Family Bonds: American Fathers and Sons in the Spanish Civil War

February 27, 2018
By and

Three pairs of fathers and sons chose war over peace when they volunteered to be among the 2,800 Americans who served with the International Brigades in Spain. They came from varied pasts and with divergent motivations. One father followed his son to Spain while each of the other fathers volunteered together with their sons. Dr. Samuel Franklin and his son Zalmond served in the Republican medical services. Mark Thornton and his son Nate worked as drivers and mechanics. Ralph Field and his son John enrolled in the infantry.

“No one would be foolish enough to choose war over peace—in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons” —Croesus of Lydia

Samuel and Zalmond Franklin

Dr. Samuel Franklin and his son Zalmond, undated, family photograph.

Dr. Samuel Franklin and his son Zalmond, undated, family photograph.

Samuel Nathan Franklin was born in Glukhov, Russia on November 16, 1891. He was a preteen when his family arrived in the U. S. in 1903.[i] Dr. Franklin attended the Marquette Academy and graduated from the Marquette University School of Medicine in 1916. After completing his residency at Milwaukee County General Hospital, he entered private practice in Milwaukee.[ii] He married Minnie Schnell and together they raised three children: Denora, Zalmond, and Charlotte.[iii]

Dr. Franklin’s political position was left of center. In 1918, he ran successfully on the Socialist Party ticket for the post of Milwaukee County coroner. It appears that he held the post for a single term. His affiliations for the next two decades were more mainstream: he was listed as a member of the American Medical Association and the Wisconsin and Milwaukee County Medical Associations.[iv] After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Dr. Franklin became more politically active. He headed the Milwaukee Medical Bureau of the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy and became a prominent member of the group of doctors and nurses from Wisconsin recruited to serve in the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy (AMB).

Zalmond David Franklin, also known as Solomon or Zollie, was a student studying bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.[v] After volunteering to join the International Brigades, Zalmond applied for and received his passport on June 4, 1937. Eight days later, he sailed for France aboard the Georgic.[vi] His father was issued a passport on June 28, 1937, and arrived in Spain the following month.[vii] It appears that Dr. Franklin met up with his son shortly after arriving in Spain, where they served together in a base hospital.[viii] Zalmond worked in the laboratory. Father and son returned to the United States before the end of the war: Dr. Franklin on March 2, 1938, aboard the Berengaria, and Zalmond 21 days later aboard the Andania.[ix] After returning Dr. Franklin took up his private practice.

Zalmond, a Communist Party member, married Sylvia Calen.[x] They both served as agents for the Soviet Union.[xi] Zalmond was assigned to several missions in Canada on behalf of Soviet intelligence. Zalmond and Calen divorced in the early 1940s. He married Rose Richter in 1944 or 1945. Shortly after his second marriage, he was removed from active work after another agent reported that Zalmond “bragged too much about his contact with Soviet Intelligence.”[xii] Both Dr. Franklin and his son died in 1958.[xiii]

Mark and Nate Thornton

Nate Thornton (far right) and two unidentified Spanish Soldiers, Thornton collection.

Nate Thornton (far right) and two unidentified Spanish Soldiers, Thornton collection.

Mark Thornton and his son Nate served as drivers in Spain. International drivers performed an invaluable, often hazardous, service to the war effort as the ability to drive and maintain a vehicle was not a common skill-set in Spain.

Mark Binns Thornton was born on April 6, 1893, in American Fork, Utah. He was one of seven children born to Nathan and Sarah Thornton. Mark attended school through the fourth grade before leaving to help support his family. He worked at various times as a coal miner, farmer and longshoreman.[xiv] After marrying Mary Alice Idle and starting a family, he moved his family to Fresno, California. Mark often worked away from home and the Thornton family saw him infrequently.[xv] Thornton’s family broke up when Mary Alice died in 1926.[xvi]

James Nathan “Nate” Thornton was born January 14, 1915, in Oasis, Millard Country, Utah. Soon after his mother’s death, his younger sister and brother were sent to live with relatives, while he remained with his father. The two moved to San Francisco, where Nate attended Commerce High School. Nate found sporadic work on the waterfront and as a merchant seaman. He joined the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific and participated in strike actions. Later he served a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps.[xvii]

Nate recalled that the Great Depression came early for his family and that his struggles to find steady employment led to his radicalization. In the pamphlet “I Am An International,” Nate recalled a man on the street passing him a handbill that announced a Communist Party meeting at the Worker’s School.[xviii] Nate joined the Young Communist League and encouraged his father to join the Communist Party.

When volunteers were requested for Spain, the Thorntons volunteered. They set sail from the U. S. aboard the Paris on March 27, 1937. After arriving in France, they were smuggled across the country to the Spanish border. After entering Spain on April 8, 1937, they travelled to Albacete.

Mark Thornton with the Flag of the Fifth Army Corps Primer Cuerpo de Tren, 1938, Courtesy Georgia Wever.

Mark Thornton with the Flag of the Fifth Army Corps Primer Cuerpo de Tren, 1938, Courtesy Georgia Wever.

Mark initially served with the Albacete Auto Park as a driver. Later he served as a mechanic and driver with the Fifth Army Corps Primer Cuerpo de Tren. While serving as a mechanic, he instituted a tire rotation and refurbishment policy that greatly prolonged the life of the unit’s tires. He was repatriated in the fall of 1938. In recognition of his service, the command presented him with a flag. Mark traveled back to North America aboard the Aurania, arriving in Québec, Canada on September 11, 1938. He crossed the border into the U. S. on the same day.

Nate initially served in the kitchens at the Albacete Auto Park. He quickly grew restless and transferred to an ambulance service supporting the Córdoba Front. During the winter of 1937, he was attached to a Spanish training school where he worked as a driver. Later he was attached to the Fifth Corps, Regt. de Tren as a driver. Nate was repatriated in December 1938. When he arrived in New York aboard the Paris on December 15, 1938, The Volunteer announced that his father was awaiting his arrival “back in Frisco readying the family homestead.”[xix]


When Nate Thornton arrived in New York, The Volunteer announced that his father was awaiting his arrival “back in Frisco readying the family homestead.”


Mark returned to the West Coast and worked in various jobs. During World War II he worked as a longshoreman on the docks in Portland, Oregon. He continued this vocation into the early 1950s. He used his savings to purchase a farm outside of Fresno, California where he raised turkeys. From his retirement in the early 1960s until his death February 17, 1974, Mark spent much of his time hiking around Death Valley. It was there that the family scattered his ashes.

Nate also returned to the West Coast after the war. In 1939, he married Phyllis Golland, an English immigrant, and together they started a family. During World War II, Nate worked as a civilian defense worker in the Wilmington Shipyards in California. After the war, he continued to work in the shipyards as a skilled carpenter. He also worked as a freelance photographer. He remained in contact with his fellow Spanish Civil War veterans. Nate was a founding member of the San Francisco Post of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and “The Fort Point Gang,” a less formal group of SCW veterans and waterfront workers.[xx] After his wife died in 1984, Nate lived as a widower for several years before marrying fellow activist Corine Hodges on October 6, 1988, in San Francisco.[xxi]

Nate and Corine were active participants in peace and labor activities including VALB, Veterans for Peace, In Solidarity with Cuba, School of Americas Watch, and Grandmothers for Peace. Together they travelled to Spain, Cuba, and the Soviet Union as part of various delegations. In retirement Nate indulged in the art of woodcarving, creating numerous intricate and labor related works of art. [xxii] He died January 2, 2011 in Hayward, California.[xxiii]

Ralph and John Field

John Fields in 1934. U of Rochester Yearbook.

John Field in 1934. U of Rochester Yearbook.

Ralph Higbee Field was born on July 16, 1879, in Leon, Iowa.[xxiv] According to his son Will, he “was the kind of fellow movies are made about. He tried to trace the Amazon to its source, panned for gold and was a forest ranger, cowboy, and college professor.”[xxv] By trade Ralph was a civil engineer but he pursued many vocations. He was an International Labor Defense organizer and lived for several years at Liano Cooperative Colony before moving to South America.[xxvi] In 1904, he met and married Alice, a woman of Scottish descent, who was living in Paraguay. Their son John was born in Paraguay in 1913 and his brother Will in Brazil in 1919.[xxvii] Shortly after Will’s birth, the family moved to the United States and settled in Rochester, New York. Ralph established a landscaping business and later The Rockbrick Corporation.[xxviii] He divorced Alice in 1923, and married Mabel Bridge in 1926.[xxix] Shortly thereafter the business failed and his marriage ended. John and Will moved in with Mr. and Mrs. William Barnes of Rochester, who served as their foster family.[xxx] Ralph eventually found a position at as “maintenance student and member of the permanent group” at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas.[xxxi] He applied his experience as a civil engineer to projects that enhanced living conditions for the students: a new furnace, steam plant, insulation of stovepipes, and a footbridge. To keep construction costs low, he ingeniously utilized found items from “the capitalist dump heap.”[xxxii] In addition to his maintenance duties, Ralph taught an introductory class to incoming students. He continued to maintain contact with his sons.[xxxiii]


To keep construction costs low, Ralph Field ingeniously utilized found items from “the capitalist dump heap.”


John Field graduated from West High School and entered the University of Rochester, where he was a popular student and a stand-out runner captaining the cross country team. John was elected Vice-President of the class of 1935. He was also active in the Y.M.C.A. Council, served as the yearbook circulation manager.[xxxiv] While he was in high school and college, John worked a variety of jobs including farm work, typesetting, and electrical goods sales.[xxxv] After graduation in 1936, he joined his father at Commonwealth College as a labor student.[xxxvi]

Ralph Field, undated, Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,”

Ralph Field, undated, Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,”

Ralph and John Field were both members of the Communist Party. John later indicated that he was influenced “by friends and by my father” to join the party.[xxxvii] Father and son traveled together, sailing to France aboard the Queen Mary in May 1937. They crossed the Pyrenees and arrived in Spain via Setcases, near Girona, on June 15, 1937. Fellow veteran Douglas Hitchcock recalled that during the crossing, Dr. Julius Hene gave Ralph a “drink of rum that turned out to be ether.” Ralph was knocked out cold. Amazingly, he came to, “got up and walked the rest of the way unassisted over the hardest part of the mountain. And this while others including myself had to be helped.”[xxxviii]

After arriving in Spain, Ralph attempted to pass himself off as John’s older brother and join the infantry. The ruse did not work and Ralph was assigned to the commissary department of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps).[xxxix] John was assigned to the Mac-Paps as well and served initially as an assistant section leader in the first company.[xl] Ralph and John both served at Fuentes de Ebro in October 1937. In December, John was sent to the training base at Tarazona to help train new recruits. He returned to the Battalion when the unit was alerted for service at Teruel.

John served as a section leader in the third company of the Mac-Paps. During the course of the battle for Teruel, the battalion was holding a key central position on the floor of the valley. When Republican Spanish infantry pulled back from a small hill, John led two sections forward to take over the position. John’s brother Will recalled that John wrote “that he didn’t think he’d survive” the war but “never once said that he shouldn’t have gone.” [xli]Arthur Landis noted that “of the fifty men who occupied the hill 45 were casualties” this number included John Field. [xlii] Ralph, who was serving just behind the lines, was devastated by the death of his son.[xliii]

Ralph returned to the U. S. on July 20, 1938 aboard the Champlain.[xliv] Interviewed in the NY office of the VALB, Ralph stated: “The cream of United States citizens fell in that slaughter which surpasses description.”[xlv] Will Field later noted that his father was “bitter.” The bitterness stemmed not only from the death of his son but also “the defeat of the Loyalists.” Will originally planned to accompany his father and brother to Spain, but met the woman he would later marry and decided not to go. Will believed that his father regarded John “as the kind of son I never could have been.” Will never saw his father again.[xlvi] Ralph Field died on March 29, 1960 in Lower Milford Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

NOTES

[i] Ancestry, U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[ii] Obituary, Dr. Samuel Nathan Franklin The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 17, 1958, p 8.

[iii] Ancestry, 1930 United States Federal Census. See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[iv] Obituary, Dr. Franklin, The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

[v] Zalmond Franklin ‘Somewhere in Spain.’ The Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, October 11, 1937, p. 2.

[vi] Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States, Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the committee of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate, Eighty-Fifth Congress, First Session on Scope of Soviet Activities in the United States, February 20, 1957, Appendix I, Part 23A, Washington, DC, United States Government Printing Office, 1957, p. A70. (Hereafter SACB); and Sail List [Two lists of Sailings sorted by Name and Ship, original compiler unknown, VALB Office].

[vii] SACB, p. A42.

[viii] Zalmond Franklin ‘Somewhere in Spain,’

[ix] Ancestry, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, March 2, 1938 aboard the Berengaria, Dr. Franklin; March 23, 1938 aboard the Andania, Zalmond Franklin. See also Lincoln-Washington.

[x] They may have married before he went to Spain or shortly after his return. John Early Hayes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 419-420.

[xi] Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Friorikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism, Yale University, 1995, p. 142; Hayes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pp. 419-420.

[xii] Revolvy, Venonan Project, Franklin is referenced in a May 26, 1944 Venona project decrypt. It is a report from Bernard Schuster describing a complaint from Nathan Einhorn. Einhorn’s wife, Frieda and Rose Richter were sisters. Einhorn leveled the complaint. referenced in a May 26, 1944 Venona project decrypt. It is a report from Bernard Schuster describing a complaint from Nathan Einhorn. Einhorn’s wife, Frieda and Rose Richter were sisters. Einhorn leveled the complaint. Zalmond, appears in the Venona Project papers as “Chen” and was named as an agent by Louis Budenz. https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php/s=Zalmond%20Franklin&uid=1575

[xiii] Ancestry, Social Security Death Index, Zalmond Franklin; and U. S., Find A Grave Index, #145685944, Dr. Samuel Nathan Franklin. See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[xiv] The Adolph Ross Project, Americans in Spain: A Biographical Dictionary of American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, A Survey for Veterans or their Families, Mark Thornton, Survey filled out by Nate Thornton, post dated April 12, 1996;

[xv] Sylvia E. Bartley, “I Am An International.” Nate Thornton’s Story, Ft. Bragg, CA, Noyo Hill House, 2010, p.3.

[xvi] Bartley, “I Am An International.” p. 4.

[xvii] The Adolph Ross Project, Americans in Spain: A Biographical Dictionary of American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, A Survey for Veterans or their Families, Nate Thornton Response post dated February 13, 1996; Nate Thornton in follow on communication indicated that he served in the CCC in 1934 and for two months in 1935.

[xviii] Bartley, “I Am An International.” p. 6.

[xix] “Bully Beef,” The Volunteer, v. 1, no. 3, December 15, 1938, p.3.

[xx] “Two ‘Gangs’ of San Francisco keep radical spirit alive,” People’s World, December 10, 2010, http://www.peoplesworld.org/article/two-gans-of-san-francisco-keep-radical-spirit-alive/

[xxi] Telephone conversation with Corine Thornton, December 2017.

[xxii] Ibid.; Adolph Ross Project, Thornton.

[xxiii] Ancestry, U. S., Obituary Collection, 1930-2017, James Nathan Thornton. Sebastiaan Faber, Nate Thornton (1915-2011), The Volunteer, Blog, January 3, 2011.

[xxiv] Ancestry, U. S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007; Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[xxv] Michael Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” Sunday Democrat and Chronicle,

Upstate Magazine, April 10, 1983, p. 10.

[xxvi] Eugene Feldman, “Introducing Members of Commonwealth Group, Ralph Field,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 12, no. 5, March 1, 1936, p. 3.; The Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony, was America’s longest-lived Socialist community, running from 1917 to 1939, located in Vernon Parish, Louisiana.

[xxvii] Ancestry, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957; The family arrived aboard the Vauban on April 24, 1919. Note the ship’s manifest incorrectly indicates John’s date of birth as 1915. See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[xxviii] Ancestry, U. S. City Directories, 1821-1989, Rochester City Directory 1921, and 1926.; See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[xxix] Ancestry, New York, County Marriages, 1847-1849; 1907-1936, records both divorce and marriage information. See also Lincoln-Washington Tree.

[xxx] Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” p. 10.

[xxxi] “Student Body Elects Officers,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 11, no. 2, January 15, 1935, p. 1.

[xxxii] “Campus Notes,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 11, no. 23, December 1, 1935, p. 2.; “Furnace for College,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 11, no. 23, December 1, 1935, p. 1; “Repairs Being Made for Fall Quarter,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 12, no. 19, October 1, 1936, p. 4; Nat Brown, “Building a Bridge,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 12, no. 23, December 1, 1936, p. 4.; “Stovepipe Hazard is Eliminated,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 11, no. 21, November 1, 1935, p. 3.

[xxxiii] “Introducing Members of Commonwealth Group, Ralph Field,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly; “Whitten Bound West From Boston,” The Commonwealth College Fortnightly, v. 11, no. 23, December 1, 1935, p. 1.

[xxxiv] Ancestry, The University of Rochester Yearbook, The Interpres 1934 http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/interpres/view-issue?y=1935&v+788p=48; “Rochesterian Dies in Spain,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 18, 1938 (Clipping).

[xxxv] John Field, Historical Commission of the International Brigade, Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Hereafter Mac-Pap survey), RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 510, ll. 5.

[xxxvi] Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” p. 10.

[xxxvii] IBID.

[xxxviii] Douglas Hitchcock, Mac-Pap Survey, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 510, ll. 34 (back); Dr. Hene became the battalion doctor for the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

[xxxix] Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1939, p. 136.

[xl] RGASPI Opis 6, Delo 35, ll. 16, MAC-PAP survey.

[xli] Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” p. 10.

[xlii] Arthur Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel Press, 1968, pp. 354, 378, and 380.; John’s Brother Will provided a different version of his death “…when Field, chosen to lead a rear-guard action to let other Republican soldiers retreat, received an order that had to be passed on down the line by runner. He ran it himself and was killed by a machine-gun bullet.” Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” p. 10.

[xliii] “Mena Farmer Returns from Spain, Where Son Gave Life At Teruel for the Loyalists,” Little Rock Democrat, July 22, 1938 (clipping).

[xliv] IBID.

[xlv] “Mena Farmer Returns from Spain,” Little Rock Democrat.

[xlvi] Zeigler, “When Americans Fought in Spain,” p.10.

Share

Leave a Comment