Matti Mattson (1916-2011)

January 13, 2011

Matti Mattson at "Songs for the Cause," October 2010. Photo Alan Entin

Matti Mattson, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, died while in hospice at JFK Hospital Atlantis, Florida, on January 11, 2011.

Mattson was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He completed one year of high school and then studied at the B.F. Brown Junior High School, where he took an elective course in printing. He then worked as a blacksmith’s helper at a granite quarry on top of Rollstone Hill in Fitchburg, where a massive glacial boulder stood (it is now on the small triangle on the Upper Common). He lived on Mount Elam Road.

During the Great Depression, he joined the Young Communist League (YCL), the youth organization of the Communist Party USA. He was active in demonstrating, and among other things walked in a “Hunger March” to Boston. The slogans were Feed the Needy, Enact Unemployment Insurance and establish a system of Social Security.

Strongly opposed to Fascism, Mattson was one of four Fitchburg volunteers who went to Spain in a clandestine manner to help the Spanish people defend the legally elected Spanish Republic against the Spanish generals’ betrayal, aided by their backers Hitler and Mussolini. He sailed for Spain on the SS Washington. Once in France, he boarded a small wine-transporting boat that the small businessman risked losing (along with his life) in the Mediterranean port of Sète, about 100 miles from the frontier with Spain. He told the New York Times: “We got on at night when no one was looking — we hoped.” He and others reached Spain in March 1937.

In Spain, he was in infantry training for about two weeks and was then assigned to the XIII Brigade Intendencia as a truck driver on the Southern Front. After Brunete, Mattson transferred to the XV Brigade as a front-line ambulance driver where he was with the Lincoln-Washington Battalion at all of its actions until the Ebro Crossing. He returned to the United States in December, 1938.

About his service as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, Mattson has said: “I now feel that the decision to volunteer was the most important single thing that I have done. We helped wake the world up to the danger of war, and allowed (the Allies) to prepare somewhat.”

At a march and ceremony for the International Brigades before they left Spain, Mattson heard Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria”, speak. In 2008, Mattson said: “I heard her when we left Spain in 1938. We marched down the Diagonal in Barcelona, then we had a meeting at the end there and she spoke.” He said that she was braver than either one of them (John McCain and Barack Obama)”.

During World War II, Mattson joined the US Army and was trained as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He graduated with his class but was not permitted to fly because of his political activities. He was ordered to the Army Corps of Engineers and served in the European Theater. Later he was sent to the Pacific as part of the army of occupation in Japan after the close of hostilities. He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Mattson worked as a printer in New York until his retirement. He was an activist in Local 6 of the Printers Union. He was an accomplished amateur painter.

Mattson was a member of Veterans for Peace, NYC Chapter 34. For many years he marched the length of Fifth Avenue in the Veterans Day Parade and has spoken at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in lower Manhattan on Memorial Day. He was often been a speaker at the annual reunions of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in New York City.

On March 30, 2008, Mattson was one of 11 veterans of the Lincoln Brigade present at the dedication of a monument to the Brigade (video here)  on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, California.

On August 26, 2009, Mattson became the third surviving Lincoln vet to take advantage of one of the key provisions of Spain’s controversial “Law of Historical Memory,” which allows veterans of the International Brigades to acquire Spanish citizenship without renouncing their other nationality.

The ceremony (video here) took place in the office of Fernando Villalonga, Spanish Consul General in New York. Mattson said:  “I am going to accept this citizenship for not only the guys who are buried in Spain, there’s a lot of them, but the guys that are buried in the United States.” On September 6, 2009, Mattson was guest of honor at a dinner organized by the Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the Centro Vasco Restaurant on West 23rd Street, New York City. On January 29, 2010, Mattson was honored with the President’s Medal by Fitchburg State College at its Commencement ceremonies. On this occasion he said: “I am and will still be a staunch anti-fascist and will oppose war to the same extent as before I went to Spain, and after I returned to my country. I know that my life has been somewhat different from some others during my time on Earth, but it has always been an honest effort, and has fulfilled the teaching that my immigrant parents gave me: ‘Try to leave the Earth in better condition than you found it.’”

Shortly before moving to Florida, in October 2010, Mattson spoke at a benefit concert for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, where he shared the stage with Pete Seeger, Patti Smith, and Guy Davis.

Condolences can be sent to his daughter, Ilona Mattson, 299 Congress Street, Belfast, ME 04915-6086.

(Sources: The Volunteer,, Wikipedia (with thanks to Grover Furr).)


8 Responses to “ Matti Mattson (1916-2011) ”

  1. Bill Gilson on January 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    On behalf of Chapter 34 Veterans for Peace NYC, we extend our sincere condolences to the International Brigade community. They fought to alert the world to fascism in the 30’s and continued to be vigilant and outspoken against the enemies of peace, justice and equality when they returned home. They made it their life’s work and became our heroes and heroines: “the grandfathers and grandmothers of the world” to quote Judith Montell in “Forever Activists.” He will be missed greatly by all chapter members.
    Bill Gilson, vice president, Chapter 34 NYC Veterans for Peace.

  2. Timo Palonen on January 15, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Matti was a great man and comrade, and a selfless human being. He was also a great personal friend. We had many good times together, enjoying lunches at Brooklyn’s various ethnic restaurants over the years, talking about politics, Finnish History, the old New York Finns, old movies, and golf, which Matti enjoyed playing well into his later years. Most importantly, he talked of Spain, and consequently World War II and the struggle against Fascism, which really defined his life.
    I shall never forget Matti Mattson.
    Timo Palonen, Brooklyn NY

  3. Char Prieto on January 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    R.I.P. dear Matti. You are gone but we still have your memories. Your legacy will live forever in our hearts. As a Spaniard I must say: Thank you very much for going to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. As you always used to say: Salud!

  4. Char Prieto on January 16, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Canción del brigadista

    esposo de la piel de España
    hambriento de libertad
    tu corazón naufragó
    recorriendo duras sendas
    cruzando montañas y picos nevados

    que has poblado el vientre de ansias de ser libre
    brigadista que junto a los campos
    combatiste por la libertad

    inscrito en la lucha
    evocando el nombre de la República
    esperas en el frente
    con fusiles en las trincheras
    dormir en las duras sábanas heladas
    del húmedo barro español
    rozando el plomo de las balas
    rodeado de muertos sin ataudes

    joven que poblado tu vientre
    de pólvora y guerra
    esperando en el surco
    has llegado hasta el abismo
    rodeado de cuerpos olvidados
    envueltos en claveles rojos
    de vida de soldados


    …ahora soldado
    no eres más que un cristal delicado
    que se puede romper
    al mínimo tropiezo
    pero aun prolongando
    el eco de libertad y honra
    has llegado hasta la cima
    aun hoy
    con el puño levantado

    Dedicated to Matti Mattson and Nate Thornton

  5. Matti Mattson är borta at Jonas Sjöstedt on January 17, 2011 at 1:11 am

    […] Nu är Matti borta. Han dog den 11e januari. De är inte många kvar nu av de frivilliga som reste till Spanien och som kan berätta om denna historiska strid mot fascismen. Alla svenskar är borta och bara några få amerikaner lever fortfarande. Läs krönikan om Mattis liv här. […]

  6. Harry Siitonen on February 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I only got to know Matti in his later years but became good friends with him. We were both members of the Typographical Union. His courageous example in Spain is inspirational. I wrote several articles about him in the Finnish-American media, especially at the time when he was in San Francisco at the dedication of the Lincoln Brigade monument in 2008. I was there myself with other members of the Bay Area Finnish community and with several Bay Area fellow union printers. I wasw able to spend quality time with Matti at that time, as well as in an earlier visit to him at his home in Brooklyn. Elät aina muistoisamme, Matti. Presente! Harry Siitonen, Berkeley, CA

  7. Madeline Pellegrino Ligenza on August 25, 2011 at 7:43 am

    So sorry to hear of your loss………

    I have been trying to contact you…….


  8. char prieto on January 20, 2012 at 1:29 am

    It has been a year since you left us but you are not forgotten dear Matti and Nate.