The Last US-born Volunteer: Raphael Buch Brage (1915-2018)

March 4, 2019
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Raphael Buch Brage, March 1938. Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Photographs ALBA.PHOTO.011, no. 11-0957.

When, in early 2016, we mourned the passing of Delmer Berg, the sole surviving US volunteer to fight in the Spanish Civil War, we had no idea that another US volunteer was still living in southern France. Dean Burrier uncovers his remarkable life story.

“When I learned that my mother was not the oldest in the nursing home, even at 102, I went to visit el monsieur américain, aged 103 years, out of respect,” explained Anna Marie Labruquere, a French woman living in Biarritz, France. “He was doing very poorly, having broken his arm and hip, but just a few days later he was back in the dining hall with a strength of will to live that was astonishing … He still wore his medals on his chest through the corridors,” she told me. “I knew he was a great man.” His name, she said, was Rafael Buch Brage.

After Buch Brage died, on October 13, 2018, Labruquere ventured to the internet, determined to uncover his mysterious past. Little did she know she was about to help symbolically return a lost son of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to his homeland as the longest living and final survivor of the brotherhood—the last volunteer.

A few years ago, I started a project called RETERRAR to research the lives of Spanish-American volunteers in the Brigade. I sought to better understand this often overlooked group of volunteers, reconnect with possible descendants and undo the process of “destierro” that left both the deceased and survivors exiled from the collective historical memory of Spain. While I had been researching the life of Rafael for several years, I had presumed him to be long deceased—although, truth be told, the obituary had eluded me. Now I find myself writing the only obituary this great man will have received to date, perhaps a tragic consequence of outliving two spouses, three children and most certainly all other loved ones from his generation. As Anne Marie Labruquere, who contacted RETERRAR from France, wrote, he clearly had an insatiable desire to live and to go on. In these pages, we will fail to capture in their entirety his immense life span, his accomplishments, and the essence of Rafael. Still, he deserves a faithful attempt.

Rafael was born in New York City on July 26, 1915 to Spanish immigrants from La Coruña (Galicia). The Buch family made the journey back and forth between New York and Spain several times. Ironically, Rafael would complete a Spanish baccalaureate degree in 1931, only to return to the United States to further his studies stateside. Indeed, the Spanish Civil War caught him in between both nations as well. He had traveled to Barcelona to represent the United States in the People’s Olympics, organized to counter Hitler’s 1936 Olympics but cut short when the Spanish Civil War erupted. An athlete of some regard, Buch Brage played fútbol—soccer—for some well-known clubs throughout the Americas. By his own recollections, these included “Brookhattan” in New York, “España” in México, “Puentes Grandes” in La Habana, “Alajuela” in Costa Rica, and “América” in Colombia. At the 1936 games, Rafael was slated to participate in Track & Field and Rugby. Instead of competing in Barcelona’s stadiums, Buch Brage would end up enlisting in the war and fighting on the streets of the Catalan capital.

In September and October of 1936, he served on a guerrilla dynamite unit in the Pyrenees. Aided by his fluency in as many as six languages, he rapidly ascended through the ranks of leadership: he was named “Teniente” in November 1936, “Capitán” by June 1937, and “Mayor” by September 1938. It was in Madrid in 1936 that he attested to meeting Ernest Hemingway at the Hotel Florida, later claiming to have helped inform the writer for his works on the Spanish Civil War. (Years after, the two would cross paths in Cuba as well.) Buch Brage’s claims would seem to be confirmed in the similarities drawn to Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, where the hero is an American-born volunteer who serves on a dynamite unit in the Guadarrama mountains. Buch Brage later joined the Brigadas Mixtas and later still the ranks of the International Brigades, largely thanks to his linguistic capabilities. He served on the Aragon Front and, according to a magazine biography, participated in virtually all of the major military actions of the war: “Madrid, Guadalajara, Jarama, Brunete, La Granja, Belchita, Quinto and Fuentes del Ebro,” suffering injuries of severity on three occasions.


“An athlete of some regard, Buch Brage played fútbol—soccer—for some well-known clubs throughout the Americas.”


As the war wound to its close, Rafael also participated in the Aragon Retreat, The Crossing of the Ebro, Retreat of Aragon and Catalonia. From Catalonia, he followed hundreds of thousands of refugees into exile in France, later making his way to Mexico, before finally returning to New York on December 20, 1939, aboard the Ausonia. Reestablished in the city of his birth, he became a Spanish teacher and worked as a sports journalist for La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper in New York City.

Understanding and anticipating the greater scope of the world conflict, Rafael, as did so many Lincolns, enlisted to fight Hitler in World War II. Frustrated with the reticence of the Americans to enter the conflict, Rafael first joined the British Intelligence Service in 1940 to fight the Axis powers, eventually joining the United States armed forces upon its entrance into the global conflict in 1941. The war did not stop him from starting a family. He married Sally Artiguez (1912-1989) in October 1940 in New York. Their first-born son Fernando Buch Brage (1941-2003) arrived shortly after, followed by a daughter, Marie Luisa Buch Brage (1944-2012). The birth of a third child is mentioned in some of his biographical information, but cannot be confirmed at this time.
Rafael’s U.S. military service lasted until 1948. He was stationed in various parts of the Caribbean and Mexico, ending up in Cuba. Here, he dedicated himself to the study of pigeon-fancying, a tradition that had been in his family for four generations in Galicia. Indeed, virtually everything we know about Buch Brage is due to his immense reputation and fame among pigeon-fanciers around the world, recognized as the “Unsurpassed Master of the Iberian Pigeon Breeds”. Over the years, he compiled an unprecedented collection of over 3,000 volumes on the historical study of pigeons, preserving many endangered species, winning many awards at competitions and awakening admiration among international groups of pigeon aficionados. In Cuba, he would again cross paths with Hemingway, this time at the famous “La Floridita”, where the two “remembered events and anecdotes of the Spanish Civil War,” though he only speaks of the writer as a friend of a friend.

The 1950’s found him in New Jersey and subsequently travelling back to the Old World. In 1954, in sharp contrast to the many other Spanish-American volunteers studied in the scope of RETERRAR, Rafael returned with his family to live in Spain. His father and possibly other family members lived in the Chamartín barrio of Madrid. He often worked as an aide to American cinematographers. Due to his travels and experiences around the world, he was consulted for filming locations in films such as “El Cid,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Cleopatra,” among many others and became acquainted with Sophia Loren and John Wayne. He also continued to breed pigeons. In a competition in which his pigeons finished second to pigeons belonging to “El dictador Franco,” he noted that these were of pitiful quality.


“In 1936, he met Ernest Hemingway at the Hotel Florida in Madrid, later claiming to have helped inform the writer for his works on the Spanish Civil War.”


By the 1970s, Rafael was already referring to his life and old age as one who sees the final stage near. In truth, he was, astonishingly, only at midlife. Retirement came in Biarritz, France, alternating seasons on the precious Valencian coastline and scenic backdrop of Peñíscola, where a medieval castle rises from the beach. Here, he dedicated himself to studying pigeons. He attended and spoke at many conferences and gatherings of pigeon-fanciers, sharing his knowledge and sources with all who could locate him.

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Buch Brage later in life; still from a YouTube video by Carlos Lozano.

It seems he never returned to the United States. Not unlike many Spanish-American volunteers, he was completely disconnected from the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. One source did allude to his wish that his personal library be donated to an American university or foundation, though no record confirming the fruition of this wish has been found.

As far as records show, his retirement traveling between Biarritz, France and Peñíscola, Valencia continued well into his 90s. A widower from 2013 onward, when his second wife passed, Rafael was transferred to a nursing home in Biarritz, France and placed under public guardianship, as he apparently had little to no financial means.

Our French contact, Anne Marrie Labruquere describes the final years for “el américain” as very lonely, further darkened by anecdotes that paint a disheartening end to an amazing life. The staff of the nursing home, who in Anne Marie’s words cared deeply for Rafael, gifted him shoes to alleviate the constant pain he had in his feet. Footwear was a luxury he could not afford for himself at that point in his life. He never received a visitor in his 5 years in the home and was buried in the Ranquine Public Cemetery in Biarritz with no ceremony—and indeed no recognition or memory beyond this article since his passing last October. France’s Online Public Cemetery Registry lists his death as October 13, 2018. Aged 103 years and 3 months, he was certainly one of the last surviving Spanish Civil War Veterans across all nationalities.
A sad consequence of his longevity seems to be the utter loneliness he must have experienced in his final years, having survived two wives and indeed his own three children. There seems to have been no family left to be by his side or even to be aware of his survival and in contact in any way. Throughout his 103 years, Rafael Buch Brage demonstrated a love for life, freedom and scholarship that should be an inspiration to all of us.

We hope that the publication of this obituary will bring more information to light, allowing us to properly celebrate the life of this singular, American-born, Spanish-American hero. May the love for life of Rafael Buch Brage live on. ¡Que viva siempre el espíritu de los Voluntarios!

(Para un artículo en español sobre Rafael Buch Brage, ver aquí.)

Dean Burrier Sanchis, an alumnus of an ALBA Teaching Institute in Illinois, is a high school Spanish Teacher and Soccer Coach at Elk Grove High School. In 2009, while studying the Spanish Civil War and reading Ramón Sender’s “A Requiem for a Spanish Farmer” as a student at Augustana College, he discovered that his Spanish-born grandfather Vicente Sanchis Amades was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Since then, he has heavily researched his grandfather’s life and the lives of many other Spanish-American volunteers, creating chronologies and compiling information on each volunteer at reterrar.weebly.com.

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