Jarama Series: The Deserters
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.
Jarama Series The Deserters
Desertion occurs when a soldier decides to leave his appointed place of duty. This act is especially serious when it occurs during times of war as it will likely place other soldiers in jeopardy. Military justice for deserters is harsh. Punishments vary from extended periods of incarceration to execution.[i] Six Americans chose to risk severe punishment and deserted during the early days at Jarama. They were the first of a small but “steady stream” of American deserters.[ii]
The first recorded deserter, Albin C. Rutkauskas, arrived at the American Consulate in Valencia, Spain on February 23, 1937. Over the next four weeks, five additional volunteers followed.[iii] Only Cleveland Moland Colbert, an African American, remained at the consulate on March 15, when Thomas C. Davis, the Consul at Valencia, sent a cable to the State Department in Washington summarizing the case of six deserters who sought refuge.[iv] The other five deserters left their uniforms at the consulate and attempted to reach France in civilian clothes. Following the State Department’s strict policy of nonintervention, the consulate provided only shelter and food for the men.[v]
Anthony Rutkauskas, a 20-year-old Chicago native of Lithuanian-American heritage, sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 28. Upon arriving in Spain he trained and went to the front with the Lincoln Battalion. Rutkauskas’ departure appears to have gone unnoticed. In the confusion of the front lines, the battalion reported him killed in action on February 27.[vi] In his interview at the consulate he provided second-hand information on the recruiting process.[vii] Republican authorities intercepted Rutkauskas and arrested him in Barcelona on March 24 and held him for several days. Upon his release, he traveled to France aboard a French steamer and arrived in Marseille on April 10. A month later he arrived in New York aboard the President Roosevelt on May 10.[viii]
Henry Lyons, arrived at the consulate shortly after Rutkauskas. He was born in Republic, Pennsylvania in 1903 and was living in Chicago when he volunteered. Lyon was an amateur writer, an actor and an organizer for the Communist Party. He likely fabricated some elements of his story when he was interviewed at the consulate. Lyons stated that his reason for going to Spain was to “see as much of the war and the revolution as possible.” The consulate noted that they could not get “a clear statement” from him. Lyons served in a “transportation outfit,” but “is positive that he did not have any intention of enlisting in the army.” It is assumed that he stayed in a hotel because he called the consulate on March 10 to say he was leaving Valencia. The American Consulate in Barcelona informed Valencia that Lyons arrived in Barcelona and he successfully returned to the United States aboard the Champlain on August 11, 1937.[ix]
Cleveland H. Moland Colbert arrived at the consulate under escort by Civil Guards from the town of Cuenca around March 2. Colbert was a 30-year-old aviator and crane operator from Milwaukee. He maintained in his consulate interview that he had not come to Spain to join the army. Instead Colbert stated that he was recruited to fly non-military missions for the Republican government. He further stated that he was enrolled, against his will, in the infantry and deserted from the training camp while the training unit was on field maneuvers on February 17. After walking for three days and nights, he arrived in Cuenca where he was arrested and taken to the Valencia consulate. Colbert was the last of the deserters to leave the consulate. Despite the fact that as an African American he stood out in a crowd, Colbert successfully left Spain and returned to the United States aboard the Champlain on July 2, 1937.[x]
Abraham Boris Eisenberg and Nathan Levin arrived at the consulate together on March 3. Eisenberg was a 20-year-old volunteer from Brooklyn, New York who went to Spain to find employment as a journalist. He sailed for France on November 18, 1936 aboard the Rotterdam. While looking for work in Paris, he decided to volunteer for the International Brigades. In Albacete he falsely stated that he was twenty-one and joined the American Battalion in training. After receiving letters from home that the State Department forwarded, Eisenberg submitted a request for discharge. He went to the front with the Battalion and was given a non-frontline job while his request for repatriation was processed. After the attack on Pingarrón, Eisenberg approached Nathan Levin with the proposal that they desert. Eisenberg had obtained a blank pass to forge a Safe Conduct Pass and approached Levin who, as a driver for the Battalion, had access to a truck.[xi]
Nathan Levin was an unemployed 21-year-old salesman from Lynn, Massachusetts. He was serving in the Lincoln Battalion Transport was initially hesitant when Eisenberg approached him about deserting. When Eisenberg told him that he had the blank passes Levin agreed. Together they took a truck and headed for the American Consulate in Valencia. The truck broke down outside Valencia and they completed their trip by foot.[xii]
Donald Albert Boynton joined them a few days later. Boynton, a 22-year-old truck driver was from Akron, Ohio arrived at the consulate wearing a military coat with a medical armband and carrying only $400 in traveler’s checks. He claimed to have “volunteered to do hospital work” and was working at a hospital on the Chinchon Front before deserting.[xiii]
The three men were allowed to stay at the Consulate. At night while no one was around they forged safe conduct papers.[xiv] Using the Safe Conduct passes and Boynton’s money, Eisenberg, Levin and Boynton left Valencia on March 11.[xv] They bought train tickets and got off the train at the last stop before Port Bou, France. The three tore up the forged safe conduct papers and crossed the border on foot. They surrendered themselves to French Customs agents who interrogated them for three hours. Upon their release the men took a train to Paris.[xvi]
In Paris, Eisenberg and Boynton purchased steamship tickets. They returned to the United States together aboard the President Harding on March 27.[xvii] Levin remained in Paris likely because he lacked the funds to purchase passage home. Before he departed, Eisenberg took Levin to the l’Americain de la Maison des Syndicats (House of Americans Union). The organization provided a room and a 20-Franc-a-day stipend. It also arranged a job as a work-away to help Levin return to the United States. While he was awaiting his planned May 5 departure, Levin had a change of heart and decided his conduct was “rotten.” Levin made contact with the International Brigade apparatus in Paris and was allowed to return to Spain.[xviii]
By mid-April Levin was back in Spain where he was promptly arrested. The Judicial commission of the XV BDE suggested a judgment of “expulsion from the Brigades and or the internment of Levin until the end of hostilities.”[xix] Instead he was allowed to return to service. It was recorded on his biographical summary in October 1938 that he served with the 14th Battery for 8 months before transferring to the Albacete Auto Park and finally the Auto Park of the XI BDE. Levin was in action at Jarama, Extramadura, Toledo, the Retreats, and the Ebro Offensive. In April 1937 he was wounded in action and spent three months in a Murcia Hospital.[xx] In Ripoll it was noted that “very few comrades in the camp know much of his work during 1938.” [xxi] Levin returned to the United States aboard the Paris on December 15, 1938.[xxii]
There are significant gaps in the documentation for the six deserters. Two, Colbert and Lyons, did not arrive in the United States until July and August respectively. Because no documents exist it is not clear whether they were arrested or delayed finding a way to pay for their return. Rutkauskas was arrested, released a short time later, and returned home. Despite his arrest, Brigade records continued to list him as killed in action on February 27.[xxiii] Indeed only three, Eisenberg, Boynton and Lyons, appear on an International Brigade list of deserters who reached the United States.[xxiv] Research through Ancestry.com provided documentation that they all survived their experience in Spain and returned to the United States.
Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Eby, Cecil. Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, University of Pennsylvania: University Park, Pennsylvania: 2007.
Landis, Arthur. The Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel, 1968.
Merriman, Marion and Warren Letrude, American Commander in Spain, Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, University of Nevada Press: Reno, Nevada, 1986.
Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion, New York: Stratford Press, 1939.
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)
[i] United States Code § 885. Article 85. Desertion defines the act of desertion as occurring when “any member of the armed forces who without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away there from permanently; or who quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.” . . . Punishment for “Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.” https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/885
[ii] Peter N. Carroll. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994), 147; Carroll states that approximately 100 Americans or about 4% of volunteers deserted.
[iii] Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 55; Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 122.
[iv] American Consulate, Valencia, Spain to Secretary of State, Washington, DC, Cable, March 15, 1937, United States State Department Archives (USSDA) 852.00/5118.
[v] Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 147.
[vi] Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 978, ll. 35 (under Rutkaus).
[vii] USSDA 852.00/5118.
[viii] USSDA 852.2221, 59:0557 Rutkauskas (Brooks file notes); Passenger List Collection, President Roosevelt, May 10, 1937, Ancestry.com.
[ix] USSDA 852.00/5118; Passenger List Collection, Champlain, August 11, 1937, Ancestry.com.
[x] USSDA 852.00/5118; Passenger List Collection, Champlain, July 2, 1937, Ancestry.com..
[xi] Declaration de Nathan Levin, April 29, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 37 (in French translated by Ray Hoff); USSDA 852.00/5118; George Broadsky, Service de Cadres to [Mildred] Rackley, April 14, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 885, ll. 72, states:
Sorry to inform you that the Eisenberg case is no longer in our hands. His case has been referred to the Control Commission, due to his having deserted his post at the front.
Upon requests which came from America for his repatriation we attempted to arrange such repatriation. But Comrade Eisenberg was foolish enough to take things into his own hands and attempted to leave on his own.
[xii] Declaration de Nathan Levin, April 29, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 37 (in French); USSDA 852.00/5118; It is possible the Boynton had actually been on the Jarama Front despite his denial. A statement he signed in Albacete dated February 26, 1937 RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 866, ll. 203 states:
To whom it may concern:
Having volunteered my services to asist [sic] in maintaining the freedom of the Spanish people. I hereby state that I am willing to serve in any capacity in which I, personally, can be of most service to them.
[xiii] USSDA 852.00/5118.
[xiv] Declaration de Nathan Levin, April 29, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 37 (in French).
[xv] USSDA 852.00/5118.
[xvi] Declaration de Nathan Levin, April 29, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 37 (in French).
[xvii] Passenger List Collection, President Harding, March 27, 1937, Ancestry.com.
[xviii] Declaration de Nathan Levin, April 29, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 37 (in French).
[xix] Rapport No. 1268 Cause: Levin, Nathan, June 4, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 35.
[xx] 1132 Levin, Nathan Milton, January 16, 1938, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 36; Comisariado de Guerra Biographical de las Brigadas Internacionales, Levin, Nathan, October 31, 1938, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 31-33.
[xxi] The Communist Party of Spain, Central Committee, Levin, Nathan, 1938,RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 933, ll. 34.
[xxii] Passenger List Collection, Paris, December 15, 1937, Ancestry.com.
[xxiii] Missing Probably Dead (Complete to September 10, 1937), RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 51, ll. 11.
[xxiv] Deported and Deserted that have reached US, 12/31/37, [Comprehensive Survey of all American volunteers conducted in December 1937]; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 40 ll. 43.