‘American Fighters in Spain’ by an American Anti-Fascist Volunteer from The New Masses. Vol. 23 No. 2 April 6, 1937.

‘Tom Mooney Company from the Lincoln Battalion. Jarama, c. 1937.’
‘American Fighters in Spain’ by an American Anti-Fascist Volunteer from The New Masses. Vol. 23 No. 2 April 6, 1937.

Vivas from the people and bombs from the fascist airmen are only part of the tumult of impressions gathered moving up to the front.

THROUGH the train window the picturesque countryside of eastern Spain looked like a colored movie travelogue. Red-tinted clouds, low over the mountains, greeted us as we sang American songs on our way to our mobilization point. At every train-stop, ruddy-faced peasants rushed to the train and showered oranges, bread, and sausages into our waiting hands. This part of the country is famous for its orange groves. We could almost pick them off the trees from our passing train. Wine seems more plentiful than water here, and it is said to be more healthful, so the boys are keeping healthy-but not too healthy. The villages, nestled on the mountain slopes, look unreal, like Hollywood villages. We have passed four castles situated on high bluffs; it is time to sing songs about castles in Spain.

The piping voices of the village children shouting “Salud” touch you. As soon as a child is able to toddle around, it seems, he is also able to clench his tiny fist in the Frente Popular salute. An inspiring picture was a lone peasant, on his little plot of land, his plow beside him, giving us the Frente Popular salute and shouting at the top of his husky lungs, “Viva Americanos !” we responded to that with “Viva Espana!’

Welcoming the Brigade to Barcelona, 1937.

The reception we received by the villagers when they were told we were Americans was something to remember. An Anarchist army commander, with tears flowing from his eyes unashamed, poured forth his gratitude. It was astounding and wonderful to him that Americans, the “rich” Americans, should come all the way from their comfortable homes to help defeat fascism in Spain. This was probably what most of the villagers felt about us.

At our first stop-over for the night, we were quartered with about five hundred men who had come from every conceivable place on the globe: Germans, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, American and Cuban Negroes, Chinese, and, interestingly enough, a Palestine Jew who had spent his last cent to come here. That night we marched into a large hall in the village and every group represented had to sing a song. The effect was superb. We heard revolutionary songs of the Greeks, the Arabs, the Italians, and the Austrians. The Arab comrade was the most popular of all. He sang, clapped his hands, and danced at the same time. His wailing, rhythmic cadence had all of us clapping hands and shaking hips.

‘Cuban volunteers belonging to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Barcelona, January 1937.’

There were eight Austrians with us who had skied all the way from their country, across the mountains, for ten days. Four of their party, including a woman medical student, had either been shot or captured by the border guards. There was a young German Communist who had escaped from a concentration camp. That night he sang a prison song, the “Peat-Bog Soldiers.” He was about nineteen and had light golden hair. He looked like a little boy, but his voice was heavy and low. He was striking back at fascism, and was happy.

Four women were quartered with us, ate the same food, and roughed it with the men. Three were French nurses on their way to join the International Brigade, and the fourth was a Swiss chemist who was there with her brother, father, and grandfather! She explained seriously to one of the boys that were her mother alive, she would have been there too. She said simply, “Could one of us go and leave the other? All of us love freedom. All of us must fight.”

At Valencia we met the first trainload of refugees from Malaga. They were a pitiful sight. Old, toothless men, ragged women and children, and young boys-not a young man amongst them. They told us of a terrible slaughter by the fascist troops. Our boys made a collection, and a few hundred pesetas were given to the refugees. The International Red Aid was on the job, however, right at the station, feeding the stricken people while accommodation for them was being arranged. Many a Yankee tongue spat forth profane abuse of the fascists who had done this to Malaga. It was then that we composed our fighting song, now sung by the entire American battalion at the front. It was composed by four Americans and two Canadians, and is sung to the tune of some American college song. If possible, I shall try to have the music written out and sent to America. It has a marvelous swing, and when we march to it our chests swell, our hands swing proudly, and our voices shout it defiantly.

New York’s Walter Benjamin Garland, Barcelona, January 17, 1937.

We march, we Americans,
To defend our working class,
To uphold democracy
And mow the fascists down like grass;
We’re marching to victory,
Our hearts are set, our fists are clenched,
A cause like ours can’t help but win,
The fascists’ steel will bend like tin,
We give our word they shall not pass,
No pasaran!
We give our word they shall not pass!

At our base we learned that we would act as the reserve for the American battalion already in action. We drilled in a bull-ring, and it was here that we saw our first Spanish bull-fight, American style. The automobile worker from Detroit painted a swastika on a white handkerchief, and the actor from Boston panted and snorted and charged. The actor tore the hated insignia to shreds, and the matador, together with the rest of us, gave three cheers.

The night before we left for our final training ground, we were treated to a bombing party by a fleet of fascist planes, probably from Malaga. The whine and roar were terrifying to us rookies, but when the American commandant asked for volunteers for rescue work in the villages, twenty of us stepped forward. Back home we had seen the pictures of dead Spanish children, but here, rushing through the streets with the drone of the planes above us, crouching low near a wall to escape the shower of glass and stone, and then digging out three dead babes from beneath the ruins of a house, gave us our first real hard swallow of this war. A little boy shrieked hysterically for his mother and father, buried beneath the ruins of something that was once his home. A cruel joke: the dining room was intact and all the family pictures remained on the walls. On one side was the picture of the father in his wedding clothes; on the other, the smiling face of the mother in her bridal gown. We worked on the ruins for three hours, but could not find the bodies. Another rescue squad relieved us and began where we left off.

‘Lincoln BN HQ, Jarama April 1937, foreground Battalion Commander CPT Martin Hourihan, and Battalion Clerk Joseph Wheelan.’

A bomb dropped a few hundred feet away and we all fell prone on the ground. That horrible whine, that terrific impact made our knees quiver. We tried to joke about it, but all of us were angry. Here was some fascist aviator, up in the dark heavens, dropping bombs on people who couldn’t see to fight back. And the people who were killed were innocent civilians. How many people were killed in that four-hour bombardment I do not know. One of the doctors said about twelve. The fascist aviators (they came in relays) must have been cockeyed. Out of one hundred and twenty bombs, only four made direct hits. The American commandant, who knew I had done newspaper work, said grimly, “Well, here’s your story.” He had organized the rescue work, and went around the place throughout the bombardment as if it were raining raindrops instead of bombs.

Before leaving for our final training ground, we were addressed by the French commandant, whose speech was translated into four different languages. He spoke briefly. There were two things he asked from us: proletarian discipline and the erasing of political differences during the time we were fighting our common enemy. There was no need, he said, to explain the situation, because had we not known it, we would not have been there. We couldn’t lose, he said, but our sacrifices would have to be many. The bull-ring thundered to the shouts of “Red Front!” in four languages, and we marched to our waiting train.

Lincoln Brigade volunteers.

Through the streets the villagers raised their fists and cheered madly. The night’s bombardment seemed to have had no effect upon their morale. The American song rang through the dusty air and, as the train got under way, a mighty, “No pasaran-we give our word they shall not pass!” rose to the Spanish heavens from the lips of Americans prepared to die for freedom and democracy. Our train gathered speed. We waved our final good-bys to the villagers. In ten hours we would be at the front. It felt good.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1937/v23n02-apr-06-1937-NM.pdf

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