Prisoners in Franco’s Prisons – by John C. Blair

February 5, 2018

Blair, John C.

By John C. Blair, The Volunteer, Volume 6, Number 3, October 1984

(Our comrade John Blair, died in 1982. This account of prison life, forwarded to us by his widow, Harriet, was written the year before he died. “He had other stories planned,” said Harriet Blair in her letter to us, “but after typing this one, his health declined rapidly.”

John was of French Canadian extraction, and came from a family of eleven children. His father was a member of the Knights of Labor. John grew up in Wisconsin, and became a tool and dye maker, and a member of the International Association of Machinists. However, because he was on many a blacklist, he often had to work in open shops. Later on, he was an organizer for the United Electrical Workers and at that time Harriet and he met and married. They lived in New York until 1944 when they moved to California. There are two children and two grandchildren. After John’s death, Harriet enrolled in East Los Angeles College, and became one of the staff writers and a political columnist on its paper, The Campus News. She is also active in campus and community campaigns, including the showing of The Good Fight.)

My first five months as a prisoner of Franco were spent in various hospitals and in the concentration camps of San Pedro de Cardenas; and it was in those places that I learned what was really happening to the Spanish Republicans unlucky enough to have been captured by the Franco forces.

I was in the Deusto University in Bilbao which was being used as a hospital. There were about fifteen Internationals in my room which was probably a class in normal times. I had only arrived an hour before with four or five other prisoners from Zaragoza.

A man in the bed to the right of me and somewhat to the rear was screaming in pain. He appeared to have an injured leg. Shortly, a large husky man came in and sat next to the bed. I thought he might be a doctor as he was dressed well in civilian clothes. But, suddenly I saw him bring his arm way back and then strike the patient with all his might in the face with a large beefy hand. The patient stopped screaming and I heard the huge bully speaking in a threatening tone to him.

The fascist bully left but the patient continued to groan. Shortly after they moved him to another part of the building where he died within a couple of days. I was told that he was a Brazilian who had part of the calf of his leg shot away and had developed gangrene because of lack of proper care.

It seemed to be the policy of the Fascists to only treat the surface of the wounds. Several prisoners in this room had bullet wounds through their bodies. One U.S. prisoner had one through the intestines and passed blood for some time but his body healed itself, otherwise, he would have died.

There was a large Englishman in a bed next to me whose only injury was a broken arm caused by being struck with a guard’s gun-butt after he was captured. The broken arm was never set and caused a series of problems with the result that the Fascist bully appeared one day, stuck a 45 caliber pistol muzzle against the head of the Englishman and told him any further problems would get him shot.

Most of the common labor was done by Basques whom we could trust in most matters. They told us that a sister of Pasionaria was working in the place and made arrangements for her to appear one day. They got her to come into the room for about half a minute so that we would all get a good look at her and then left. She certainly had a strong resemblance to her famous sister and appeared to be as old, or older.

In the room we occupied there was a Finn who had been wounded in the leg. Lack of proper care caused the leg wound to heal in such a way that the tendons could not function and he had to hop around on one leg with the other several inches above the ground. I suppose if the Englishman with the broken arm survived it would require a considerable operation to restore use of that arm, if possible at all. A young Welshman named Morgan lay on the battlefield for 2 days and a night with a shattered arm and bullets through the legs before being picked up and brought to town by peasants. His arm was amputated without anesthetics after being given a shot of cognac.

After three weeks or so at Deusto University we were finally sent on to San Pedro de Cardenas. The Englishman with the broken arm remained behind as did a couple of others who were thought to be in too poor health to be moved. I heard from other Englishmen later that their countryman died or was killed. At San Pedro we met a few prisoners who had been in prison with Spaniards on their way to San Pedro and we heard of the executions taking place.

After a couple of months at San Pedro I was sent to Zaragoza, with two other Internationals following at short intervals. Here, for the first time, we were among Spanish Republican prisoners, 1,000 to 1,500 of them, and saw how they were dealt with.

They got no trial in any real sense of the word. Those brought before the court heard themselves charged by the prosecutor, heard an immediate verdict and sentence, and then were allowed to make a statement if they wished. There were a great number of death sentences, a large percentage of 30 year sentences, then 20 year sentences and a very few given 10 years. A volunteer in the Republican Army was almost certain to draw the death penalty. Then the days would pass until the last two days of the month, when it was usual for executions to take place.

This was a new prison that was completed just before the civil war began. It was a two story affair with 4 wings which jutted out from the central portion. Between these wings, on the ground level, were the patios where most of the prisoners spent the daylight hours and then returned to their sleeping quarters in the second floor of the wings, where meals were also served. I was told that the contractor who built the prison was an earlier prisoner here. After being in prison for some time he was taken out and shot like so many other Republicans.

It was sometime in August of 1938 that I came to prison and was soon instructed in all the details of prison life by other U.S. prisoners who were here before me. All told there were 8 from the U.S. out of a total of about 20 Internationals. Most of the prisoners slept in large rooms on the second floor. When coming down to the patio, we came down iron stairs to the large open space on the ground floor, call El Centro, and walked to the right along the wall until we came to the door of the patio assigned to us. In the center of the open space was a small guard room with a guard always on duty to watch the prisoners as they moved along.

One morning, one of my friends who had been here for some months said, “You will notice that it will be very quiet in the patio this morning.” He said this as we were circling El Centro and approaching the patio door.

As soon as we stepped out of the doorway onto the landing, of several steps leading down to the patio, I understood what my friend had meant. On a usual day when we entered the patio there was considerable noise from the moving crowd. Prisoners were talking with one another. Often walking up and down in twos and threes. Sometimes simple games were being played. There was some shouting to one another from a distance. Today was different. Many small groups were clustered around one or two of those who slept on the floor of El Centro or others who had seen those taken out for execution this morning.

It was almost totally quiet as I entered the patio. There was a very soft murmur like the sound of a slight breeze springing up in the morning and rustling the small leaves on an early spring day. This sound came from the small groups, talking quietly with the witnesses who had seen those taken out for execution on this morning. It would be an hour or so before the sound returned to the volume of the average day.

In the large sleeping rooms on the second floor of the prison, the crowding was the greatest of any place I stayed in the prisons of Spain. The prisoners slept on single mattresses, which sounds not so bad, until you find out that they slept crosswise. We filled in for pillows with a bundle of our jackets, etc., because our heads were stuck out beyond the mattress. At the other end we used our shoes and any other stuff we could to get our feet level. The prisoners slept on their sides with no room to spare. When one went to the toilet at night, he had to fight his way back in, because the space he had left would close up.

The glut of prisoners was so great in this Federal prison that they could not be crowded into the large rooms upstairs where most of them slept. As a result many slept on the floor of El Centro, in passageways like in front of the cells where those with death penalties were held, etc. I was surprised to find a sleeper in front of the urinal, at the entrance of the toilet for our sleeping room, when I went into it one night. The passage in front of the urinal was about 3 feet wide. The prisoner was crowded over against the wall so that about 10 inches was left for those passing or using the urinal.

The prisoners taken out for execution were lined up before the tall wrought iron gates that led to the outside from El Centro. Those prisoners sleeping on the floor counted the number taken out and usually identified most of them. There usually 15 to 20 taken out each day while I was there. Some of those being taken out occasionally showed their defiance of the Fascists by shouting slogans for the Republic. The sleepers sometimes responded but if identified by the guards were beaten and perhaps put in isolation cells for it.

One chilly morning one of the prisoners was brought out without any trousers, just in his drawers. This did not occasion much comment from those who saw this. The Republican prisoners were often poorly clothed. The complete story of this prisoner without the trousers did not come out until some time later. It seems he did have trousers, a good warm pair of them. He felt it would be wrong to take them to the grave, when so many of his comrades needed them so badly. He had discussed this with those in the same cell. The cells which were built for one or two prisoners were now crowded to a new capacity. So when the guard called his name at the door that morning, he came without his trousers, simply leaving them behind. Those left behind knew what to do.  The saw to it that his trousers found their way to the patio one day, somewhat later. There they were given to another Republican soldier whose pants were thin and in rags. In was all done so carefully, that the person receiving them did not know where they came from. He was told they were from a friend who had gone on to another place. Just in case he might have some compunction about wearing a dead man’s clothes and so that the Fascists wouldn’t step in to counter this expression of solidarity.

I saw a young man squatting in the patio with a nice looking pair of trousers folded on his lap and talking to a poorly dressed young prisoner. I did not know what was happening until someone explained it to me about a month later. I was to find that somewhat similar instances were quite numerous before I finished my stay in Spanish prisons. Surely, it seemed to me, a movement that can furnish such exponents of humanism, compassion, and solidarity must surely find its way to triumph in the end.


See also Escape From Death Row: Three Lincoln POWs on Trial – By  and 



One Response to “ Prisoners in Franco’s Prisons – by John C. Blair ”

  1. Mrs. Patricia Milsom on July 3, 2019 at 3:48 am

    My father who fought with Republicans was sent to Fernando Po penal colony off coast of Africa after the civil war. He manage to escape to Nigeria and joined British Army in 1944. There is not much written about the hundreds of young Spanish men who had a choice of going to Russian Front or Fernando Po.