Jarama Series: The First Casualty and the Lost Trucks

February 16, 2016
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In the Jarama Series, The Volunteer Blog will present a series of articles examining the experiences of volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from its formation to the Brunete Offensive in July 1937. Articles will focus both on the battalion’s formation as well as on the individuals who served. These articles are intended to provide the reader with a better appreciation of the men and women who made up the first American combat formation in Spain. The series is compiled and curated by ALBA Board Member Chris Brooks.

Jarama Series : First Casualty and the Lost Trucks

The First Casualty

Selligman

Joseph Selligman, Jr. was the first American International Brigade volunteer killed in Spain.

The December 15, 1936 issue of the monthly student paper The Swarthmore Phoenix ran a front page column titled “Spanish Turmoil Takes Joseph Selligman from Swarthmore Studies”.[i] The article notes that Selligman, a nineteen year-old senior, departed the campus on December 3, 1936 with the intent to travel to Spain to serve in the Loyalist Army.

Joseph Selligman, Jr. was born on December 25, 1916 into a prominent Louisville, Kentucky family.  He was the middle child born to Joseph Selligman, Sr. a lawyer and local politician, and Esther Selligman a former kindergarten teacher. Selligman graduated from high school at sixteen and enrolled in Swarthmore in the fall of 1933.[ii]

While studying at Swarthmore, Selligman proved himself to be an honors student and an active member of his class.  His classmates playfully remembered him as a “Southern gentleman who gets his ten hours of sleep and innumerable naps a day. . .” but went on to note his numerous accomplishments.[iii] Selligman was on the staff of the school year book, The Halcyon, and the literary magazine, The Manuscript, as well as being one of three business assistants on the school newspaper, The Phoenix. In addition he contributed plays to the school’s theater, wrote satirical poetry and was on the debate team.[iv] During the summer of 1935 he joined other Swarthmore students in a Quaker Peace Caravan that travelled through Iowa promoting peace and non-violent resistance.  Selligman planned to continue his education and applied to Harvard to pursue graduate work in philosophy.[v]

Selligman arrived in Paris and was initially rebuffed in his attempt to cross into Spain.  Turned back because of his age he informed his family that he would be returning to the United States.  Instead Selligman obtained travel papers from an Irish volunteer named Frank Neary who had decided not to proceed to Spain.  Selligman used Neary’s papers to cross the border.[vi]

The Swarthmore Phoenix published on January 12, 1937 informed Selligman’s classmates that he had successfully joined the Loyalists in Spain.  The brief article noted that he enlisted in the Loyalist army through the Spanish embassy in Paris, and quoted Selligman who indicated he was “trying to get into the artillery, or failing in this, into the infantry.[vii]

Arriving in early January 1937, Selligman was assigned to the XV International Brigade, British Battalion as an interpreter with the headquarters company.  On February 12, 1937 the British went into action on the Jarama Front and Selligman was wounded in the head. He was evacuated to Comenares de Oreja Hospital in Madrid where he died on February 20, 1937.[viii]

The March 16, 1937 edition of The Swarthmore Phoenix announced Selligman’s death in action.  Harold E. B. Speight, Dean of Men of Swarthmore stated “Joe Selligman will not be back. We feared as much when he went, but we honored the sincerity of conviction which led him to throw in his lot with the Loyalist forces in Spain.” [ix]  Selligman was one of the first Americans to die in the Spanish Civil War and the first to die while serving with the International Brigades.[x]  Other Americans who had not yet joined the fight would find a place on the Roll of Honor alongside Joseph Selligman.

 

The Lost Trucks

The Lincoln Battalion departed Albacete crammed aboard trucks in a convoy late in the afternoon of February 15, 1937. They were on the way to join the rest of the XV Brigade: the British, Dimitrov and 6th of February Battalions, who were already heavily engaged on the Jarama Front.  During the long cold night convoy the men snatched sleep and during brief halts dismounted to stamp the cold from their cramped limbs.  In the morning the convoy stopped at Chinchon behind the frontlines and the men received breakfast. Robert Merriman, the Lincoln’s commander, reported to the Brigade Headquarters where he informed the commander that his men were ready but had not had a chance to clean and test fire their newly issued weapons.  Permission was granted and Merriman used the afternoon to have the men clean and test fire their newly issued weapons.[xi]

lost jarama trucks

Merriman had the men tear strips from their t-shirts to clean the packing grease off their rifles and afterwards line up in groups and fire five rounds into a nearby hillside.[xii] As the groups finished they climbed back onto their trucks. John Parks the assistant Battalion commissar and section leader for the battalion headquarters was visibly upset as he waited to leave. John Tisa recalled him stating that he felt the leadership was not sharing necessary information.  Parks was in the lead truck and was uncertain of the route.[xiii]

The two lead truck in the convoy carried the battalion headquarters gear and personnel.  One truck carried records and supplies and a second was designated as the “hospital” truck with several sick volunteers aboard.[xiv] The trucks appear to have departed in serials as at least one man who was supposed to be aboard was still on the firing line. Norberto Borges Aldama, a Cuban volunteer attached to the battalion headquarters missed his truck and had to hitch a ride on another truck.  His pack and equipment were on the headquarters truck.[xv]

The convoy of American vehicles approached the front lines as night fell on February 16.  William Pike, the Battalion’s Doctor travelling in the third truck notice that the first two trucks instead of turning into the lines at the crossroads west of Morata kept driving on towards the Arganda Bridge and Pingarrón.[xvi]  Dr. Pike made his driver stop and he directed the remaining trucks to turn onto the correct road.[xvii]  The two leading trucks continued down the road and were never seen again.  Their fate was not revealed until almost fifty years later.

Carl Geiser, while doing research for his book on international prisoners of war Prisoners of the Good Fight, interviewed a Nationalist veteran who was an eye witness to the fate of the lost trucks.  The veteran noted that a Nationalist patrol had taken control of part of the road earlier in the day and saw the approaching trucks.  The Nationalists performed a hasty ambush.  The first truck was hit by a hail of bullets and swerved overturning the truck.  The second truck smashed into the overturned truck.  Surviving passengers dismounted under fire and several took cover in a nearby culvert.  The volunteer’s inexperience in combat cost them their lives. Nationalist troops rolled grenades over the bank killing the tightly huddled men. One volunteer appears to have survived the ambush but his name was not recorded and he either subsequently died of his wounds or was executed.[xviii]

The Lincolns quickly realized that the trucks were missing.[xix]  Some remembered the commissar blaming “Trotskyite fascist” drivers.[xx] Some hoped that the men were captured.[xxi]  It took seven months for the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade to release an initial list of men believed to be on the trucks.[xxii] Family members held out hope that the missing volunteers were taken prisoner and many contacted the State Department to make inquiries.[xxiii]  But by early 1938 with no word from any of the missing volunteers it was clear that none of the men on the Lost Jarama trucks had survived.[xxiv]

A definitive list of the men who were aboard the trucks is not available.[xxv]  Existing Lincoln Battalion records from the early days in Jarama are fragmented because most were aboard the lost trucks.  The high losses suffered by the Lincolns in the following days also caused confusion.  Existing lists of dead and missing are not always accurate with the compiler defaulting to a death or disappearance date of February 27 when they lacked definitive information.  Carl Geiser listed fourteen men: thirteen American and one Canadian on the lost trucks.[xxvi] Other records suggest possible additional volunteers.  The names of the volunteers identified by Geiser as well as those who may also have been aboard are listed below.  The names and nationalities of the truck drivers are unknown.

Adolphe, Hans. (Adolphi); 32 years old; German American; Prior military service as a Machine gunner; Electrician; CP 1933; Sailed January 9, 1937 aboard the Lafayette; Arrived in Spain on January 22, 1937; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.

Beckett, Thomas Edison. (Tommy), 22 years old born in Moosejaw, Toronto, Canada; Canadian with US Passport; Prior military service in the Canadian Militia; Roofer; Canadian Communist Party; To Spain January 20, 1937; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion; First Canadian killed in Spain. Photograph Canadian Archives, Mikan 3719796.

Cox, Thomas Jr. b. 42 or 47 years old; Native American; Chauffer and Marine Fireman; CP of Canada 1931 and CP US 1936; Received Passport# 359902 on January 6, 1937 which listed his address as 23 Front Street, Douglas, Alaska; Sailed January 9, 1937 aboard the Lafayette; Arrived in Spain on January 23, 1937; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.

Dabelko, Steve. Attended evening class at the City College of New York; Had some prior military service; Mechanic; No party affiliation; 28 years old; Sailed January 16, 1937 aboard the Paris; Arrived in Spain on January 30, 1937; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.  Listed as Missing after February 27.

Dempsey, Russell Fielding. (Dempsey, Charles); 21 or 23 years old; Aircraft mechanic; Anti-Fascist; Received Passport# 359897 on January 6, 1937 which listed his address as 335 East 13th Street, Apt. 15, NYC; Sailed January 9, 1937 aboard the Lafayette; Arrived in Spain on February 11, 1937; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.

Freed, Edward Milton. (Lang, Gil?); 27 or 29 years old; No prior military service; Photographer and Artist; CP; Received Passport# 357510 on December 16, 1936 which listed his address as 115 East 119th Street, NYC; Sailed December 26, 1936 aboard the Normandie; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion. Photograph from AMI.

Grant, Walter Fairbanks. b. February 8, 1909; Graduated with both a BA and MA from the University of Indiana; ROTC; Associate professor and Works Project Administration writer’s project; CP; Received Passport# 35594 on December 5, 1936 which listed his address as 265 West 22nd Street, NYC; Sailed December 26, 1936 aboard the Normandie; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion. Photograph

Hobbs, Everett.  b. 1913; ROTC; Seaman; International Seaman’s Union and Seaman’s Union of the Pacific; Anti-Fascist; Received Passport# 358606 on December 23, 1936 which listed his address as 602 Centinenila Avenue, Inglewood, California; Sailed December 26, 1936 aboard the Normandie; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion. Photograph from family.

Leap, George Webster. 20 or 24 years old; College education; Prior military service in the artillery; Driver; CP; Received Passport# 356549 on December 9, 1926 which listed his address as 715 East 231st Street, Bronx, New York; Sailed December 26, 1936 aboard the Normandie; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.

Parks, John William. (Banks, William Lewis); 23 years old; Native American; 3.5 years prior military service; Textile Worker; CP 1930; Received Passport# 324391 on July 3, 1936 which listed his address as 256 North Dithridge Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sailed January 5, 1937 aboard the Champlain; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion, Commissar Co. 2 or Headquarter. Photograph from John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight.

Represas, Dominick. Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion; Possibly Bugarin Gumeridido Represas. Also listed as missing after February 27.

Russell, Michael. (Russel, Mike); b. September 5, 1909, Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, To Canada July 6, 1929; Canadian Irish; Irish; Irish Army; Cook; Domicile Montreal; CPC 1931; Arrived in France February 5, 1937; Listed as killed in action February 27 or 28, 1937, Jarama. [Ransel, Michael listed in Geiser’s Prisoners of the Good Fight appears to be the same volunteer.]

Torgoff, Leon Sloan. b. January 1916, New York; Graduated from Lincoln High School in 1932 and attended Brooklyn College 1932-33, City College of New York Night School, and the University of Denver 1934-35; Plumber and Student; American Student Union; YCL; Received Passport# 359279 on December 30, 1936 which listed his address as 629 Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, New York; Sailed January 26, 1937 aboard the Champlain; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion. ALBA 109 Leonard Sloan Torgoff Papers.

Turner, Leo. From San Francisco; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion.

 

Other Volunteers Listed As Being Aboard The Trucks

Stark, Werner George. Sailed December 24, 1937 aboard the President Roosevelt; Served with the XV Brigade, Lincoln Battalion. Sail date appears too late for him to have been at Jarama.

Morin, Francois Xavier. (Marin, Francisco); Received Passport# 431524 on June 2, 1937 which listed his address as 20 Palmer Street, Salem, Massachusetts; 50 years old; Killed in action February 1937, Jarama.

 

Sources

Eby, Cecil, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, University of Pennsylvania: University Park, Pennsylvania:, 2007.

Freed, Grace, “Do you Know My Brother?,” Among Friends, v. 1, no. 2, Spring 1938, 9, 19.

Geiser, Carl, Prisoners of the Good Fight, Americans Against Franco Fascism, Lawrence Hill and Company, Westport, Connecticut, 1986.

Herrick, William. Jumping the Line, The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical, Oakland, California: AK Press, 1998.

Landis, Arthur. The Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel, 1968.

Tisa, John. Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.

Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) ((Российский государственный архив социально-политической истории (РГАСПИ)); Records of the International Brigades (Comintern Archives, Fond 545)

Lincoln Rosters, undated, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 47, ll. 1, International Brigade – 17 Battalion – Lincoln Men Arrived February 5, 1937;  ll. 3-4,  Roster of the Lincoln Brigade, undated; ll. 5-6, International Brigade (Lincoln), undated;   and ll. 7, 18/2 1937.

Missing Probably Dead (Complete to September 10, 1937), RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 51, ll. 11.

 

[i] The Swarthmore Phoenix, “Spanish Turmoil Takes Joseph Selligman From Swarthmore Studies, Was Peace Caravaner; Seeks Revolutionary Atmosphere to Complete Education; Will Help Government,” December 15, 1936 v. 56, no. 12, 1.

[ii] Historical Biographical Note, September 1, 2015; Selligman Family Papers; ALBA 296; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

[iii] Halcyon, 1937, [Yearbook] (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Swarthmore College, 1937), 74.

[iv] Swarthmore Phoenix,Spanish Turmoil Takes Joseph Selligman From Swarthmore Studies”, 1.;  Halcyon, 1937, 74, 105.

[v] Historical Biographical Note, ALBA 296.

[vi] The Swarthmore Phoenix, “Selligman Reported Enlisted In Spanish Loyalist Army,” January 12, 1937, v. 56, no. 13, 2.

[vii] IBID.

[viii] Historical Biographical Note, ALBA 296.

[ix] The Swarthmore Phoenix, “Joseph Selligman Dies at Madrid Senior had Left Swarthmore to Help Spanish War For Democracy,” March 16, 1937, v. 56, no. 20, 1.

[x] Three other Americans had already died in Spain: Michele Centrone an Italian American volunteer serving with the Italian Column commanded by Carl Rossi was killed in August 1936 at Montee Pelato, on the Aragon Front; Leo Fleishman an engineer was killed in October 1936 in an industrial accident in a war plan; Pablo de la Torriente Brau, a Cuban volunteer who was born in Puerto Rico was killed December 19, 1936 in combat on the Guadarrama Front.

[xi] Arthur Landis,The Lincoln Brigade, (New York: Citadel, 1968), 40.

[xii] IBID.

[xiii] John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; (Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985) 37-38.

[xiv] Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, Americans Against Franco Fascism, (Lawrence Hill and Company, Westport, Connecticut, 1986), 13;  Irving Rappaport who had a “slight case of the gripe and a sore throat” was supposed to be on the hospital truck but decided before the convoy departed to travel on his company’s truck instead.

[xv] Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 13-14.

[xvi] Ray Hoff to Author, Email February 7, 2015.

[xvii] Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 52.

[xviii] Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 12.

[xix] Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 37-38.

[xx] William Herrick, Jumping the Line, The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical, (Oakland, California: AK Press, 1998), 155.

[xxi] Arthur Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 42; Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 11; Carmelo Delgado Delgado, a Puerto Rican volunteer, was the first American POW. He was captured in December 1936 while serving with a Student Militia in Madrid. Delgado Delgado was executed by firing squad on April 29, 1937 in University City, Madrid.

[xxii] Geiser Prisoners of the Good Fight, 14.

[xxiii] Friends of the Lincoln Brigade representatives and family members of Steve Dabelko, Edward Freed, George Leap and Leon Torgoff contacted the United States State Department. These letters and the State Department responses are preserved in record group USSDA 852.2221.

[xxiv] Grace Freed, “Do you Know My Brother?,” Among Friends, v. 1, no. 2, Spring 1938, 9.

[xxv] The loss of records that were aboard the trucks combined with heavy losses suffered by the battalion in action on February 23 and 27 undoubtedly contributed to the confusion over how many volunteers were aboard the trucks.  The number of volunteers reported to be aboard the trucks varies from 14 to 21 or more.  The number of trucks lost has also varied.  Some sources state three trucks, two trucks or even one truck.

[xxvi] Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 12-13.

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