arms to the republic. There was no news of the Lincoln Brigade, but we were sure that what was left of it after the retreats of the spring, was back in action. It was only later that we learned that the Brigade was in the first wave of troops that rowed across the Ebro.

It was at that time that John Delehanty,[9] who was on leave from the John Brown Battery, appeared in Alcoy. He had been in Valencia, where he had learned that Americans were in Alcoy, and on his way back to the battery, he had decided

John Alphonse Delehanty. Family Photograph.

John Alphonse Delehanty. Family Photograph.

to stop first in Alcoy to meet some of his old buddies. When he left, some of us were sent with him as reinforcements for the John Brown Battery. They needed men “to help them dig,” Delehanty wryly explained. “That’s all we ever do up there,” he added. Besides myself, there was Ski Buturla, Bill Martinelli, Hicks,[10] and a dour-faced soldier named Shorty[11], whose name I never did learn, and who rarely spoke more than a word or two to anyone. Neither Ski nor I were happy about leaving the coast to join an outfit that was stationed near Toledo. Bill Martinelli protested vigorously to Captain Sarris, especially because he hated Hicks, and had had many run-ins with him, and didn’t wish to go anywhere with him. It didn’t do any good. Captain Sarris was adamant.

We hopped on a military truck to Alicante, a pleasant city on the coast that seemed little touched by the war. The cafes on the main street were filled with young men – man of them out of uniform. We thought we detected a little bit of hostility towards us, and decided to go on to Murcia, form where we could get a train to Albacete. We slept that night in the railroad station, and the next morning we took a train that was crowded, hot, and filthy. The train took us to a town on a hilltop called Lorca. We had gotten the wrong information. For some reason, the train stopped, and nobody knew when it would renew its journey. We decided to leave the train, and try our luck on the highway. A truck going to Cartagena picked us up. We did not wish to go to Cartagena, so the driver dropped us off at a god-forsaken crossroads, and told us that we were not too far from the town of Aguilas, a small port, where, he added there was a hotel, and where we could get some fresh fish. The thought of fresh fish appealed to us. We waited for another lift, but there was nothing on the road. We decided to walk. The road was hot and shimmering as the sun beat down upon us. Not a vehicle moved on that road. There was not a house to be seen, not a bit of green, not a tree. Ski’s feet blistered, and it was difficult for him to walk. So we rested frequently, and when we started up again, we would take turns supporting Ski. “Go ahead,” he said to us. “I’ll meet you in Aguilas.” We knew he didn’t want us to leave him there, and we had no intention of doing so. Poor Ski’s pride had been hurt because he couldn’t keep up with us. Martinelli, who had a passion for cleanliness, joked that it wouldn’t have happened if Ski had washed his feet more often. Finally, late in the afternoon, a vehicle with two Assault Guards[12] stopped, and with their rifles at the ready, asked us who we were and where we were going. They looked suspiciously at our salvo-conductos [travel pass], and then took us to Aguilas. There was a beach at the edge of the town, and we were hoping to bathe our feet in the Mediterranean. It was a wild, rocky beach, and too much of a walk to get into the water. Exhausted, we stretched out on the rocks. Hicks, the self-proclaimed professor from Wisconsin, said he was going into town to look for a drink. Hicks was always trouble, and we tried to dissuade him. He went anyhow. He was a strange sight as he strode off. He wore a torn shirt, and a pair of filthy trousers with the crotch torn. The crotch on his trousers was always torn. He was unshaven, with a dirty blond fuzz on his face. He was very tall and thin, and he walked with a slight limp. None of us could stand him. We called him the “big, blond beast.”

It was cool there at the edge of the sea, and I started to doze. After about an hour, Hicks reappeared, this time accompanied by the same two Assault Guards holding their rifles. Hicks was drunk, and he had a foolish smile on his face. He had gotten into some sort of scrape in a café, and the Assault Guards told us to control him or they would lock him up.  We were disgusted with Hicks, and Martinelli started to curse. We had to hold Martinelli back from punching him. Hicks plopped down and fell asleep. Delehanty, half-seriously, suggested we get rid of him: “Maybe the son-of-bitch would disappear if we left him there on the rocks; maybe he’d get drowned in the tide.” “There is no tide in the Mediterranean,” Ski informed us. “Wait till Timpson[13] sees this coño [pussy],” muttered Delehanty. Timpson was the name of the commander of the John Brown Battery.

When it grew dark we went into town and found a small restaurant on the waterfront. Not only was there no fresh fish, to which we had been looking forward, but there was nothing else either, according to the “no hay comida” sign. We told the suspicious-looking proprietor that we had a couple of bars of soap we were willing to part with, if he could somehow manage to find something to cook for us. He agreed, and got up a meal of garbanzos and bacalão.[14] The bacalão had not been soaked long enough, and it was tough and completely inedible. We had bartered two precious bars of soap for “a mess of pottage,” Delehanty cracked. Delehanty was quite a wit, and had a quick and ready tongue for every occasion. Then we found a pleasant enough little hotel, where we could get rooms. Hicks immediately flopped down on a bed with all his clothes on, and was asleep. Then, glad to be rid of him, we strolled along the promenade, which was filled with laughing and shouting young boys and girls out for the evening paseo.

There was a café from which came the sounds of a guitar and an accordion. We entered and were ushered into a small, inner courtyard which was festooned with Japanese lanterns. There were some Spaniards there, and also four English sailors from a ship which was anchored in the small harbor. The sailors were quite drunk and noisy, especially one called Jock – a big fellow with a huge mustache. It was good to hear English spoken, even drunken English, and soon we had the tables drawn together, and were gabbing away. The sailors, who called us “Yanks,” were surprised to hear we were fighting in Spain. I was surprised and disappointed to learn from them that they had only the vaguest idea of the International Brigades. When I told them that there were Englishmen fighting against Franco, one of them exclaimed: “What the hell do they bloody want to get mixed up in a bloody f***ing war that is none of their bloody f***ing business?” I started to say something about fascism, and the working class, and international solidarity, but they were not listening, and I soon gave up.

After a while, we too were a bit drunk. Jock, the sailor with the mustache, started telling about his experiences in the First World War. Spreading his arms out wide, he proclaimed in stentorian tones: “You call this a f***ing war? On the western front, we had guns lined up for thirty miles hub to hub,” and he kept repeating the phrase “hub to hub.”

Then he and Delehanty got into some kind of discussion about the British monarchy, and in the heat of the argument, Delehanty said to Jock: “Aw, f*** your king.” Jock got up from his seat, red-faced, and with fists clenched, said” “I’m a communist myself, but any man who says ‘f*** your king’ has got to fight me.” Delehanty, who was a head shorter than Jock, was too drunk to show any kind of caution. He goaded Jock on. “What kind of shitty communist are you who loves the king?” It looked like there would be a fight, but the owner of the place, and we and the other British sailors separated the two of them.

There were some whores in the café – hard-faced, coarse-looking whores. One of them, when the proprietor gestured to her, sat down on Jock’s lap and put her arms around him. She finally led him away to an upstairs room. Delehanty too was led away by a whore. Shorty, who hadn’t said a word through it all, disappeared with another of the ladies. “I hope they don’t get the clap,” said Bill disapprovingly. We stayed on a little while longer and then went back to the hotel. Early in the morning Delehanty showed up with a sheepish grin on his face. “How was it?” Ski asked him. “I was too drunk,” he said. “I fell asleep.” Shorty never did show up. We waited for him, and then went back to the café, thinking that perhaps he was still sleeping. There was no sign of Shorty. The British ship was still in harbor. “He f***ed off,” was the feeling we had.

We went to the headquarters of the Assault Guards, and explained our predicament. We wanted to get to the John Brown battery which was near Toledo, and here we were in the southeastern corner of Spain. They pored over a map, and suggested we go to Almeria, and from there take a train north. They had a truck going to Almeria and we could go with them. They gave us a breakfast of bread, marmalade, and coffee with cognac.

When we got on the truck, we noticed there was a Spaniard in handcuffs going along with us. We asked the guard what he had done. The guard looked contemptuously at the prisoner, and muttered “fascista.” The prisoner, a fat, middle-aged man, dressed in peasant black, cowered in his seat, looking at the floor. “Demasiado fascists en Espana [too many fascists in Spain],” added the guard.

It was a strange, wild, empty country we were riding through – jagged rocks, dry, caked ground, and not a living thing to be seen. The road twisted and turned through the hills, with scary, precipitous drops at the side, and no guard rails. The sun beat down upon us in the uncovered truck. We passed through a town of caves which was cut into the hillside. The front of one of the caves were whitewashed. In front of one of the caves half-naked children with dirty smocks down to their bellybuttons, were playing. There were no grownups to be seen. When the truck slowed down, they ran to us, begging: “Tiene pan – tiene cigarillos? [do you have bread – do you have cigarettes?]” Further on along the road, and at a distance, there were ancient slagheaps? “What did they mine here?” I asked the guard. He wasn’t sure, but volunteered the information that they hadn’t been mined since the time of the Moors. We passed other towns, and wondered what the people managed to live on. These were the poorest, meanest-looking towns, I had ever seen. They were low, and seemed to be crumbling into the earth. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. And in these towns I did not even see any churches. Sometimes there was a thin belt of green around a town, where I assumed, vegetables were grown. On the stony hillsides flanking the road, there were the faint remains of ancient terracing. So the land here had once been productive.

We reached Almeria late in the afternoon. It was a dirty, dusty, depressing place. We looked at the houses facing the sea that had been bombarded early in the war by German warships. They still had the gaping holes in them. As in all the cities of Spain, the stores had nothing to sell. We rented rooms for the night in a small hotel – two to a room. Then we searched for something to eat. We found a restaurant that was serving a thin lentil soup. The soup was served in filthy plates. We left the place as hungry as when we had entered. The only thing we wished to do was get out of Almeria as quickly as we could. The rooms we had in the hotel were mosquito-infested, and the buzzing kept us awake. The local police came to visit us during the night. Hotels had to report all their nightly guests. One of the policemen expressed surprise that there were International Brigade members still in Central Spain.  He had been reading about them fighting on the Ebro. The news from the front was still good. He expressed admiration for the “Brigada Lincoln” when he discovered we were Americans. He invited us to come to the police barracks in the morning for something to eat. Of course we did.

The railroad station was crowded when we got there in the morning. I never could figure out why so many people were always going to so many places in Spain. I never saw a railroad car that didn’t have more people in it than seats. The train we intended to board had some freight cars attached to it. They too were crowded. Some Spanish soldiers climbed to the flat tops of the freight cars and we decided to join them. We were anxious to get out of Almeria.

All day long the train climbed slowly through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As we climbed higher and higher, in the distance we could see some peaks with snow.  The sun shone in the cloudless sky, and there was a cool, dry fragrance in the mountain air. It was an exhilarating ride on the top of that freight car and we sang – American songs and the songs we had learned in Spain. The Spaniards were singing too, and there was one of them who egged on by his companions to sing a flamenco. We were all very generous with our “Oles.” It was during that ride over the Sierra Nevada that Ski Buturla and I became very close. I told him about my life back home and my wife and family. He told me about his own life, and dwelt upon the days in Honolulu when he was selling papers for the NMU[15]. He also remembered his early years on the farm in Poland. He spoke of the broad-backed horses and the pigs they raised, and confided that he hoped, some day, to get a farm in the States. Jokingly, he wanted to know if I knew any women back home who would be willing to marry a “muzhik” [peasant]. I recited some poetry I remembered. Ski kept asking for more. I recited Stevenson’s epitaph;

’Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’[16]

He made me repeat it until he memorized it.

When we reached a high plateau, the train made some stops at clusters of houses – they could hardly be called towns. People ran alongside the tracks as the train slowed down, carrying pans and jugs and trying to fill them with the drops of water that leaked from the boilers of the puffing locomotive. Nothing but thin grass grew on that brown, empty plateau.

It was almost dark when we reached Guadix, which from a distance seemed to be round, compact and walled. That was as far as the train was going that night. From the station to the town was a tree-lined road, and a wide open gate in the wall. This had obviously been a walled and fortified place many years ago. Right inside the wall, was a tavern where we got some wine and garbanzos soaked in rancid olive oil. It was a miserable meal. Hicks, as usual, got drunk, and in his loose-lipped fashion started to make loud, derogatory remarks about the Spanish people. We threatened him into silence, and Delehanty remarked that we should have left him sleeping on the rocky beach in Aguilas. “Maybe the crows would have eaten him.”

The tavern keeper had a room he was willing to rent us. It had two wide beds and we lay down to sleep. The beds were alive with bedbugs, so we tried sleeping on the floor. Even on the floor we couldn’t escape them. I had seen bedbugs before, but never so many. We decided to leave and walk back to the station. Martinelli suggested we leave Hicks, who had fallen asleep, behind. “I hate the bastard. I don’t care what becomes of him,” he growled. We discussed the matter and decided it would be better to wake him and take him along with us. Back to the station we went, and lay down on the stone pavement outside the station. There were many people sleeping there. Before I fell asleep I indulged in what had by now become a constant reverie “What hour was it at this moment back home? What were the people I loved doing?”

In the morning we boarded a train for Linares. That city seemed lively and crowded. There were even some stores and restaurants open. The streets seemed wider and more modern. The buildings were hung with signs proclaiming the slogans of the day. Everywhere was the slogan “resistir es vencer” [to resist is to conquer].   There were newspapers from Madrid in the kiosks. The news about the Ebro offensive was scanty. From the lack of news, we surmised we were no longer advancing. In the main plaza there was a group of itinerant singers, accompanied by a guitarist. They were selling sheets on which were printed the words to the songs they were singing.  One of the songs was “The music goes round and round.” Another was “Valencia.” The words were in Spanish, but we sang along in English. Some Spaniards, hearing our strange appearance, formed a group around us. They even gave us a few “oles.” “Viva Las Brigadas Internacionales,” someone shouted. It made us feel so good. Even Hicks seemed happy.

We were put up at the local barracks for the night, and in the morning we caught a military truck going north. Late in the afternoon we got to Orgaz, where the headquarters of the Artillery group was located. Headquarters was staffed by Frenchmen – a gruff and unfriendly lot. Next day we joined the John Brown Battery. I was glad to be there. Our trip from the coast had been a round-about one; engraved in my memory was the wild southeastern coast, and the train ride over the Sierra Nevada on the roof of a freight car.

The John Brown Battery was quartered in an abandoned village, from which, on a clear day, one could see the red-tiled roofs of Toledo. One day after a thunderstorm, the scene from our battery looked exactly as El Greco had painted it. The guns, those same ancient guns I had trained with at Almansa, were dug in some distance from the abandoned village, behind a slight hill. We were introduced to the commander, Timpson, a blond, heavy-set fellow, with a very serious expression. He assigned us to guns, explaining that when some men got back from leave or hospital, we might be assigned other duties. He asked whether any of us could drive a tractor. Hicks said that he could. He had driven one on the family farm in Wisconsin, he volunteered. Timpson eyed Hicks quizzically, no doubt noticing his filthy, torn uniform, but then he led him away to the tractor. Hicks really could handle that tractor, with a happy look on his face. I never could figure out what he was doing with it, since everything in the Battery seemed to be in place, and there was no plan to move the guns. But he was happier than I had ever seen him, and he washed and shaved and did not get drunk.

There were men digging at the gun positions, and scattered around the guns were dugouts, called “chebolas.” Ski and I were assigned to one of the chebolas. It was snug and deep, with two ledges cut into the earth; the ledges were covered with branches and leaves, for resting and napping when we were not digging. They were of course, also for protection in case of enemy fire. There was never any enemy fire while I was with the battery, so they were used for siesta. It was great place to escape the burning sun, and in the afternoon the siesta was sacred in the John Brown Battery.

We newcomers marveled at the prodigious amount of digging going on, considering the inactivity of the front, and the strength of the gun positions. There was nothing else to do except gripe, and it kept the men busy. Timpson, and his second in command Waters, were always there to see that pick and shovel and sledge were never idle. The men had a song, which they sang with fervor, to the tune of the Marine hymn:

“From the hills of Castuera,

To the plains of New Castille;

We intensely fortify the land,

It’s a noble work we fee.

Oh, the spade is mightier than the sword;

It’s the truth we’ll demonstrate;

By digging our way to victory,

In nineteen-forty-eight.”

I was told that on a number of occasions the guns had been fired at the enemy; once when the enemy had mounted an attack on the infantry positions in front of the battery. One of the men had been wounded in the head by a stray bullet. Otherwise there had been no casualties. In the two months or so I spent with the Battery, the guns were never fired. There were dry runs very often, and one time, when there was rumor of an attack, the whole battery was on the alert. The men were even eager for action, but no attack developed. I am sure they would have fought well. They prided themselves on the fact that they could get off a shot a minute, which for those guns, was very good. What would happen, Ski once asked, if they were forced to retreat, “Would they blow up the guns?” no! The guns would be taken with them or defended by the small arms that were available. The battery had a half dozen old rifles, some pistols, and that was all. It was a very peaceful spot – more like a summer camp, than the front. Some men called the place “Sur de Tajo Rest Camp.”

But in spite of the idyllic spot and the lack of any action, there seemed to me a good deal of anxiety. The men were well aware of the bad news from the fronts, and were quite sensitive to the fact that we were in a remote outpost. I heard many expressions of worry over what would happen to us if the fronts collapsed. Many men were disgusted that we were being kept in this inactive place, when the Republic needed trained soldiers so desperately. They grumbled about “fascist sabotage,” which they were sure was responsible for keeping the John Brown Battery out of action. Or they joked that the republic did not wish to endanger the “precious guns.”

Not too much news was coming through about the Ebro offensive, but we did know that the Lincoln Brigade was in the thick of the fighting. We also knew that our advance had been stopped, and the fascists were counterattacking. There were also rumors about repatriation. A meeting was called to discuss these rumors, and to deny that there was any possibility of repatriation. At the meeting, Timpson and Waters[17] called the spreaders of the rumors “defeatists” or “enemy agents” and even the words “Trotskyite” could be heard. The men complained about their inactivity and expressed fears of what would happen if the situation should change for the worse. Timpson explained how import it was for us to stay where we were with our heavy artillery, how “we tied down many of Franco’s men.” He “had not heard anything about repatriation,” one sergeant said that “only cowards talked about repatriation.” He was loudly denounced for that statement. What the men wanted, one of them stated, was not repatriation, but to join the Brigade in Catalonia. A soldier said he didn’t “want to be trapped like a rat in a trap,” if the front collapsed. Timpson, in his stolid way, said that if the fronts collapsed, we would have to fight wherever we were. “What with, trench knives?” a soldier remarked sarcastically. That got the sergeant mad, and called the questioner a “disruptive element.” Timpson was called by some of the men “trench-knife Timpson,” because he had once given an interview to an American newspaper correspondent, in which he had said something about fighting with trench knives. No one really knew what a trench-knife was. Yet in spite of his seeming lack of imagination, Timpson was the man who held that battery together. The men respected him, even if they grumbled at the digging he forced them to do, and even if they sometimes made fun of his rigid political attitudes. The meeting broke up with a lot of name-calling and grumbling. The talk and rumors of repatriation persisted.

While I was with the Battery, the cook, a very popular Cuban,[18] had managed to buy an old cow from some peasants in a neighboring town. It was not the first time he had accomplished this miracle, I was told. There was joy in the Battery. The rations had been getting skimpier with the deteriorating military situation. The carcass arrived in the cook’s house and was cooked with the usual garbanzos and lentils. The men called it the “beef steak offensive.” Like many of our offensives it didn’t last too long. There was not refrigeration, and the meat spoiled in the heat. The second time it was served it tasted gamey, and some men got sick. There was no third time, and it was back to garbanzos and lentils.

At night we slept in houses of the abandoned town. There was guard duty at the guns and in the church where the ammunition was stored. That was a scary post, and when pacing with my rifle in front of the church, I kept thinking how easy it would be for an enemy to creep up and finish me off. Nearby was a cemetery. Most of the grave stones had been toppled, and many of the graves had been dug open. The bones of the dead were visible. The houses all around were crumbling and empty. How quickly houses crumble when they are unoccupied. It was hard to imagine these houses and streets filled with people.

After a couple of weeks with the guns, when the men on leave had returned, Martinelli and I were assigned to the supply and water truck, and attached to headquarters in Orgaz. Once a day we would load the truck with barrels of water, rations, and mail – if there was any. Also rumors. “Any shit-house rumors?” Was their first question we were always greeted with. The League of Nations was meeting in Geneva, and it was expected that Negrin would bring up the question of foreign troops, not only the International Brigades, but also the army regulars from Germany and Italy who were fighting for Franco. So speculation and talk about repatriation, it kept cropping up. And yet it was not repatriation the men were so much interested in, as it was to join the Americans north on the Ebro. After more than a year in Spain, they genuinely wanted to see some action, and they had feelings of guilt and frustration at being stuck on this remote front, and “playing war” as I heard some say. Rarely was the John Brown Battery even mentioned in the Volunteer for Liberty, which was filled with the news of the Lincolns and the fight they were making in the Sierra Pandols. “Will we ever get out of this place?” or “Does anyone in Barcelona even know where we are?” were questions that were asked as it became more obvious that the Ebro offensive had been stopped and the fascists were again advancing. Yet the life and activity continued the same as it always had – especially the digging.

I used to enjoy my daily rides in the supply truck to the Battery – especially when there was mail. It was wonderful seeing a guy’s face light up when he got a letter or a package. The packages of course had all been opened, with most of the edibles and tobacco removed. And, as usual, the men cursed the Anarchists and Trotskyites whom they blamed for the thievery.

Ski Buturla developed some difficulty with his chest – the result of an old wound – and he was assigned to take care of the library, an abandoned house that contained few books, and some old leftwing periodicals and newspapers. The Doctor had ordered complete rest and a special diet for him. The diet consisted of a can of condensed milk every day. Ski was usually our last stop, and our arrival was the highlight of the day for him. “How are you, you goldbrick?” was Martinelli’s never-varying greeting, as we tossed him the can of condensed milk, which he would acknowledge with a mock-haughty look of disdain. “You peasants,” he would growl, “I’m getting educated,” and he would point to his pitiful small supply of reading matter. “I’ll soon be smart enough to be a political comic star.” He did read the stuff – many times over. Ski always had a couple of slices of toast ready for us which he smeared with that sweet, thick condensed milk. We gladly shared his special diet with him.

The ride to the Battery was across a wide, hilly plain that was crisscrossed with patches of wheat. It was harvest time, and we passed black-garbed peasants cutting the wheat with scythes. Other groups were threshing the grain on round, stone threshing floors, and nearby, horses were grazing, and burros stood patiently hitched to two-wheeled carts. There was no sign of mechanization anywhere. It all looked so peaceful, and it was hard to imagine that beyond the hills there was a war going on.

One hot day, while we were watching some digging at one of the gun positions, Martinelli made a joking remark about how long it was taking to dig through some rock. He was challenged to do some digging himself, if he thought he could do any better. He accepted the challenge, and a contest developed between him and Big Swede Svenson[19]. They were to use sledge hammers and thick, long spikes to drive through the rock. Svenson was a tall, broad shouldered chap, with not an ounce of fat on him. Bill was short and wide and with a little bit of belly showing over his belt. Svenson started pounding away at the rock.  He was sweating in the broiling sun, and he handled the sledge as if it was a matchstick. All the guys were around him in a circle, and he finally split through the rock, and lay on the ground breathing hard and sweating.

Then Bill got to work. He looked like one of the Italians I used to see working ditches in the streets of New York. First he grasped the handle of the sledge, looking at it and smiling, as if he were in love with it.  Then he lifted it over his head, and when he came down with it, he grunted “ugh.” It seemed so easy. Then he mixed some singing with his grunting. “Old John Henry, ugh,” and down came the sledge; “was a big man, ugh,” and down it came again; “he was the biggest man, ugh,” and down came the sledgehammer again, “way down South.” The guys all started to cheer him, and joined in the grunting and singing. He didn’t beat Big Swede Svenson, but he put on a better show. Bill was a bit reticent about his past, and only later did I learn that in the early years of the depression, he had left home to go down South, and been sentenced for a little while to a chain gang.

At headquarters there was a static-filled radio that sometimes worked, sometimes not. On September 21, the news came that Premier Negrin had proposed to the League of Nations to repatriate all the Internationals. There were no strings attached. Strangely enough, there was little jubilation when we heard the news. I had mixed feelings. Could it be that I was really going home? And yet there was a feeling of regret, of sadness, of work not finished. It would have been different if we were winning the war. I had fallen in love with the country and did not wish to leave under such circumstances. When a Spaniard said to me that I would soon be going home, I felt guilty and answered him in a noncommittal way. But it would be good to be going home, to see my wife and family and friends. It would be good to sail into New York harbor and watch the skyscrapers rising out of Manhattan. Yet there was no feeling of elation, and there was the self-questioning. Had I lived up to my own image of myself?

When we got to the Battery the next day, we realized that no one there knew of Negrin’s statement. We were the first to spread the news. Our information was greeted with skepticism. When the men saw we were not kidding, I could see that most of the men had my own contradictory feelings. No one cheered; no one openly rejoiced. Timpson only expressed mild interest. He was obviously annoyed that the officers had not been notified first. “I’ll believe it when we get official word,” he said. “Let’s get back to work.” The men resume digging and fortifying. I heard some cynical remarks to the effect that we in Central Spain would be forgotten. “We’ll have to dig our way to China to get home,” Delehanty said. “Maybe we’ll swim or fly to Barcelona,” others suggested. Everybody realized the physical difficulty involved in getting us up north.

In a few days the news became official, and at a meeting it was announced that we were waiting for Spanish troops to relieve us, and for transportation. That took a couple of weeks; the wait seemed endless. Finally the John Brown Battery left its well-dug position opposite Toledo, and set out for the coast. It was the last we saw of those ancient Russian guns.

[1] Frank “Honolulu Ski” Buturla.

[2] Ted Allen, “A Gun is Watered,” New Masses, Volume 26, No. 3, January 11, 1938.

[3] William Martinelli.

[4] A person employed to write what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another; secretary. [source:]

[5] William Gresham.

[6] Nick Tosches, who completed extensive research on William Gresham while writing the introduction for the 2010 reprint of Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley, makes the case that “Spike” is most likely Joseph “Doc” Halliday.  Tosches plans on publishing an extended work on Gresham. Email from Tosches to Brooks, March 4, 2015.

[7] Butch Gordon is Lazar Gordon.

[8] Gus Heisler.

[9] Joseph Alphonse Delehanty.

[10] Hicks is George Hunt Wilbur.

[11] Shorty – Unidentified American volunteer.

[12] The Assault Guards were raised by the Spanish Republic as riot police in 1931. In Iceland’s original manuscript he typed Guardia Civil and crossed it out and wrote Assault Guards. Guardia Civil were rural police officers where the Assault Guards were normally based in urban areas and it is more likely that he was dealing with them.

[13] Arthur Edward Timpson. Read Timpson’s take on his imprisonment in the fort at Figueras here.

[14] Dried and salted cod.

[15] National Maritime Union.

[16] American author and poet Robert Louis Stevens died in December 1894 of a brain hemorrhage at the age of forty-four. Fourteen years earlier he penned his own epitaph Home is the Sailor.

[17] Jack Waters, the Battery’s Commissar.

[18] Domingo Gamiz y Cabrera. See Si Podolin’s “John Brown Battery Love Story” in The Volunteer, Volume 8, Number 2, October 1986.

[19] Sven Rudolph Svenson.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment