Last Days in Spain – by Ben Iceland

September 29, 2015
By and

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.

Last Days in Spain
Ben Iceland

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 12, Number 2, December 1990.]

Lazar Gordon and John Q. Robinson, Assitant Commissar of the XV BDE, September 1937, The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0702.

Lazar Gordon and John Q. Robinson, Assitant Commissar of the XV BDE, September 1937, The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0702.

It took us a couple of days to get to Valencia. There we were quartered in the cavalry barracks near the river Turia, and not too far from the center of the city. The men of the 35th Anglo-American Battery were already there. They had been in action with the Czech antitank guns, and been forced to retreat – but with few casualties. Then they were ordered out of the lines to await repatriation in Valencia. Stray Internationals from all over Central Spain were converging there, men from hospitals and remote, inactive fronts, men from guerrilla outfits. There were about 150 of us in the barracks, and it was good to be reunited with so many of the men I knew and had fought with. They were all there; Basic Industry Hawkins,[1] as cynical and shaky as ever – Louie Roberts,[2] with the same beret and the same skill at organizing little comforts, and the same seat in the Cafe Vodka, and even the saran whores who congregated around him. Butch Gordon[3] was there, telling his jokes, and Gus Heisler,[4] forever grumbling.

We were waiting to be repatriated, and there were all sorts of rumors as to how that was going to happen – by ship to Barcelona or Marseilles, or maybe even by plane. No one really knew. Some of the guys were pessimistic about even getting out at all. There had been a lull in the fighting after the Ebro offensive, but we knew that wouldn’t last, and Franco would take the offensive’ again. Few doubted that the end was approaching. Our hope was we would somehow get out before that end came. We had no weapons and we were finished as a fighting force. Many of the men speculated on what they would do in the event the Central Front collapsed. There was even same hare-brained talk about seizing a ship in Valencia harbor and sailing her to Oran in Africa, if the front did collapse. But there were also some few optimists, who, no matter how bad the situation seemed, found cause for hope. They would say that our military situation was improved “with our lines shortened,” or that because of the international situation, France would have to open her border,” or that the people in rebel-held Spain “were ripe for revolution.”

The men were bored with inactivity, and so after breakfast we would scatter all over town. As before, a favorite hangout was always the Cafe Vodka, that dark cellar-place, crowded with soldiers and whores. Another hangout was the Hotel Metropole, opposite the Bullring. Or we ranged through Barrio China, which bordered the main plaza. All the trolleys came to the main plaza, and sometimes we would board one going to a nearby town in search of food. Food was our main preoccupation, and in the towns located in the rich agricultural region around Valencia, the Huerta, a meal could sometimes be found; especially if you had a bar of soap to barter. In one of these towns Hawkins once followed a flirtatious gypsy woman into a field, and was robbed of his trousers and its contents, when the lady’s husband appeared. He recovered his trousers after a chase, but was kidded unmercifully after that by the men.

I went to a concert once with Bill Martinelli.[5] Neither of us was really anxious to listen to the music. It was an opportunity to sample a more normal way of life that we had almost forgotten existed. There were few soldiers in the audience. We picked seats next to a good-looking Spanish girl. She looked so clean, and there was the tantalizing smell of perfume about her. We settled down in our seats, breathing in the marvelous female odor. It grew warm in the theater and the lice in our worn uniforms became active. We started to scratch, and without a glance, the girl moved many seats away. Soon after we left.

It was difficult to control the men in Valencia, and they were getting into all sorts of trouble. The clap became a problem. Discipline was either lax-or non-existent. There was nothing to do but wait. The political commissars made some attempts to buck up morale by political exhortation, but the men saw no purpose in it, and didn’t wish to listen. Not that they were any less anti-fascist in feeling, but they were tired of stale talk, and resented the too-familiar phrases in which the pep talks were clothed.

It was felt that a smaller place would be more satisfactory to await the League of Nations Repatriation Committee. Things were getting out of hand in Valencia. After a few weeks, we left Valencia for Villanueva de Castellon, a small town in the heart of the orange country. We occupied the second floor of the Left Republican Club. It was a large, bare room, and we slept next to one another on straw mats spread out on the stone floor. Here too we had little to do but wait. There were none of the distractions and temptations of the city. There was no Cafe Vodka, no plaza, no whores. The men grew restive. It was impossible to keep us pinned down in Villanueva de Castellon, so finally passes for Valencia were allowed to groups of men.

In Villanueva de Castellon there was a small bull ring where, when the sun shone, we sometimes played baseball. Some of the fellows were pretty good. It was easy to hit a home run in the small, circular field, and some of the scores were astronomical. The streets of Villanueva de Castellon were filled with oranges, and we would kick them as we walked. There were no trucks to transport them. I got so sick of eating the golden fruit. But a diet of oranges does not allay hunger. In the fields around the town, grew onions and garlic. My pockets always had some garlic and onion in them with which to flavor my ration of bread. Their flavor mixed with bread crumbs, was present in the butts we rolled.

We were waiting for the League of Nations Commission to count and register us. The weeks passed, and we read about the farewell parade for the International Brigades in Barcelona, and then about the Lincoln Brigade leaving for home. Still we waited. When would they ever come?

It rained often now, and when it rained we were confined to our huge, empty room. The only useful job was in the kitchen, where Frank Madigan[6] was in charge. He had his regular crew that did all the work, and there was not even any KP to relieve the monotony. To work in the kitchen was a privilege. The cooks had a cookhouse beside the railroad tracks. They had a pet, a large mongrel called Brownie who barked and snarled at any civilian passing by. The food was, if anything, even worse than it had been. Now it was mostly lentils. You had to be watchful of the stones in the lentils. When the men complained, it was explained that, now since we were no longer front line troops, our rations were smaller. Spain was getting hungrier.

We had a few dog eared packs of cards with which we played poker and blackjack. Our pay was coming regularly, and the stakes we played for were large. Even though the money was almost worthless, still we maintained the illusion of gambling. It was the kind of money you could buy almost nothing with, yet couldn’t do without. Mixed in with the worthless pesetas was an occasional dollar, or franc or pound. There were always arguments as to how many pesetas one dollar or franc was worth. Bill and I were partners in one game of blackjack, and he was an excellent dealer; he had the deck for a long time, and we cleaned up and decided to spend our winnings on a trip to Valencia. Ski Buturla,[7] of course, was to come along with us. We three were always together.

There was a narrow gauge railroad that ran from Villanueva de Castellon to Valencia. We called it the Tooneville Trolley – not an original name, but a whiff of home. The one or two cars were usually filled with peasants, and with people from Valencia who used to scour the countryside for food. It was in that train that Ski met Elvira. I had noticed a rather husky, dark-eyed woman when she boarded the train with a basket. She was standing in the aisle, and we offered her a seat in our crowded compartment. She smiled and accepted, showing beautiful white teeth. I spoke to her, but she had eyes and ears only for Ski from the moment she entered that train. Ski knew it, and exaggerated his gestures, his theatrically, and his speech. Obviously he was very attractive to Elvira and she made no pretense of hiding it. With me as intermediary, she asked Ski if he would come to her home when they arrived at Valencia. Just like that. Of course Ski agreed, puffing out his chest. We kidded him a bit, and were even jealous, I suppose, but were glad for him. It was a strange way for an International to meet a woman. In Valencia we separated, agreeing to meet later in the evening.

It was a rare day in Valencia – cool and sunny, with specks of clouds in the deep-blue, Mediterranean sky. Everything seemed shiny and white. I wanted to walk the streets – alone for once – and in places where I had never been. I felt peculiarly free and devoid of any ties. It felt strange knowing that my days of soldiering were over, and the anxiety of the front and future battle had left me. I knew I would be going home and I wished to savor the sights and smell of this city before I left it. I walked along the embankment of the River Turia, marveling at the shacks set up in the very river bed, wondering at the patches of garden so lovingly tended. The scent of olive oil and thyme was strong. Then I slowly walked back to the center of the city, and on the Gran Via, there was a bookstore with a stall of books on the outside. I browsed through the books, and found a thin, paperback with a selection of Lope de Vega’s poems[8]. Some of them were about Valencia. I read and reread his poem “Llegada a Valencia.”

Esta, Erfila, es Valencia;
La puerta es esta de cuarte;
aqui dio Venus y Marte
una divina influencia.
Estos son sus altos muros,
y aqueste e1 Turia que al mar
le paga en ague de azar
tributo en cristales puros.
Aquel es el sacro Seo,
y este el alto Micalete.
Ella es tal cual la promete
Su grande fama al desao.

How well he had evoked this city more than three-hundred years ago!

While I was browsing and reading, a tall American had approached the stall. It was Bill Aalto,[9] one of the American guerrillas who had been involved in a spectacular breakout of prisoners from a fascist prison. We knew each other only

William Aalto. Photograph from K. E. Heikkinen, ed., Meidän Poikamme Espanjassa (Our Boys in Spain), Finnish Workers Federation, USA, Inc., 1939.

William Aalto. Photograph from K. E. Heikkinen, ed., Meidän Poikamme Espanjassa (Our Boys in Spain), Finnish Workers Federation, USA, Inc., 1939.

casually. I showed him the poem about Valencia by Lope de Vega. He liked it, but wondered what had happened to the “puros cristales'” or the water of the Turia. He found a book of poems by Frederico Garcia Lorca.[10] It was the first I had ever heard of Lorca. We bought the two books, and went to a nearby café and spent the afternoon drinking vermouth, reading poetry and talking. I won’t forget that afternoon.

Towards evening I met Bill Martinelli at the cafe Vodka. He was a bit drunk and there were a couple of whores with him at the table – a couple of husky, bleached-blondes, who were arguing about the relative merits of two unions to which they belonged; one of them Communist dominated, the other Socialist. I asked what benefits they got from a union since they were on their own. There were no benefits, they said, but everyone had to belong to something in wartime Spain. We were to meet Ski later on at a restaurant, but we could not shake the two girls who were glad to go with us.

Ski was already there when we got to the restaurant, and he was there with Elvira, the woman he had met on the train. They had a table for two, so we could not join them. How they managed to communicate, I never could figure out. Ski spoke to her in his combination English-Polish-Spanish, she only in Spanish; but they seemed to understand one another, and from the way they laughed together and touched one another, it was obvious that a deep fondness had developed. Elvira beckoned me to come close, and then shaking her finger, she whispered, “Conoce estas chicas? Cuidado, es possible son sucias.” [Do you know these girls? Be careful they might be diseased.] Elvira was already concerned, not only for Ski, but for his friends. I assured her that we were aware of the risks. Then Ski too, never a paragon of caution, added his words of admonition.

When I told Bill about it, he laughed and said: “that Polack! He’s in love, and now we’ll never hear the end of it.” How right he was! The two union maids found lodgings for us that night in a small pension, we heeded Elvira’s advice.

The next day, on our way back to Villanueva de Castellon, Ski told us about Elvira. She had been married, and was from Sagunto, where her husband bad been a leader of the longshoreman’s union. He had been killed in the early days of the fighting. She had an eight-year old daughter. She herself worked in a factory near Valencia. It was “love at first sight” Ski said. He was utterly amazed and delighted at the whole affair.

He had been introduced to her mother, and he was crazy about “the kid.” He was most anxious to take care of the two of them. He intended to see them as often as he could. Elvira needed soap to keep them clean. Did we have any extra bars?

The story of Ski and Elvira spread through the outfit; Sometimes Elvira would come to Villanueva de Castellon to see Ski. She would never enter our two-story barracks, but would stay below and ask for Ski. “Ski, Elvira is here,” would be shouted loud enough for everyone to hear. Then Ski, with everyone laughing and a bit envious, would sling his straw-filled mattress over his shoulder, and cockily, in his rolling gait, go to meet his Elvira. The guys at the cookhouse had made a place for him near the railroad tracks, where the two lovers could be undisturbed. The idyll continued until we left.

So for months we waited till the commission from the League of Nations would come and count us. Nobody believed they would ever come. It rained a lot and we spent most of our time crowded together in our huge second story barracks in the Left Republican Club. When the sun shone, we would walk the streets or wander in the fields round about. An event was an occasional ration of goat cheese. The townspeople would line up from early in the morning, waiting for hours for a ration of cheese the size of your thumb. Some of the soldiers would line up for the cheese also. I felt guilty lining up. But my hunger was stronger than my guilt, and besides it was something to do. It would have been easier for us if we were a part of the activity of the town. The townspeople were not unfriendly, they just ignored us. We had been dumped in their midst, and the fact that we had fought for the Republic was not enough of a bond for them to welcome us into their homes. And of course, there was the language barrier. Whenever we could we went to Valencia.

Suddenly I received a batch of letters – some of them written many months ago. Many were from my wife. She kept asking “when are you coming home?” She wrote me of the men who had already been repatriated. It was obvious that she did not know that I was cut off in central Spain. The censor had done a good job blotting out any mention of place. She wrote, too that she had contributed to a fund to get us home. One of the letters, from a friend, told of a meeting he had attended in Madison Square Garden, in which Earl Browder was the principal speaker.[11]  It was real inspirational stuff, and so curiously unrelated to anything I was experiencing. But the letter did contain a flattened-out cigarette. The letters made me homesick and the waiting became harder.

The year was coming to an end, and a celebration was organized for Christmas Eve. There were skits composed by Bill Gresham,[12] and singing, and somehow, plenty to drink. Some fellows had managed to get some imitation whiskey in Valencia, and that together with a wine punch and the vile cognac, was enough to guarantee a typical American Christmas. Many of the men got drunk, and fights broke out. The singing lasted till morning, the favorite song being one that had always been frowned upon by the political commissars. It was a plaintive song we had learned from the English. One of its verses went:

Take me over the sea,
Where the enemy can’t get at me;
Oh my, I’m too young to die,
I want to go home.

Vincent Lossowski, Photograph from VALB Identification card, ALBA.

Vincent Lossowski, Photograph from VALB Identification card, ALBA.

There was also a New Year’s Eve party. Again there was drinking and fighting. Some of the men were sentenced to the guard house, but they were soon released. There had been a division of opinion about the breakdown of discipline, and the officers of the John Brown Battery were for stricter punishment. They wanted more political meetings and education. Vincent Lossowski[13] was accused of being “anti-leadership,” and too “pro rank and file,” and he almost lost his commission. But common sense prevailed, and the issue was soft-pedaled. It was a curious fact that the men who had seen little or no action at the front, were the most rigid and condemnatory at what they considered breaches of discipline.

Early in January, the League of Nations commission arrived. It consisted of officers from various armies of Europe. Together with some interpreters. The officers were in full uniform, with braids and decorations. They looked so well-fed. Tables were set out in the open near the cook house, and we were lined up, and one by one we approached the tables to answer questions about our nationality. How different we looked from these officers our uniforms, if you could call them that, were torn and dirty. No two of us looked alike. Some of us wore shoes, some, boots, but most alpargatas (rope sandals). Every jacket, every pair of trousers, was different. The questions were asked perfunctorily, and it seemed, with some hint of disdain and disapproval. We too showed our resentment of these well-fed, well-dressed questioners, who represented to us the callousness and unconcern of the European countries which had been unwilling to sell us arms. In our rags we felt superior.

The waiting was even more difficult to bear after the commission completed its work and left. We were still cut off and there was always the ever present fear, that in spite of the Commission, the fronts would collapse before we could get out of Spain. The news from the fronts was ominous. The advance in the Levante had stopped, but the fascists were advancing in Catalonia, and had taken Lerida. It was sad to read of places where I had been, where the fascists now were. I thought of the places near Huesca where I had been with the Czech AA Battery before the big retreat. I could picture the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees to the north. I wondered what had happened to Crosby[14] and his ever-filled canteen of wine. Was he still alive?

We were not sorry to leave Villanueva de Castellon towards the end of January. We traveled by truck to the outskirts of Valencia where we were quartered for a few days, waiting for transportation to Barcelona. The city of Valencia gave us a farewell dinner in a large hall. There were speeches and a delicious paella, set out on long tables. It was the first and only paella I had eaten in Spain. Then we were given farewell souvenirs – a leather-bound volume of the works of Juan Valera.[15] On the binding was imprinted the triangular symbol of the International Brigades.

The next day at dusk we were transported to the port, and we boarded a small freighter that was already crowded with people. There were many women and children on the ship. Most were foreigners. We tried to join the crowd in the hold. The stench down below was terrible. Some of us went back on deck where we shivered miserably in the cold and damp. The lighting of cigarettes was forbidden. When it got too cold we went down below again – but not for long. The stench and the crying of children drove us back on deck. Someone said we would have a submarine as escort. Someone else said it would be a destroyer. We could see nothing. A rumor started that we would be sailing to Marseilles. We were aware that it was a dangerous trip, whatever our destination. The coast was blockaded and many ships had been sunk by fascist planes and submarines. I was thankful for the overcast skies. Once during the night the ship stopped because of some malfunction of the engine. Whatever it was, it was soon fixed and the journey resumed.

Ski Buturla was inconsolable. He kept talking about Elvira and the child. When the war was over he was going to come back and marry her. But now he worried about how she would manage without him. She came from Communist family, and he knew she would be in great danger if Franco won. Hawkins crudely suggested she’d get along fine – what with all the soap he had collected- from us and given her. “Don’t worry, Ski,” he said. “With all that soap she’ll be able to open up a laundry.” We had to restrain Ski from hitting him. Hawkins was like that sometimes.

We reached Barcelona early in the morning. The port had just been bombed, and when we disembarked, the all-clear sirens sounded. There were trucks waiting for us, and we rode through the streets of the harbor area, along the Ramblas, and then climbed a steep hill at the edge of the city to a large, balustraded building. The building was crowded with soldiers speaking many languages. Most of the Internationals had already left Spain, and we were the last group rounded up to go. Nobody knew when we would leave for the north, but it was assumed that it would have to be soon. We were told to be ready to leave at any time. Perfunctory speeches of welcome and farewell were given in the huge-courtyard. Few men listened to the stale words and phrases that were now so familiar.

The fascists were closing in on Barcelona, and the city was being bombed every day. There were air raids that day, and squadrons of pursuit planes swooped low. I thought I heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. There were also Spanish troops in the barracks who were preparing to go to the front. They boarded trucks, together with their rifles and snub-nosed Russian machine guns. It was said they were men of the Lister’s, one of our famed divisions. They looked grim and dispirited. We who were waiting to go home, watched them going off to war. A soldier said: “We should be going with them.” We kept silent. This was not Madrid in November 1936.

Although we had been advised not to leave the barracks, some of us, feeling that we would not depart so soon, decided to go to the center of town. It was late in the afternoon and Sam Carsman,[16] Bill Martinelli, Ski Buturla and myself jumped on a truck going to town. It was dark when we got to the main plaza and almost completely emptied of people. The dim blue lights of the street lamps were eerie in the darkness, and all the shops were closed. However we did find a cellar restaurant that was open. They had horsemeat and wine. There was not even any bread. The steaks of horsemeat were very tough, but to us they very delicious. We were told they were from the horses killed that day on the docks in the bombing. So we gorged ourselves on horse meat and wine. When we left that restaurant were all a bit drunk – Ski more than a bit.

We walked around the plaza, thinking there was still plenty of time to get back to the barracks. Then we found ourselves on the Ramblas, that tree-lined promenade famed for its flower markets. It was now too dark to see any flowers, or to see anything, for that matter. But unlike the plaza, the Ramblas was crowded with people – mostly soldiers and girls yelling, strolling, laughing. It was hard to imagine that soon the fascists would be in the city.

In the darkness and crowds, Ski and I lost Bill Martinelli and Sam Carsman. We were pushed along in the flood of the evening paseo. Ski had had too much wine, and he had difficulty walking forward. I directed him, but he kept bumping into people, who good-naturedly cursed him. The wine had done me no good either, and I longed for sleep and rest. I knew that it would be impossible for us to get back to the barracks that night, and through my alcoholic daze I feared that the outfit would move without us. And crowding upon my consciousness was the thought that in a few days this could be a fascist city. But how to get some sleep and rest first?

We walked the length of the Rambles and started back. There were a couple of women ahead of us. I touched the shoulder of one of them, who eagerly turned, and I asked her if she knew a place where we could get a room for the night. It was so dark that I could hardly see what the women looked like. They led us to the door of a building on the Ramblas and knocked. The door opened; they spoke a few words to someone behind the door, and then we were led inside. In the light I saw a very fat and a very tall, thin whore – both of them quite old, and very garishly dressed and made up. We were shown two adjoining rooms up one flight of stairs. Ski immediately fell upon, the bed, arms stretched out, and was asleep. As he was lying there, I removed the wallet from his trousers. The tall, thin whore started to berate me, protesting that she was no thief. She also added: “What do you think I am? A French whore?” I assured her I had no such thoughts, and gave her double the amount of money she asked for. I went to the adjoining room with the fat one. When I told her that all I wanted to do was sleep, she started to curse me loudly, her pride and vanity being hurt by my suggestion. I assured her that under ordinary circumstances I would behave differently. I said it was I who was lacking, not she, and I tried to explain our predicament and how necessary it was to get up early to rejoin our outfit. She was mollified, and I think even pleased, that she did not have to work that night. She was a talkative one, and though I could hardly keep my eyes open, she kept me awake telling me about her difficulties during the war. She also told me about her daughter, and said that she would introduce me to her if I would remain in Barcelona longer. She promised to wake us early. She did awaken us at dawn.

We got a lift to the barracks. The Americans were gone – gone to a town near Figueras, we were informed. To get there we had to go back to the center of the city to reach the highway going north. Barcelona was a city waiting for the end. Fascist planes were flying low overhead with no opposition. There was the sound of rifle fire from some of the streets. Fascist sympathizers were firing from some windows. We were scared and silently as fast as we could go we walked to the northern industrial suburbs. There were crowds of people with us – all fleeing. There were many soldiers among them. The trucks going north were crowded and would not stop for us. We finally did manage to get on a military truck which had the IB symbol. In the back of the truck were some wounded Poles from the Dombrowski Battalion who had been let out of the hospital that morning. They were so happy to be able to speak to Ski in their native tongue. They told him that some Poles and other Internationals who were too sick or badly wounded to be moved were still in hospitals in Barcelona. There had been no ambulances to move them. “Were there any Americans among them?” we wanted to know. There were some, they said, but did not know their names. They themselves had no idea of what they would do if they ever got out of Spain. Their own country would not welcome them back. They had some bread and marmalade which they shared with us.

The road was crowded with vehicles going north. It was a sad and depressing sight. There were two-wheeled carts pulled by burros. Some mothers wheeled baby carriages. Some people were walking along the side of the road carrying suitcases. Late in the day we came to Cassa de la Selva where the Americans were. Bill Martinelli and Sam Carsman were overjoyed to see us. They thought we would never catch up with them. They had managed to get to the barracks just before the Americans pulled out. We learned later that we were not the only ones who had gone to Barcelona. We were the only ones, however, who had had to sleep over.

It was cold in Cassa de la Selva, and it rained for the couple of days it took to ready us for the journey out of Spain. At night I slept in my ragged uniform on a stone floor, covered only with my well-worn poncho that I had carried with me since the big retreat. The clothing we were outfitted with to leave was as strange and ill-fitting as the uniforms we had been issued in Albacete on our arrival. I got a tight, stained brown suit that tore at the crotch the minute I sat down. My overcoat was blue, with a flaming red lining. It looked like a fireman’s coat. The shoes were too large and pointy, and the soles, I was sure, were made of paper. They kept my feet icy. Of the stuff I had carried into Spain with me all that was left was a safety razor in a case. I had hung onto it with the superstitious notion that I would come out alive if only one thing remained of my old possessions. That, some books and a packet of letters was my only baggage.

We were to leave the next morning, but that night a special meeting was called. Andre Marty[17], the French chief of the International Brigades had volunteered the remnants of the Brigades for a last ditch defense of Barcelona and Catalonia, and the meeting was called to get volunteers to go back to the lines. We had heard that Barcelona had already fallen. Speeches were made reminding us of how we had helped save Madrid almost three years ago. The men were stunned and troubled. Here we were, only a few miles from the French border, and now we were being asked to go back to the fighting, with absolutely no hope of victory. “What would we fight with?” was a question asked. We were promised arms, even, modern artillery. “The French were opening their borders,” we heard again.

Some men did volunteer to go back. The great majority did not. Of those who volunteered, many were from the John Brown Battery.[18] There were some men who wanted to wait until morning to make their decision. But it left us all in a terrible state of mind. What would we do the next morning when we saw some of our men going back to battle, while the rest of us were going home? And there was the anger and resentment at Marty who called the men who did not volunteer “cobardes” and “conejos” [cowards and rabbits]. Bitter discussion went on until late at night. When morning came, there was no call for volunteers. We heard later that Premier Negrin had refused Marty’s offer.

A train was waiting for us at the railroad station. We boarded the rickety cars, and when all the men were accounted for, the train started to move. Some men, whose papers were not in order, or who were-not American citizens, were left behind. There were tears in the eyes of Schutz[19] who had been with me through Teruel and the retreats in Aragon.

Some planes appeared in the sky. We could hear their faint drone, but they disappeared. It was a tedious ride, with many stops. There was cognac and wine on the train and we sang the Spanish songs we had learned and those sentimental American songs we had sung when we entered Spain – songs like “There’s a long, long trail a winding,” “Wagon Wheels,” “Red Sails in the Sunset.” But how different was our mood then! I was glad to be going home, but my gladness was mixed with sadness and regret. This is not how I thought I would be leaving Spain, a land I had come to love. “Would I ever be coming back?” I wondered. When the train approached the French border, there was a good deal of kidding about how in a little while there would be no more officers and political “comic stars.” The train entered a long tunnel at Portbou, and when it emerged from the tunnel we were in France. There was no cheering, no elation. At Perpignan the train stopped, and we were met by a representative of the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade, and led into a brightly-lit station dining room, where we-were served delicious omelets and crisp French bread. Some men who had French money bought cigarettes and chocolate. It seemed like a miracle that for money you could get these things. I bought a pack of Gauloises, but could not break the habit of crushing the butt and putting it into my pocket. Then the train resumed its journey through the night to Paris. In Paris we were not allowed out of the train and there were armed French guards to see that we didn’t. Then to Le Havre, were we were escorted by other armed guards to our ship. We were on our way home.


[1] Maurice Harrison Hawkins.

[2] Louie Roberts is Leo Rosenberg.

[3] Butch Gordon is Lazar Gordon.

[4] Gus Heisler.

[5] William Martinelli.

[6] Frank Madigan.

[7] Frank “Honolulu Ski” Buturla.

[8] Lope de Vega (1562-1635).

[9] William Aalto.

[10] Federico Garcỉa Lorca (1898-1936).

[11] Earl Browder (1891-1973), General Secretary of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) during the 1930s and first half of the 1940s.

[12] William Gresham.

[13] Vincent Lossowski.

[14] Paul Sidney Crosby.

[15] Juan Valera (18 October 1824 – 18 April 1905), was a Spanish realist author widely regarded as one of Spain’s best authors.

[16] Sam Carsman.

[17]André Marty was the Chief Officer of the International Brigades.

[18] In Iceland’s typed manuscript he overtyped “They were men who had seen no action through no fault of their own, and [unclear] felt a bit guilty and ashamed of their long inactivity.”

[19] Schutz is William Schutt.


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3 Responses to “ Last Days in Spain – by Ben Iceland ”

  1. Marisa González on September 29, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Dear friends: I have enjoyed reading the account of this brigadist, it’s so sincere that it touches your heart. The cavalry barracks are still the sme but nowadays are not used for that purpose. I paste apicture of that time instead of one of today, and some others of the spots of the city of Valencia. The Cafe Vodka was at the crossing Covento Santa Clara Street and Rivera Street.
    iceland has evoked Valencia even better than Lope de Vega, however, nowadays the ‘ “puros cristales” of the water of the Turia? have been converted into a beautiful garden because of the 1957’s flood.
    Some pictures are from Calle Colón, the same street were the brigadists courageously walking towards the train station in November 1936 boarding for Madrid.

  2. Marisa González on September 29, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Today it is actually easy check what infamous lie was that Treaty of Non Intervention. The Spanish War was actually one of the phases of the WW2, but not the first, because at that moment Hitler had already rearmed nazi Germany, occupied the Rhinland, invaded Austria and Japan had invaded China ….and so on. That Treaty was a mascarade to gain time, time to manufacturate weapons, surface ships, aircraft bombers, anticraft batteries….and so on.
    The International Brigades’s ‘rags’ proved that were the first who faced fascism, on the contrary, the representatives of commisioners of the League of Nations would had served as models for Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken. They were just puppets with no blood in their veins and ethics in their minds.
    In respect to André Marty , what he should have done, was going the first do die, but he just was a ‘Babardier’.
    Salud, comrades.

  3. Robert Dykstra on September 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    Not a comment, but a request for information on an International Brigade member, a Bostonian named Williams (first name unknown). He escaped to France in the last days, was interned, and under the Vichy government was handed over to the Germans. He was supposedly the first slave laborer to die in the camp on the Channel Island of Alderney, which was occupied by the Germans. I’d love to identify him in an article I’m writing. Can you help?

    Many thanks.