John Ramatowski Letters From Spain

February 1, 2020
By
John Ramatowski, Passport Photograph, 1937.

John Ramatowski, Passport Photograph, 1937.

Volunteer John Augustus Ramatowski was only 21-years old when he went missing in action during The Retreats in April 1938. Six of the numerous letters he wrote home were saved and passed down through the family. His letters were addressed to his older brother Adam and his family disclose his observations about France, Spain, women and his assignments, and their location. The letters span from August 1937 to February 1938 and are reproduced here with the permission of the family.

John Augustus Ramatowski was born on August 28, 1914, in Panama, Illinois. His parents, Peter and Helen Ramatowski, were ethnically Polish immigrants born in Russia. The family later moved to Plainview, Illinois a rural community where Peter found long-term employment with a dairy. John was the fourth of the couple’s six children.[i]

Ramatowski’s formal schooling ended after 8th grade when he went to work learning the trades of machinist and tool and die maker. During the Great Depression he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Ramatowski served a short stint in the CCC, April to July 1935.  He spent this time as a blacksmith’s helper in Skokie Valley, Glenview, Illinois. He was administratively discharged for refusing to work: an administrative discharge is classified as neither honorable or dishonorable.[ii] The CCC camps were supervised by the military and represents Ramatowski’s only known exposure to the military before joining the International Brigades.

By 1937, Ramatowski was living in St. Louis, Missouri and working for the Emerson Electric Corporation. He was on the picket line when the employees went on strike. Next, Ramatowski, a Young Communist League member, volunteered to go to Spain. John told his brother Adam that he was going to New York to find a job. The family was unaware of John’s intentions until he wrote telling them he had arrived in Spain to serve with the International Brigades.[iii]

Ramatowski applied for a passport which was issued on May 19, 1937. The passport listed his address as 2540-A University Street, St. Louis, Missouri. He sailed for Europe on May 29, 1937 aboard the Britannic. In France, Ramatowski was moved railway from Paris to the South of Spain by the underground. He was smuggled across the border arriving in Spain on June 22, 1937. Once in Spain, he traveled to Albacete where he was formally enrolled in the International Brigades. From there Ramtowski was sent to Tarrazona for training.

Note the letters are transcribed as written with the exception of minor correction to spelling and punctuation for clarity.

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Letter 1

[Undated – Post dated August 1937]

S. R. I. #174

Plaza Del Altazano

Albacete, Spain

 

Dear Adam, Nell and family:

Just a few lines to let you know that I am well and I hope you are the same.

I am in the Lincoln Washington Battalion now. In the Machine gun Company. I’m going to try to get a job with the Armor, as a repair man.

How is the milk business, I hope the kids are OK. Tell them I said hello! Hare are you Nell.

Don’t tell mom and Dad that I’m in the Mach. Gun Co. They will be worried. Or maybe you like to have them worry. I hope not.

We are in pretty country. Very Dry. Hasn’t rained since I’ve been here. Most of the farmers use irrigation. Primitive farming methods. One or two thrashing mach. A blower or two, mostly primitive methods though. The goats are as plentiful as cows in the states and the cows are as scarce as goats in the states. In other words the goats here take the place of cows.

We’re doing all right here. We get American cigarettes here almost every day. We even get Cornflakes.

When I leave here the Death Valley will be a cinch.

Sorry I didn’t write sooner because I’ve been pretty busy.

Please write. I like to hear from home.

Your Bro and -in-law and Uncle

Johnny

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The following letter was written to answer questions from his brother and sister-in-law. It appears to refer to the letter previous letter.

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Letter 2

S. R. I. no – 17.1

Plaza Del Altazano

Albacete, Spain

August 15, 1937

 

Dear folks:

I wrote you a letter a few lines a few days ago. But I’ll answer this letter right away.

I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your vacation. I’ve been pretty busy myself. What with training and the like. We’ve been pretty busy.

No, I haven’t been to the front yet. Unless you would call the Vino front fighting. I soon will be though. I’m now in the Lincoln Washington battalion. I started with the 3rd battalion but was transferred to this battalion.

Will soon have those Fascist Bastards run into the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

By the way on my way here I passed close to the Mediterranean Sea. It was really a beautiful day in June. Years ago or so it seems that way. Everywhere I went the scenery was very beautiful. In France and here.

This is a great country for goats and sheep. Cows are as plentiful as goats back in the states.

Sorry I had to leave in such a way. But it was the best.

I’m going to Madrid on 48 hr. leave this week. Make a few girls I suppose.

The natives here are very good. They give us meals and everything. But its hard to get a girl unless you marry her. I’m not ready for that yet.

How is grandma feeling? OK I hope. What did she have to say about me being here?

We get Raleighs and Luckies here some times. Camels the Friends of the Lincoln Battalion send from the states. The FALB. Maybe you hear of them.

I’m in excellent health really toughening up. As for the front how I’ll act. I’ll have to wait till I get up there to find out. I hope I get through Ok.

I do think of God. I may not pray like other people. But still I believe in god and thin of Him at all times.

God bless All of you.

Your bro and in Law and Uncle.

Johnny

PS. I’m in the Machinegun Company now watch my smoke.

PS. Here’s a few stamps for Junior Paul.

Give them to him when you see him.

A. R.

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In August Ramatowski was finishing up his training in Tarazona. During training he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, which would become the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Ramatowski was identified as a replacement for the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Based on the length of his training and his assignment to the Machine Gun Company, he likely received special training in the use of the machine-gun. Ramatowski notes that he was supposed to receive a 48-hour pass to Madrid but it unlikely that this occurred.

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Letter 3

Sept. 7, 1937

 

Dear Bro and Sis in Law and Nieces:

Just a few lines to let you know I am well and hope you are the same.

Weill I’ve been 15 days at the front came out with but a little scratch on my nose from shrapnel. I’m doing fine. Be coming home soon. I hope.

How is the children and everyone at home?

How is the milk business?

We captured quite a few towns since I last wrote to you. I got quite a collection of stamps for Paul. I’m sending some to him today.

I’m learning to speak Spanish a little. I’m in a Spanish Battalion.

By the way I got those stamps from one of the towns we captured.

Well I’ve run out of things to write so I will close.

Love and Gods Blessing

from Johnny

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Ramatowski had just emerged from the grueling battle for Belchite when he wrote this letter. The Lincoln-Washington Battalion Machine Gun Company, of which he was likely a part, provided suppressive fire in the initial assault on the town. Once the unit broke into the town, the machine gun company helped support the storming of Nationalist strong points. Casualties during the action were heavy. Belchite was one of the few unqualified successes for the American volunteers in Spain and Ramatowski optimistically stated that he hopes to be home soon.

After Belchite Ramatowski was transferred to the Spanish 24th Battalion. Most likely he was attached to the American Company.

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Letter 4

SRI Room 17.1

Plaza Del Altazano

Albacete, Spain

October 11, 1937

 

Dear Bro and family:

I am well and hope you are the same.

Doing fine here went through one offensive. About 20 days at the front and about 20 days in reserve.

We are in reserve now.

The weather here is a little colder. It rained a few days ago. The rainy season is starting now. We will see quite a bit of rain.

I’m back in the Lincoln Washington again. I was transferred from the 24th B about a week ago. More Americans here.

How is everything and everyone at home?

Well I’ve run out of words so I’ll say for now

Your Bro in law & Uncle

Johnny

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This letter was written just before the October 13, assault on Fuentes de Ebro. Ramatowski was fortunately back with the Lincoln-Washington Battalion’s Machinegun Company. On the 13th the 24th Spanish Battalion was mounted aboard Russian tanks that led an assault on the Nationalist positions on Fuentes de Ebro. The 24th battalion took heavy casualties as the men of the 24th were picked off the hulls of the tanks.

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Letter 5

S.R I. Room 17.1

Nov. 14, 1937

 

Dear Bro, Sis in Law and nieces,

I am well and hope everyone is the same.

I just got back from Madrid. I was on leave for 5 days. Had a swell time. But I came back on my 4th day because I couldn’t get any tobacco there.

The weather here is kind of damp. Been raining. Getting colder now. It will soon be winter.

I got a letter from Mom and Dad yesterday. The first one I got since I’ve been here.

I’m sending my picture had it taken in Madrid the other day. All dressed up.

Well how is everyone at home? OK I hope.

Guess I’ll close.

Your Bro-Bro in Law and uncles

Johnny

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The XV Brigade had a long stretch in reserve after Fuentes de Ebro. Ramatowski was one of many volunteers to receive leave in Madrid. The Brigade was back in action during the bitterly cold winter battle of Teruel in January 1938. It appears that Ramatowski was still with the brigade during this action.

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Letter 6

S. R. I. Room 17k.1

Albacete, Spain

Feb. 20, 1938

 

Dear Adam, Nell and family:

Will you forgive me for not writing sooner? I suppose I have no excuse – or it will not pay to give one.

I am well and hope all of you are the same.

By the way I only got one letter from you that was in August. So maybe we are both slack on the letter problem.

As I sit here leaning against a terrace bank somewhere in Spain. Especially in the mountains, The sun is very warm now. But a few hours ago, I was freezing to death from the frost. There is I can see snow on the ground which has been there over a week. And there is still some of last night’s frost on the ground.

We are supposed to be waiting for Camions or trucks to take us somewhere.

Had a funny time or experience on Lincolns birthday or there abouts. We were going to rest and clean clothes. We got as far as one of the big sea ports and were ordered to “Medio Alto” or About face. Back to the same place as before.

By the way how is it at home I seem to have forgotten how it was at home. I still remember everyone but the other things are sort of hazy. Seems like I’ve been here years, instead of 8 months. By the way today is my 8th month’s anniversary. Won’t be long I’ll soon have a year in.

As I sit here writing using my knees as a table my crotch of my pants keeps opening ups, because its torn And the horse and all keep creeping out at times to get a little sunlight. Just like a ground hog.

Me walking down park ave. would be a scream. Maybe I’ll get clean clothes soon. Who knows.

Well I don’t know what else to write maybe more next time.

So I’ll sign off[?]

Your loving Brother-in-law and uncle

Johnny

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Ramatowski wrote this final letter shortly after the action at Seguro de los Baños.  He mentions the fact that after being relieved from the front line at Teruel the XV Brigade received orders to halt and return to the front. The Lincoln-Washington Battalion stormed one of three Nationalist held hills. After the unit was relived from Seguro de los Baños they went into reserve on the Aragon Front. They were resting in what were considered rear area positions near Belchite when the Nationalists unleased an offensive. For the men in the path of this offensive the action was known as the Retreats.

It is almost certain that John was killed in action during the Retreats. The XV Brigade was shattered in the first phase of the Retreats beginning March 10, 1938. The remnants were driven back with the pursuit only halting when the Nationalists paused to firm up their logistics. During the pause the XV Brigade. The command emptied the training base and transferred veterans rear area jobs and the artillery.  A large draft of Spanish conscripts were also attached to the unit.

The new XV Brigade drew new weapons and marched to the front and went on April 1 – straight into the teeth of the Nationalist’s resumed offensive. John likely was part of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion that was isolated with Robert Merriman, the brigade Chief of Staff, who took command of the remnants of the Lincoln-Washington, as well as elements from the brigade headquarters.  Also joining this ad hoc formation were men from the XIth International Brigade. Merrimen led the men to a hill outside Gandesa. Merriman attempted to break into Gandesa but the attack was driven back. The survivors returned to the top of the hill and the leadership decided they would wait for nightfall to try to break through the Nationalist lines.

During the march, elements of the formation lost contact with one another. Some blundered into Nationalist encampments among those was the command group under Robert Merriman and Dave Doran the Brigade Commissar.  Merriman and Doran were apparently captured and subsequently executed. During course of this confused night the Lincoln-Washington Battalion ceased to exist as a formed body.  Dispirited men, sometimes in small groups or as individuals attempted to make their way back to the Ebro. Those who successfully reached the river had to brave the swift current and cross the swollen river to the Republican side some drowned in the attempt. Stragglers continued to cross for the next couple of weeks.

The few survivors regrouped on the far side and began to the sad task of counting the missing and the dead. John was recorded as missing and possibly captured in the vicinity of Gandesa. It is not clear whether he was killed during the abortive attack to break into Gandesa or if he died at some point during the retreat that night.

When Ramatowski’s family inquired about his health through the U. S. State Department they were erroneously informed that he was alive and well as of April 19. This error was later corrected and he was confirmed as missing presumed killed in action on April 3, 1938.

Almost a decade after John Ramatowski’s disappearance in Spain the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI, opened an investigation of Ramatowski.  The investigation appears to have started after a cousin of Ramatowski reported that while he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps he was told by a fellow airman and Spanish Civil War veteran that John had actually returned and was seen working in a lumber camp in Wisconsin. The cousin was unable recall the name of the Russian American veteran.[iv]

Over the following two years the FBI conducted an extensive investigation to determine the veracity of the report. They interviewed John’s family members, friends, and former neighbors. One neighbor informed the FBI that John’s brother Adam told him that John “returned under an assumed name so he could start life anew, inasmuch as he received a dishonorable discharge from the CCC Camp”. The neighbor further noted that Adam said John “was working in Detroit and was using the name of Park or Parker.”[v] The FBI followed up on all leads and eventually closed the case. The field agent in the St. Louis, Missouri office in his synopsis of facts indicated that “Other inquiry failed to uncover information suggesting he is alive.”[vi]

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[i] Lincoln Washington Tree, Ancestry.com.

[ii] FBI Investigation John Augustus Ramatowski, St. Louis, Missouri, September 21, 1949.; FBI Investigation, SI 100-7595, Administrative Page [undated]; FBI Investigation, SL 100-8844, [undated].

[iii] IBID.

[iv] FBI report on John Augustus Ramatowski, St. Louis, Missouri, September 20, 1950.

[v] FBI SI 100-7595, [undated].

[vi] FBI Investigation, John Augustus Ramatowski, 100-8844, September 21, 1949.

Letters and FBI reports used with permission and are courtesy of Stan Sztukowski.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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