“Of Comradeship and Courage: Three Friends, Three Volunteers”
Blast from the Past is an ongoing series of posts reprinting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer.
“Of Comradeship and Courage: Three Friends, Three Volunteers” by Morris Brier
The Volunteer, v.9 n. 3, November 1987, pp. 8-10.
Why at this stage of history do I speak of three comrades, three friends?
To me it is a story of my life, and I believe the story of most of us.
Otto Reeves was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a store front minister, and for a living worked as a laborer in construction.
In the 30’s his father lost his job, and Otto left home because he didn’t want to be a burden to his family.
Otto, who had graduated from high school, (no mean feat for a young Black in the 30’s) bummed his was to California.
Otto was a very handsome young man and with his high school education, was able to obtain a job in a Frat House at the University of Southern California.
At this time, the 30’s, we know there were few Blacks in college. To belong to a frat meant that you were the son of an upper middle class or rich father.
Otto made their breakfast, cleaned the frat house, made their beds, ran errands, etc. He had no need to go out of the immediate surroundings. He had food, shelter and the Frat members gave him clothing (many quite new, as they tired of them). He even had the use of a car, as there were a few cars in the house.
He read the papers, but took little interest in the outside world. He, personally, never felt direct discrimination. Outside discrimination which he read about, meant little to this young growing man. At the time of the Scottsboro Case, he was interested, he was angry, but took no action. One of the Frat members, a young white man, convinced him to go to a Scottsboro Case rally.
He went, listened, and became angry. He continued to go to rallies – found himself going on street demonstrations and protest meetings.
This young, white man also took him to Communist Party demonstrations and meetings. He never knew if this man was a member of the Communist Party—he doubted it.
He became more interested, listened, read everything he could. When Spain was invaded by Hitler and Mussolini, Otto became very angry. Not only did he protest the actions of these fascist governments – but condemned the actions of his government for not supporting the duly elected Government of Spain.
He attended more meetings, more demonstrations, but never joined any political party. He learned through the grapevine that the CP was accepting volunteers to go to Spain. He went down with a friend (who never reached Spain as far as Otto knew), and volunteered and was accepted. He landed in Spain in July or August 1937. (I will tell you later another reason why he went to Spain).
Marc Haldane[i] was the son of an Indian Chief in British Columbia. They were hunters, trappers – in the spring Marc became a topper in the lumber fields. This meant that Marc climbed to the top of the trees, chopped down the small branches and foliage so that they would not become entangled when the tree was chopped down. This was the most dangerous job and therefore paid the highest wages.
Marc was member of the Communist Party in Vancouver for many years. He tried to organize the lumbermen in British Columbia but was soon found out and was blacklisted in all lumber fields. He then turned to hunting and trapping full time, and when he came out of the woods in the spring, again became active in the Communist Party.
Marc signed up as a volunteer in Spain. He was a hunter and an expert shot and thought he would be valuable in Spain – and he sure was.
I, Morris, was active in Brownsville, Brooklyn for some years.
The first time I spoke on a street corner was in 1934, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. We spoke not only in Brownsville, a Jewish community, but also in Ocean Hill, basically an Italian community. And yes, even there we found friends and sympathizers, but by far not the majority.
We took part in unemployed demonstrations – actions at Home Relief Bureaus – organized rent strikes—helped put furniture back into apartments when tenants were evicted. We picketed at Woolworth’s demanding hiring of Black workers – we were arrested but continued these activities.
We took part in the electoral struggles and in Brownsville were successful in electing an assemblyman and state senator. (History tells us that Brownsville elected 5 Socialist Assemblymen in the 20’s—all were thrown out after the elections, but they were elected.
The first Birth Control Clinic was opened by Margaret Sanger in Brownsville. The trade union movement was strongest in Brownsville.
Roosevelt was elected. The workers began to organize. It was not easy. They only won with their blood and tears. In Dearborn, Ford gangsters and his police killed 7 pickets at the Ford gate. The workers answered with sit-ins and the U. A. W. and the C. I. O. were born.
November 1932 Germany
The Nazi’s lost two million votes and 34 seats in the Reichstag. The Communists gained ¾ of a million votes and 11 seats.
The Nazi’s were given power by the ruling class. Their job was to destroy the Communist Party, the trade union movement, then all democratic organizations.
April 1933, The Reichstag Fire
The Communist Party was declared outlawed. The terror begins. Dimitroff is put on trial. We see him in Pathe News, defiantly attacking the Nazis and those who gave them power. The Nazis were forced to free him. We, in the US gained courage from Dimitroff. We learned never to give up and that victory can be won if planned for, and we worked correctly. We saw in Pathe News[ii], the terror against the Jewish people. Jobs were verboten for Jews in government, teaching, law, etc. Jewish stores were smashed. Old Jewish people were forced to clean sidewalks on their knees—with tooth brushes. Einstein, Freud, etc. were forced to leave their country. In 1936, we demonstrated against the Nazi ship, the Bremen. Our own Bill Bailey, climbed the flag pole and cut down the Nazi flag. In July 1936, Hitler and Mussolini invaded the Republic of Spain.
I had to ask myself, “Would my feet follow my mouth?” It seemed natural at the time and I volunteered. And fifty years later, it still feels natural.
I am a little proud, that I was the first to arrive in Spain from Brownsville. Quickly Brownsville sent more than 30 volunteers to Spain. I arrived in Spain in January 1937. Trained, if you can call shooting 5 rounds of ammo training with the original Lincolns at Villenueva de la Jara.
We, the Lincoln Battalion, entered our fist battle at Jarama in February. I’m not going into the story of Jarama, we all know it well.
Just one incident. A young fellow next to me was crying softly. I though he was scared and I tried to reassure him. He was insulted. “I’m not scared – I just forgot how to load my rifle.”
I was wounded at Jarama and was in the hospital until August 1937. My foot was badly damaged, bones broken and it took months to heal. I was ready to go back, but still had to use a cane. Instead of returning to the Lincolns. I decided to make a change and join the Mac-Paps. Another reason was that Bob Thompson was Commander of the Mac-Paps. We were in the hospital together and had become friends. I asked Bob if he wanted a volunteer for his outfit. He said yes and put me in charge of a machine gun squad with two machine guns. This is how I met Marc and Otto, who not only quickly became my two gunners, but also my friends.
Our first action was at Fuentes de Ebro. That night we all went into “no man’s land” to pick up the wounded and the dead—some Americans, some Canadians but mostly Spaniards. This took all night until sun-up. After this rite, Otto came to me and said,
Morris, I came to Spain not only to aid the Spanish people, but for two other reasons.
- To prove to myself that I am capable of risking my life for something I thought was correct. That I accomplished.
- I was testing the Communist Party and its white members; whether they really meant they were our friends. They fought for the Black people, not alone because they wanted something from them, but that they felt they were brothers, and color did not mean anything. I never joined the CP, because I could never prove the commitment of the party to the Black people. After this action at Fuentes, I want to join the CP.
We hugged and kissed. The next morning I took him down to headquarters and Otto joined the CP. We went from volunteers to friends to comrades. We went through Fuentes, Segura de los Baños, a few small actions – then Teruel.[iii]
Otto always had a smile. He had a beautiful voice and no matter what the stress and danger—he sang songs, told anecdotes, and jokes. But most of the time he spoke of his family and himself. Otto wanted to know about our families, our grandfathers and grandmothers—our fathers and mothers—how they made a living what did we all do, not alone our political life.
Marc, a hunter and trapper, became most valuable to us city folk at Teruel with snow and cold. The numbing sleet, rain—the freezing of the ground. Marc showed us how to live that winter and saved us from colds, pneumonia and frozen feet. One thing he stressed—if you can’t wear it or eat it—it is useless. But carry 4 or 5 pairs of extra socks—your feet must be dry and warm. (In the Pacific, I was an Infantry officer and this advice came in handy in the constant wetness and heat of the jungles.) Marc showed us how to live in freezing and wet terrain even without a tent. Put as many blankets or any other material, on the ground, (use only one blanket on top). Heat a rock, wrap it in rags, put it under the top blanket, after a minute or so, kick out the rock.
The heat dampens the top blanket, the cold air outside freezes the pores of the blanket, preventing the cold night air from penetrating. You live in a nice warm Hilton room. Marc, the Indian, taught us city kids.
Those of us who were at Teruel know the White Hill, which was key to its defense. We had no artillery, to speak of, so we put 4 machineguns in this position.
This White Hill was phosphate and hard. We couldn’t dig down very far, so Marc showed us how to dig sideways into the mountain. (He did much more than his share of the digging.)
Marc went to town, brought back mattresses—and spread their contents in the dugout. We were warm again.
He went back to town and this time came back with a woodsman saw. (He knew where to look—this time in a nunnery which used wood for heating).
Marc with a little help from us, cut down telephone poles, sawed them to the correct size, and covered our dugouts two and in some cases three levels. Later, even direct mortar hits would not penetrate.
The fascists started three large infantry attacks against our positions. The fascists lost very heavily—(You see, Marc had also cut down the trees in front of our position, giving us a great field of fire). We were told to hold this position as it defended a valley which could be used to get to our rear.
After the third major infantry attack, they changed their tactics. They opened up with four days of almost constant bombardment. Despite all of this artillery, we lost none killed, and a few wounded. Thanks to Marc, his dugouts—his telephone poles. I’ll never forget Milt Cohen’s remarks. “Moishe, you are not here—you are dead—it’s impossible that you escaped after these 4 days.”
After 4 days, we said “If they want it so bad, let them have it.” They never broke through that position.
Sometime after Teruel, I developed a fistula and was sent to the hospital for treatment. An operation would mean I’d be out for some months—so they just relieved the pain. I was operated on when I got back to the States. We heard of the fascist breakthrough at the Ebro.[iv] We all got into trucks, one soldier with a cast on his leg, we dropped him at a first aid station.
Charlie Nusser, you brag about going to the front in a white shirt. Well, I was lucky to find my machine gun company, many never found their outfits. I was again united with my friends, Otto and Marc. [The text inadvertently edited out that Brier went back to the front wearing a suit.]
We all remember setting up a defense position on a hill. The Moorish cavalry attack cut off our rear, forcing us to retreat from hill to hill. This went on for days and we were running out of ammunition. We knew the Battalion Headquarters were on a hill to our right.
Otto volunteered to take a few men to go for ammo. Otto never came back—he must [have] been captured and killed. We kept going back and we combined with a Belgian artillery outfit, who had plenty of ammo for us, and we were ordered to hold. We did for a night and a day. We were told to retreat slowly.
One day I’ll tell you the story of General Walters, the Polish general who led us in the attack against the Moors and held them up for one day.
As we retreated—toward Gandesa, we ran out of ammo. We took apart our machine guns [and] threw the parts all over the terrain. We didn’t want these guns to be used against us. We picked up rifles and ran like hell to the rear.
We were the machine gun company. Those of us who were still around were the last to leave. As we left Gandesa, an artillery shell landed near us. A Spaniard was killed outright. Marc had his leg hanging by a thread. I was peppered with shrapnel. My arm, my leg, and a splinter was imbedded into my back near the spine, which paralyzed me from the waist down. I was still conscious but could not move.
Near us was a Russian tank firing at the fascists. Out of the tank emerged a young Russian officer. He must have been in Spain only a few weeks or so. He spoke no English or Spanish. He ran back to the tank and came back with heavy splints for Marc’s leg. He then bandaged me. All the time with tears in his eyes apologizing that he could not put us in the tank. The entrance was too small and the tank too crowded. All this, of course, in pantomime. He picked up Marc and put him on the back of the tank, which be the way, holds the motor. He then picked me up and put me next to Marc. He was young—only 5’7” at most. But very, very strong. He tied us with heavy rope which must have been used to pull the tank.
You must visualize—the gun kept firing over our heads while all this was going on. The motor must have been 4,000 degrees at least! (It was the closest thing I believe, to Hell itself). The tank started to go back when they ran out of ammo and about a mile or so we came across an ambulance. We thanked the Russian officer. We kissed and were taken to the hospital. This is why I never had the pleasure of swimming the Ebro.
Marc had his left leg removed very soon. I was still paralyzed but in some eight days or so (even though I never believed it would), the splinter in my back moved away from the spine, and I was on the way to recovery. We were in the hospital for many months.
When we took the picture accompanying this article I seemed to be in good shape[v], but the shrapnel in my left leg moved again, and I was back again on crutches. In fact, I came home on crutches and I used them for more than a month until I was operated on to remove the shrapnel. Marc left a few days before I did. The Canadians left by a different route.
This is a story of: A Black, An Indian, A Jew.
[i] Haldane, Marcus Aurelius Chase; (Marc; Liancus); b. November 28, 1908 (1910), Kamploops, British Columbia; Aboriginal Canadian; Single;Logger and Diamond Driller; Domicile Vancouver; CPC 1937; Served with the XV BDE, Mackenzie-Papineau BN; WIA lost leg; Returned to Canada in September 9, 1938; Married Rita Kyelmo, Chase, British Columbia in 1948; d. 1958, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Sources: Momryk; Petrou; Email David Champion to Brooks, updated information on Haldane, 29 December 2016.
[ii] Pathé News was a British film studio that made short newsreels and documentaries. Many of their films are available on YouTube.
[iii] Brier mixes up the timeline here. Teruel took place in January 1938 prior to the action at Segura de los Baños in February.
[iv] Brier is referring to the first phase of The Retreats.
[v] The photograph referred to in the text did not accompany the original Volunteer article. William Lorenz Katz and Marc Crawford incorporated Brier story and published the photograph.