Letters from a Finnish Volunteer

March 4, 2011

Martin Maki. Photo taken in a costume uniform at a photo studio during the time between the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Collection of Maria Maki

Martin David Maki wrote many letters in Finnish when he was in Spain with the International Brigade. The letters were recently discovered, and thanks to Matti Mattson, the only man who could translate them because he knows both Finnish and the war, we have them now.

Martin’s own handwritten story shows that he was at Tarazona, the Madrid front, and joined the British battalion from August 1937 to January 1938. He was also in the Washington battalion with the Finnish machine gunners. He was at Quinto, Mediana, and Fuentes de Ebro, then in the hospital, Revstaka, Cona, Benacasim, Teruel (the North Pole), Belchite, and Gandesa. In his own words, “For many hot days and nights to come, it was constant fighting and moving and reorganizing into the Washington-Lincoln Battalion. I can remember being so thirsty and the attempts to bring water in wooden barrels on burros were made, but few ever made it. At the time the Fascists began to move in reinforcements with German and Italian artillery and airpower. The losses were heavy. For us, Mosquito Ridge was the last.”

Martin was captured on April 3, 1938, and spent a year at San Pedro de Cardeña prison. He left Spain wearing paper slippers and a gown, walking over the bridge to freedom in France. He said all the men spontaneously turned and gave “the finger” to the enemy once they were in the middle of the bridge!

Martin was born in a lumber camp in Newberry, Michigan, on July 4, 1910. He passed away peacefully in Annandale, Minnesota, on May 22, 2001. He served in the U.S. army in World War II and said his greatest joy was watching the defeat of Hitler. His wife, Harriet, and his 4 children would agree. Getting his copy of the VALB every month was one of his favorite moments.

Maria Maki

Translated by Matti A. Mattson (1916-2011)


September 27, 1937

Salud Comrade Carl*:

I was happy to have received a letter from you. It arrived at its destination at a time when we had just commenced a powerful and calculated offensive on this front. In observing the situation, your interest-rousing letter was especially welcome. Saying this I do not wish to leave an understanding that I, or we, are discouraged. On the contrary, by the victories that we have attained by daunt of fierce battle and decisiveness, our will to do battle has been raised and has carried our fitness level to its highest point. In other words our morale is at its peak.

Since the last time that I wrote to you a great deal has happened. What we have done and what we have experienced would be enough to write a book. But that is not what I will be trying to do—but then I do not have the talent to do that. I believe that you have read more from our newspapers about our battles here. Furthermore, I believe that you have read more from the many letters that have come to you from the many comrades in battle. I have, in fact, more to write about than my own impressions from the time that I have been here.

From the time that we left for the front I have been with the [Toivo Antikaisen KK Joukkue] Toivo Antikainen MG Machine Gun Company. There occurred several serious times—while simultaneously there were humorous moments. That is the way that war is. We have made several quick attacks at different times, and in that have succeeded very well. I do not wish to brag, but up to this point those Finns that came from Finland, America and Canada are looked upon as estimable fighters. Of course as solid antifascist soldiers we have given our best efforts. Once the order is received, we have conquered a position and held the position until new orders have been given. Even though at times the area had become very hot, we have gritted our teeth and stood fast.

But it has been a singular “sauna.” No matter how one tried to remain tough-skinned, the most hellish is the airplanes’ bombing and “strafing.” “Strafing’’ is machine-gun fire from a military fighter aircraft. The bullets that rain down are somewhat larger than the usual bullets. We agree unanimously that bombing by aircraft is such that, take any man, and he will attempt to get his head under the ground as far as is possible.

At times we have been a bit amazed when looking at how many times we have been bombed by German and Italian bombers, but still have carried on firmly.

I have to tell you, Kalle, that I myself have prepared for my death when those Black Vultures soared overhead. Many times I have thought that surely now is my Waterloo. Especially at those times that one is stuck in a position that has no low spot in the terrain and no ditch either. But even if you are in a crater you will break out in a sweat. I remember, especially at the Madrid front, the fascist planes came and circled around for hours. When they started to drop their “eggs” the ground shook so strongly from the explosion that it felt as though they were coming this way and soon we will have a bomb on the nape of our necks. Behind the bomber planes came “strafers.” They flew, one behind the other, in a long line and fired at our boys. This lasted for some time. When their work of the Devil [The word Devil is profane in Finn.] was finished I felt it and came out of the trench, a sigh of relief escaped, then we were amazed that we were not hit. At the same time we swore a bit in a Finnish manner.

Now, however, we have more and heavier artillery and devilishly skillful men who know how to aim it. Also a new, and such an air arm, that the Fascist airmen are not too willing to remain and have their teeth engaged when our planes appear on the scene. From now on we will begin to fare well and the Fascists will be left on the losing side.

So, Kalle, we have made an effort to keep up to developments in America. We read each D.W. diligently, which we receive quite regularly. Also we have started to get the Tyomies.

Here where we are it is not as hot as compared to July. Here for instance, it is warmer than over there in Minnesota. We still go swimming even though it is late September. A few days ago we received more sturdy clothes, while the time is approaching when the rains begin and the weather turns colder.

Finally Kalle, we have been healthy and just as prepared to go against the enemy as the day that we came to Spain. Greetings from all of us to you. From me, extend my greetings to Onni and Mike, to friends and Comrades, Salud.

In Comradeship,

Martin M.

P.S. My address is;

S.R.I. Plaza Altogana 26,1,

Albacete, Spain

P.S. We were in reserve at this time. I will write to you about future battles at a later date.

*Carl and Kalle, of course, were the same person. That person was Carl Paivio, National Secretary of the Finnish Workers Federation (M.A.M.) .


December 18, 1937

Salud Kalle:

At a time when there were short periods of light on the horizon, when there was no inclination or opportunity to write, I, nevertheless, commenced to answer your letter which I received a few days ago—which letter also enclosed a letter from Helen as well. Both of your letters had much highly interesting news. So you can be sure that, for my part, they were exceedingly welcome. Therefore, many thanks

I wrote to you when I took a trip to the hospital to have my hand taken care of. I was there for three weeks. I have been back to the battalion already for several weeks. At this time we are still in reserve, but prepared to return to the front lines at any moment. In spite of the fact that the last few weeks have been very quiet and uneventful, it is universally known that it is “quiet before the storm”. As you know, Franco has threatened to launch a “massive attack before the winter sets in”–but, as I write this, the attack has not started. It matters not, what kind of plans Franco harbors, he will find out that we are prepared. Threats do not cause us to fear and to panic. We remain calm and at the same time prepare ourselves for the battles which are ahead of us. It is known that the enemy must not be underrated and a multifaceted defense is necessary, and our attention likewise, must be sharpened; all of this is essential.

And Kalle, you can be sure that Franco must put in motion immense troop movements if he wishes to succeed. You see, in the fascist’s front the situation is not altogether in good shape. Now and then there have occurred uprisings among the fascist ranks, and Mussolini’s aspirations for Spain found opposition to its terrible terrorism. In the fascist’s territories there is a growing support for the Republic, For instance, Kalle, some days ago on the Aragon front our forces marched deep into fascist territory and in one village resident men raised a red flag to our troops. That is something, is it not? How can we lose in this historical conflict? Our army grows every day–not only in numbers but in every way. We are beginning to see aircraft, more artillery, machineguns, and all types of war equipment, which we shall be using to give the fascists a good selkasauna [i.e. a good thrashing on their behinds], from which they shall never recover.

So Kalle, I have been here now for seven months. Believe me, I have learned a great deal, and if at some future time I return there, I will be of greater worth than previously. Fighting has at times been very heavy, but there have been gains. We know that future encounters will be even heavier and we will end up the victors. Of that there is not even a doubt.

Finnish women have knitted socks for us. When you are on a speaking tour be sure to give them our thanks. That also shows that many people remember us and that gives us added strength and initiative. When one has good socks on one’s feet the more nimble one will be when the fascists attempt to escape.

You inquired about Victor. I saw him a few days ago. He is in an M.P. battalion and is O.K. The same can be said about most Finnish boys.

As we will be leaving here very shortly and hauling our beloved heavy machine gun I will leave something for future correspondence.

I wish for you a good deal of endurance and good health for the New Year. Greetings to you and all of the Comrades. Salud.

The warmest regards,


S.R.I. Plaza Altozano 171


4 Responses to “ Letters from a Finnish Volunteer ”

  1. Georgia Wever on March 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    This is proof of the value of the booklet from which it is taken: the translation by Matti Mattson.
    Its first printing was sold out. Because there were still requests for the book, a second printing was done by Matti at his own expense after ALBA did not agree to do it. This translation should now be reproduced by ALBA and announced so that all can share.

  2. Maria Maki on April 5, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for publishing this letter. Carl Geiser’s book, The Good Fight, has more complete information on the prison. It’s a great book and very detailed. The Christmas Play should be made into a movie! My Dad read it every Christmas. He never returned to Spain as he didn’t want to get into an airplane after his Spanish experience. Matti, bless his soul, will be so missed.

  3. Francisco J. Gonzalez on April 5, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    In 1996 I had the honor of meeting Mr. Maki at a conference in St. Peter, MN. My mother was born a refugee displaced by Spanish Civil War, who later grew up under the Franco dictatorship. I cherished the opportunity to thank Mr. Maki, on behalf of my mother, for his sacrifice and his bravery, for risking his life for total strangers, for a country that was not his own, and for doing all of this simply because it was the right thing to do. Gracias, camarada Martin, y Salud!

  4. Willie on December 4, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Anybody know If I could order the Mattson translation Meidän poikamme Espanjassa or even a copy of the Finnish language original. I’d like to read it.