James Walker Benét (1914-2012)

December 17, 2012

Jim Benét. Photo Phil Richardson.

We just received the sad news that Jim Benét, journalist and veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, passed away this weekend in Santa Rosa, California. This past August he was interviewed for Public Radio International; in July, he spoke with Nadya Williams for a piece in the Volunteer:

Already a professional journalist in New York City, 23-year-old Stanford graduate Jim Benét arrived in Spain in the spring of 1937 to drive ambulances. Later he volunteered for combat. Before leaving for Europe, he wrote in the New Republic magazine that many in the crowd at a fundraising rally for the Spanish Republic in Madison Square Garden “feel (for they called out during the collection) that the money should be given for arms, instead of supplies.”

Benét arrived in Spain soon after the destruction of the Basque city of Guernica in April 1937 by German incendiary bombers practicing their first “Blitzkrieg.” Cynically, he said, the Spanish fascists announced to the country and the world that “the Reds” had leveled the defenseless town. He saw combat in the battle of Brunete in July 1937 and then again during the first and second attempts to stop Franco’s offensives at Aragon in March and April 1938. Of combat, he recounted, “I saw a young Lincoln’s hair turn white, in the space of one week, completely white—from fear. He was then transferred away from the front.”

“I’m very proud of the fact that my family name is Catalan,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m mostly Irish, but one eighth Spanish—from Catalonia.” After 15 months of duty, Benét left Spain in the fall of 1938 along with the other internationals. “We were tricked by the fascists,” he said of the defeat of Republican Spain the following year. “The fascists had much more technologically advanced weaponry, but the Republican and the international troops had greater numbers and bravery.”

Benét, whose uncle was the famous Stephen Vincent Benét, author of “John Brown’s Body,” resumed his journalistic career with the New York bureau of TASS (the Soviet news agency) during World War II. He later worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for 20 years and for the Pulitzer prize-winning KQED television show Newsroom. For several years he taught at the university level. He now lives alone in a cozy home in rural Sonoma County, assisted by regular housekeepers. He advises young people today to always question and seek truth for themselves, so that “when you get old you won’t feel, ‘I should have known. I should not have believed or accepted [the lies].’”

“Spain made a man of me,” Benét added. “Going to Spain was the right thing to do. You couldn’t have a better beginning in life! We thought then, and I know now, the civil war was a genuine attempt by the Spanish people to defend democracy against the tyrannical and inhuman regimes of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.”


2 Responses to “ James Walker Benét (1914-2012) ”

  1. Betty Medsger on January 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    My husband, John T. Racanelli, and I learned with great sadness of the death of Jim Benet. He was one of gentlest and most courageous people I have ever known. We knew each other as colleagues for many years at San Francisco State University, where he influenced hundreds of future journalists after a successful career as a journalist in the Bay Area. He stood for cherished principles throughout his life. We miss him.

  2. Char Prieto on January 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    RIP Jim Benét. I will never forget you. Thanks for allowing me to interview you a couple years ago. It was an honor. Your memories will be always with us. Thank you for going to Spain, my country, to fight fascism. Muchas gracias camarada.