Blast from the Past: The Quest for a Missing American Volunteer

May 21, 2017
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Old Volunteer LogoA brief article in the March 24, 1939 student paper, The Cornell Daily Sun, with the title “ASU Spring Dance Will Be Tonight” mentioned that the dance was “in honor of Cornell men who fought in the war in Spain.”[i]  The American Student Union noted that volunteers Victor Tiship and John Shulman from the class of 1937 would attend.   It went on to mention that the “dance is also in honor of David W. Lippert from the class of 1936 who is unable to attend and Raleigh Frohman class of 1937 who was killed in action.”  Despite the exceptional research by Frohman’s cousin Charles Antin, presented below, Frohman remains something of an enigma to me.  Saul Friedberg wrote a short piece on Frohman, likely, similar in content to the one he sent Antin.  Together these documents provide a glimpse into the life of Raleigh Frohman.

– Chris Brooks, Blast from the Past, 2017

 

The Quest for a Missing American Volunteer

By Charles Antin

The Volunteer Vol. IX, No. 3, November 1987

In 1937 my twenty-eight-year old cousin Raleigh Frohman, enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to fight in what was one of the most passionate ideological conflicts of modern times.

Raleigh had just completed his graduate studies at Cornell University, and submitted his thesis for a Master’s Degree in Agriculture.[ii]  His work was so outstanding that he was hired by the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. But his political convictions must have been more important than a promising career and on June 5, 1937 he sailed from New York to England on the British ship, Lancastria.[iii]  He went to France and soon crossed the Pyrenes into Spain and joined his battalion.  Six months later, during the winter Battle of Teruel, he was “officially reported disappeared” on January 1, 1938.  His body was never found.

I was a boy of thirteen at the time and remember the day my cousin said goodbye to my parents. My father confided to me that Raleigh didn’t tell his parents that he was going to Spain only that he was taking a vacation abroad before starting his new job. To keep it secret relatives forged postcards from Raleigh and arranged to have them sent to his parents from several countries – and did this for some time after his disappearance. I am not sure if they ever discovered the truth.

For years it was a mystery to me how he could disappear without a trace and it wasn’t until 1982 that I was moved to find out why. I knew it would be difficult to uncover information about a person missing after forty-five years.  I had no experience in doing this type of research. But I had dogged persistence.

I began with Raleigh’s immediate family, but his parents were no longer living and relatives added nothing to what little I already knew.  However, I remembered that years ago my father had said that when his nephew was reported missing he had written to the Department of State seeking confirmation. It was a promising lead since a letter and a reply might be in their files.

In September of 1982 I wrote to the Office of Publication Communication at the Department of State, asking if such correspondence existed.  Five months later their Passport Office replied that they found Raleigh’s passport application, with a note that he was reported disappeared on January 1, 1939.  They found no correspondence from my father, but since records of overseas deaths which occurred before 1950 were kept at the Diplomatic Branch in the National Archives, I should write them.

I sent off a letter.  No reply. I wrote again and when there was still no answer I asked my United States Senator, Alfonse D’Amato, if he could speed up the process. He replied that he had contacted the appropriate officials and would be in touch with me.

In March, D’Amato sent me a copy of a letter from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They had located not two but twelve documents in File 852.221 in the State Department Decimal Files, 1930-1939 (Record Group 59), and copies could be furnished to me for $500.[iv] I sent off my request and payment.  From that moment I was hooked and the tempo of my search quickened.

I cannot blame NARA for the delay, for I have since learned that they have the twofold task of acquiring inventorying and physically preserving over three billion documents and of keeping about one to three percent of those generated each year deemed worthy of permanent retention.

Meanwhile I wrote to Cornell University for a copy of Raleigh’s thesis. [v] They were also slow in responding, so I enlisted the help of a friend on their Board of Trustees.  When the 111 page manuscript The Relation of Tenancy to the Value of Farm Land in Ten Selected States showed up, they included, surprisingly a copy of a letter my father had written to their Alumni office. It contained the facts of an interview he had had with a survivor of the battle in which Raleigh was reported missing. More about this later.

The documents for the Department of State finally arrive – copies of correspondence between my father and Washington and telegrams to and from the American consul in Barcelona, Spain. They showed that Raleigh was indeed reported missing on January 1, 1938 at Terual, but no other information had been received from their representatives abroad and his name did not appear on any lists of American prisoners submitted to them.

One letter said that Raleigh was issued passport no. 4000625 on April 29, 1936 [1937] and gave as reason for traveling abroad: “To proceed to France, Finland and Denmark.”

This was a convenient lie as nobody put down Spain as a destination because all passports were stamped not valid to that country. False names and birthdates were also filled in on questionnaires, and spurious addresses given so that families would not know where their sons were going.  The State Department’s response to my father in 1939 was:

It is regretted that the Department must limit its action in connection with American volunteers with the Spanish military forces to making inquiry concerning whereabouts and welfare since they have enlisted in the Spanish army contrary to this government’s policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of another country.

In my father’s first letter to them of December 17, 1939, he explained that he last heard from Raleigh in a letter dated January 15, 1938, from an address in Albacete, Spain.  This would be eighteen days after he was reported missing. Therefore my father thought that Raleigh might have been taken prisoner or escaped, thus surviving the battle.  So he persisted in learning whether a mistake had been [made] in the date they reported him missing.  My father’s letter stated:

You are not specific in your statement as to whether the disappearance occurred on January 1, 1938 or January 1, 1939. According to the newspaper accounts the Loyalist government of Spain captured Teruel in an offensive on December 22, 1937 and the press further reported that the Insurgents retook Teruel on February 22, 1938. Is it fair to draw an inference that he was still alive January 15, 1939?

But a second telegram from the American consul reaffirmed the date as January 1, 1938.

Now I turned to my bookshelves to read up on the history of the Spanish Civil War, an embroilment whose emotions and controversies has produced a vast literature rivaling in quantity that of World War II.  I made a chronology of the events during the Battle of Teruel (December 15, 1937- February 22, 1938) in which tens of thousands on both sides were killed wounded or taken prisoner.

My father’s letter that Cornell University sent me dated May 10, 1939, set down a summary of an interview with a veteran, Saul Friedberg who reported:

Raleigh Frohman was sent to Officers Training School in Pozo Rubio, July 20, 1937. He returned to Tarazona, September 1937, attached to general headquarters of the base as interpreter, later to the Officers School as interpreter.  He contracted typhoid fever around October 15 and was sent to a hospital in Albacete. He was hospitalized for three months.

Around January 15 he reported to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion when it was in the trenches at Teruel.  He was assigned to Company 3, Section 3 under Lionel Edwards of Canada, Section Leader.  I saw him on the morning of January 18 at Teruel in a trench occupied by Section 3.  On January 19, after terrific bombardment lasting the entire day and causing tremendous casualties, the fascists took the trench.  Edwards and four or five men retired from the trench. Others wounded had come out earlier.  I was at the entrance of the communications at this time and I can definitely say that Frohman never left the trench.  When Edwards left Frohman was either dead or so badly wounded that he could not be moved. I saw the fascists enter the trench and can say that they sent no prisoners back. I am sure Frohman was killed during that artillery barrage.

My father ended his letter to Cornell: “I request that you particularly not to write or communicate with the parents of Raleigh with reference to this matter, as they are not yet aware of this tragic situation.”

Friedberg’s eyewitness account should have put matters to rest but I could not reconcile the contradiction between [the] American consul’s report of Raleigh being “officially reported disappeared” on January 1 and Friedberg’s apparent date of death on January 19. The 15th International Brigades first entered the already raging battle around Teruel early in January but since my father received a letter from Raleigh dated, not postmarked, January 15 from Albacete, how could he have written it when he was reported missing eighteen days earlier?

Naturally, a question also arose about Freidberg’s account; how accurate and truthful was it?  Memory can be notoriously tricky when time has elapsed; yet he did speak to my father only five months after the event. Since Friedberg lived in New York at the time, he might still be living. I located him in August of 1983, and read his account back to him over the telephone (later sending him a written copy). His recollection was exactly what he had told my father forty-four years before. He could not, however, say what might have happened to Raleigh or explain why he was reported missing before his own account.

I then contacted VALB, since back in 1939 the Department of State had suggested that my father seek further information from them.  I spoke to Randall Smith, himself a veteran who said that when he went to Spain he told his family he was going to attend a peace conference in Switzerland.  Smith, as you may know, had been reported killed in action but later was found alive and wounded. When his and other veteran’s stories came out at that time, newspapers mentioned the poor communications between the United States and the Spanish Republic.

By the way when I first called Smith he was hesitant to talk to me and said that he must call me back. He was cautious, I believe, because in the country’s fear of communism during the McCarthy period in the 1950s veterans were often harassed for their participation in the Republican cause in Spain. Many couldn’t get or hold a government job and the VALB was named a “subversive organization” and put on the Attorney General’s list. Randall was naturally suspicious of any inquiry regarding an American volunteer.

I asked Smith to help clear up what was puzzling me.  He said that he knew of many similar stories that remain a mystery to this day. I put my questions to him: Who reported Raleigh missing to the American consul? Was he killed in battle, taken prisoner, escaped or left the country? In Smith’s judgement, the words “officially reported disappeared” was a matter of semantics – merely the American consul’s choice of words – but it could mean that he was captured.  In his experience reports of those killed, wounded or missing in action were haphazardly sent up the line if facts were known.  But since officer turnover was high due to death and injuries, paperwork was inaccurate. Records of burials were seldom kept since a small number were ever buried. His opinion was that my cousin was killed and it was highly improbable that he emerged alive.

I had also written to Brandeis University where the official archives of the VALB are kept, and it was from their records that I learned Raleigh was volunteer no. 1544 who went to France on the Lancastria; but the found nothing else about him in their files.  I dispatched letters to the Spanish Civil War Historical Society in Madrid, and to the Archivo Historico Nacional in Salamanca, which has the Republican records captured during the war or found later. It includes records of the International Brigades Medical services and the reports issued at ten-day intervals at Albacete for each brigade with the names of all officers and the number of enlisted men in each hospital. I also wrote to the New York Public Library, which recently started their own war archive, and to the Toronto Reference Library which has a Spanish Civil War collection. I donated copies of my State Department documents to Brandeis and to the New York Library.

While I was doing my research another cousin told me she had attended a VALB meeting celebrating the 50th anniversary of the war. She sent me a brochure listing the names of every American volunteer and Raleigh’s name was among them.

The Archivo Historico Nacional responded by saying they could not investigate their records unless I could provide them with the name of a military hospital that Raleigh might have been in if wounded and, regretfully, added that they were understaffed even to do that adequately. Of course, I had no information about any hospital. Another dead end.

It was now early in 1987 and I kept adding more reference volumes to my library.  Then I discovered a new book, Prisoners of the Good Fight by Carl Geiser, a veteran of the war, and in it he wrote:

I visited the Lincoln and Mac-Pap battalions in their front-line trenches at Teruel at the end of January, 1938.  I found the battalions fighting in temperatures as low as eighteen degrees below zero Fahrenheit and snow three feet deep. Food froze before it reached the trenches, and anyone who received a very bad wound froze to death before he could be taken to a first-aid station.

This was just after Raleigh was reported missing or killed. Would he have any more information? I wrote to Geiser and he answered a month later saying that his own source material showed Raleigh’s name, home address, passport number, and with a not that he was missing. However, he told me that another veteran, Adolph Ross, had recently spent several years establishing a definitive list of Americans who went to Spain, and who were reported killed, missing, or had returned home. To my astonishment, he added:

Ross marked all those reported killed or missing with a “k” before their name, and left the space blank for all those reported to have come back to the States.  There is no “k” before Raleigh’s name, which means Ross has evidence that he had returned. I am sure that he will tell you what evidence he has that he returned to the US, and whether he has any further information about him.

This was so startling a statement that I immediately called Ross, but was unable to reach him. I sent him a letter and asked him to call or write to me to say whether the missing “k” was a mistake or did he actually have information proving otherwise. Later there was a bizarre coda to this situation.

On May 17, Adolph Ross called me and corrected Cal Geiser’s erroneous assumption that a “k” not next to a name on his list meant that a veteran had returned to the US. On the contrary, it meant that he had no information and the person was presumed dead.[vi] But Ross gave me the name of another veteran, Lee Burke, a Canadian who was in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, and said I should write to him. Off went another letter.

While I continued to ponder the riddle of the date Raleigh was reported missing, I then found confirmation for most of Saul Friedburg’s account of that fatal day of January 19. In a book about Canadian participation in the war. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion by Victor Howard [Hoar], the author relates how at Teruel the brigades were pounded by the greatest concentration of artillery of the war, and what happened to Lionel Edwards and others. He quotes Edward’s description:

The end had come, our machine-guns were blown to pieces, we were under fire from nearly every side and no more reinforcements would reach us. There only a handful of us left. Carrying a wounded man, five of us, the last of the living, stumbled out to make a run of it. One of us was killed and with him the wounded man. We four finally made it.

This confirmed with Friedberg’s account.

Around this time the New York Times carried a series of letters about the Spanish Civil War.  Initially, a reader wrote that he was indignant at a report that President Regan compared the Nicaraguan contras to members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. The gist of the letter was that most volunteers were communists or leftists and not freedom-fighters. The Times printed three letters in reply, from Carl Geiser, William Susman (both veterans) and a letter of mine. I wrote that my cousin was not a member of the Communist party, nor even a leftist, and mentioned his apparent death. I was pleased that my letter was printed as perhaps it would be seen by someone who might know something about his disappearance.[vii]

At the end of May, I was in Washington D.C. on business, so no a whim I visited the Department of Agriculture and asked if they had records of employees for the year 1937 stored anywhere. I wanted to see if I could locate any papers about the job Raleigh had accepted before deciding to go to Spain. They laughed and said they don’t keep any personnel records more than ten years!

I heard from the Toronto Reference Library and they had nothing in their files, but said I should contact Victor Howard, now director of the Canadian Studies Center at Michigan State University.  Howard called me to say that he also knew nothing significant, but put me onto Saul Wellman, who was the Mac-Paps battalion Commissar at Teruel; he called and told me to get to Milton Cohen, also on the scene that day.  All these contacts were unusually helpful to a fledgling researcher.

But more important, I received a letter from Lee Burke, who is active in the offices of the Mac-Paps in Canada. He wrote:

Since you have completed your search to final hours of the scene of his evident death, namely, with Lionel Edward’s section in the trench where the last four survivors escapes, as I see it you would only need Lionel’s verification of his (your cousin’s) identity and death as related to you by Saul Friedberg.

This was intriguing news as I had no idea that Edwards was still living. Moreover, Burke supplied the address of Edwards, and another survivor of that day, Ed Komodowski, and sent copies of my letter about Raleigh to them.  I couldn’t wait, so I called Komodowski, but he knew nothing and I waited impatiently to touch base with Edwards after writing to him, and who was at the center of the action.

In June I reached Edwards by telephone in Canada and the letdown came when he said he could not remember my cousin at all, and wrote “It is my deepest regret that after nearly fifty years, I cannot recall the names of the few survivors. I am deeply concerned about the subsequent fate of your cousin, but to be realistic I fear that he fell in the battle.”

Near the end of my search I had one regret, I never found anyone who knew Raleigh as a young man, and I didn’t even have a photograph of him. But when I happened to re-read his school records from Cornell University, I was stunned to discover that I had overlooked a name, Joseph Munk, given as a personal reference by Raleigh back in 1934. Could Munk be living?

Again I was fortunate to trace him and his wife. They were Raleigh’s closest friends. Not only were Munk and my cousin schoolmates, they worked together and Raleigh introduced them prior to their marriage in 1936.  Their ties to him were so strong that they treasured old photographs of him and saved postcards and a letter he sent them from abroad.[viii]  They also kept the last letter they sent to him in Spain – returned unopened after his disappearance.  They sent me a photograph of Raleigh and some friends taken when the Munks met him at a summer resort near where Raleigh worked as a farmer – a requirement for his master degree at Cornell.

In the last letter they received from Spain dated July 5, 1937, Raleigh wrote that he was a member of the 3rd Battalion [3rd Company] of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.  That letter had an ominous paragraph:

Follow the news closely and you will read how us Yanks wiped out the fascists from Spain, and of course yours truly will contribute his bit toward victory. I may remain alive to tell you about it. In case you don’t hear from me for a very long time see the Daily Worker – it publishes the names of the dead.

By now I had exhausted most of my contacts and had no more leads to follow up. Adolph Ross called again to express his final opinion that Raleigh was definitely killed. The State Department report of his being missing on January 1, 1938 (and not as I am now convinced on January 1, 1938 at the Battle of Teruel) was an administrative error that happened frequently.

Ross brought up the delicate subject of desertion – there were some among the American volunteers. He also knew of some veterans who came home and never told their families or friends and settled elsewhere. I had thought of desertion in connection with my cousin, if he were alive. As an interpreter, Raleigh could speak Spanish fluently, so he could blend into the Spanish culture if that is where he landed. But, politically I doubt he would have stood for the Franco regime that ruled Spain for so many years after the war. I don’t think desertion was in my cousin’s character, and I know he would have come home.

I am not deliberately leaving this story in mid-air for the sake of drama and mystery, but I did reach the end of my investigation. I thought that Raleigh might be alive somewhere in the world, and admit that I fantasized tracking him down. My daydreaming went further, he was in another country and I would meet an old man who would be waiting to tell me an unusual story. But the passage of time and the evidence has forced me to face the unpleasant reality that he was killed that day.

[i] The Cornell Daily Sun, Volume LIX, No. 129, March 24, 1939, p. 5; Keith R. Johnson ’56 Digital Archive; http://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/cornell?a=q&hs=1&r=1&results=1&txq=Raleigh+Frohman&txf=txIN&ssnip=txt&o=20&dafdq=&dafmq=&dafyq=&datdq=&datmq=&datyq=&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-John+Shulman+—–

 

[ii] Raleigh Frohman  is listed as graduating in 1936 with a Bachelors of Science,  Agriculture Degree; “List of Cornell Graduates Receiving Degrees for 1936,” The Cornell Daily Sun, Sunday June 12, 1936, p. 6a

http://cdsun.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/cornell?a=d&d=CDS19360612.2.34&e=——–20–1—–all—-

 

[iii] Sail List.

 

[iv] Today these records can be accessed through personal visit to the National Archives in Maryland, microfilm copies are also available through a university inter-library loan service.

 

[v] Raleigh Frohman, The Relation of Tenancy to the Value of Farm Land in Ten Selected States, Cornell University, Ithaca: 1937.

 

[vi] Antin’s correspondence with Ross are contained in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Adolph Ross Papers and Photographs (ALBA 137), Series II: Individual Files, 1943-1998, Box 2, Folder 17, 1987.

 

[vii] New York Times, “In Spain, They Honor The Lincoln Brigade; Not Even A Leftist” Letter to the Editor, May 9, 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/09/opinion/l-in-spain-they-honor-the-lincoln-brigade-not-even-a-leftist-481587.html Antin was likely incorrect as his cousin Raleigh Frohman is reported in some documents as a member of the CP, and in other documents as a member of the YCL.

 

[viii] I had hoped to find a photograph of Frohman in Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives Vertical Files (ALBA VF-002), Box 3, Folder 30, Frohman, Raleigh.  Angela Garra Zhinin Graduate Reference Assistant at Tammiment advised that there are no photographs of Frohman in the folder.  Zhinin to Brooks, E-mail, September 26, 2016.

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