Phil Detro — “Long-Legged” Texan Commander of our Lincoln-Washington Battalion, by B. O.

July 26, 2019
By
Phil Detro, Commander, Lincoln-Washington Battalion with unidentified woman, November 1937; Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs; ALBA PHOTO 011 (B-120); Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

Phil Detro, Commander, Lincoln-Washington Battalion with unidentified woman, November 1937; Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs; ALBA PHOTO 011 (B-120); Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

The Volunteer for Liberty, V. 1, No. 25, December 6, 1937.

You asked him why he came to Spain, how he came to hate fascism. You ask because his background is Mississippi and Texas, where reaction is strong in the ruling class. His folks were planters in Mississippi. If you trace the family you can go back to the Revolutionary War. One was a General in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, defending slavery. There are a whole string of slaveholders.

Today in Spain Captain Philip Detro is commanding the Lincoln-Washington Battalion of American volunteers, fighting slavery and slaveholders.

In Conroe, Texas, his hometown, they are among those old families to whom Spain is too far away to care about unless it affects the price of cotton. At Rice Institute, then at Missouri where he studied journalism, but spent more of his time learning to fly, he knew little and cared less about any struggle between classes.

The struggle between classes – at Rice Institute – that is the sort of play on words Phil likes. You ask his middle name. It’s Leighton. “Leighton?” you inquire. “Don’t lay it on,” he will most likely pop back, running the words together so you can’t miss the pun on Leighton.

He crossed into Spain on April 1, coming to fly in the Loyalist air force. He speaks in a quiet, unhesitating, off-handed way. His soft Texan drawl fits in perfectly with his lanky, big-boned six feet and four inches.

For six years he was a member of the Texas National Guard. All of them uneventful years.

He started out to find adventure. He wanted to see things. He shipped out on a boat headed for Europe. Once in Berlin he heard Hitler speak. This was in 1932, during the tense days. There was a clash. When he came out of it he had lost one good shirt sleeve.

He had gained a view of fascism –in action, headed for power. He had begun to think about these things.

He worked on ships running to the Far East. In China there were the oppression and extreme poverty of the coolies and the brutal callousness of the war-lords and the foreigners who were in China as agents for imperialist interests.

There was a sort of a job, after this, writing for a syndicate in New York. It paid less than not so good, but he wanted to write. At the age of nine, he wrote his first novel. It was also his last.

Someone mentioned one night that American fellows were going to Spain to aid the fight against fascism. All this time he had been developing convictions, shedding old prejudices. But he hadn’t done anything about it. This worried him.

Here was something. He started in search of a way to volunteer. He had no connections which might make it easy. Nobody who might help, knew him. It was difficult.

Finally, he found someone. He volunteered. Then he went to his room and waited. He waited a long time, was impatient. He almost gave up hope. Then he received word.

Could he be ready to leave the next day?

He could. He did.

Plenty of Stuff

Spain, by this time, didn’t need more aviators. Spain needed a greater, stronger, better trained and more disciplined army.

Okeh. Train then. Take your training seriously. Remember what you learned in the National Guard back home. Use that knowledge. Spain needed men who could do things this way. Phil Detro did.

Men liked him. They liked the quick smile that showed widely spaced but even teeth. He was made a section leader in the Washington Battalion. Then Company Adjutant under Hans Amlie. That’s the way things stood, moving into Brunete.

Villanueva de la Cañada taken from the fascists. There are always changes in an action. Things happen to men and others step up to take their places.

Phil Detro took over command of a Company. He knew his stuff. He had the confidence and the natural leadership of the soldiers. He had courage.

War is the greatest of all tests of a man’s convictions. The fascist guns pounded in Phil Detro’s convictions deeper. His anti-fascism was forged stronger in battle.

Wounded

Shrapnel laid him up at Mosquito Ridge. Later there was malaria. The effects still linger. In the States he weighed 190. Today the scales tip at 168.

He was back again with the re-organized Lincoln-Washington at Belchite. Immediately, he pitched into that battle of grenades.

The fascists erected a barricade in the streets. They commanded the sector. Phil can throw. Together with Major Merriman, he crawled out onto the rooftops, loaded with grenades. One after another he slung them.

In the street fighting, the long-legged Texan was in the lead. Later, he was cited for bravery. He was made Battalion Adjutant.

“I just happened to be around every time they needed someone,” is his explanation of his steady advance to positions of responsibility.

You ask him why he came to Spain. The answer seems so simple, so right, to him that the question is superfluous. He is fighting slavery. He is adding his force and knowledge in a tangible way to a struggle for things he believes right and decent.

“I’m getting re-paid a hundred times for anything I can do. I’m learning things.

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