Keeping the Vehicles Rolling by Marion Noble

April 12, 2018
Marion Noble, in Spain, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 955

Marion Noble, in Spain, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 955

Keeping the Vehicles Rolling By Marion Noble

Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume XI, No. 2, December 1989.

Dear Ben,

Enclosed is my story about Spain while I was there. It seems that all too little has been said about those of us who did the best we could to keep the vehicles rolling. I know this account is lengthy, but I think you might select parts that you think are interesting…

I left out the name of the Americans in our group. Those I remember were Sam Spiller, Harry Goloff, Charlie Miller, Nils Sandell, and Frank Strong …


                                    Marion Noble

(Indeed we did find many parts of Marion Noble’s narrative interesting, and we think our readers will too.)

In 1937, I decided to go to Spain. I had heard mechanics were scarce and I could contribute more than I could in the good old U. S. A.

[Noble had an eventful crossing of the Pyrenes several in his party didn’t make it over to the Spanish border, including a young German who had walked all the way on back roads.

Nobel, however was particularly adept for this leg of the journey, as he recalls: “Old Hillbilly knew the forests and he knew the mountains, as he had hunted many ‘possums and ‘coons at night in the Ozarks of Arkansas, and he got through without a headache.”]

In Spain I was assigned to a large military garage. Our job was to keep the vehicles rolling. They consisted of every kind of automobile in the world I’m sure. They came from almost every country. I had never seen so much junk accumulated in one place. Workers’ organizations all over the world had contributed whatever they could to help the Spanish people. People drove into Spain under one pretext or another, and then forgot to take their cars home with them.

These old cars didn’t last long and since the border was closed, few spare parts were available. The highways were littered with cars that wouldn’t run. Parts were so scarce that if a car or truck was left on the road unattended, it was soon stripped.

I had worked several years as a mechanic but soon discovered that in Spain I was unable to accomplish much. In America, when a part would not function we usually threw it away and put on a new one. In Spain there weren’t any new ones, not even a fan belt or a radiator hose.

The first motor overhaul I took the engine apart, made a list of the parts I wanted and went to the parts department. I handed the man the list, he looked at it, then looked at me and said, “American, eh?” He told me he didn’t have any of the parts in the first place, and even if he did he wouldn’t give them to me as all these parts I wanted could be saved and made to last a little longer. I said, “I suppose you are aware that there is a war on, and it’s necessary for these vehicles to be in first class shape, and how in the hell do you expect me to get along with these worn out parts?”

I soon found out. I had to file bearings, hammer the insides of rings to give them tension, lace cracked motor blocks, weld broken parts, – even broken pistons. I had to weld in burned sides of valves and grind them round, the work was endless.

When it came to getting along without parts these Spanish and European mechanics were far superior to the Americans. We were just parts put-er-on-ers. Those guys knew how to get along with nothing.

I had most of my training in Arkansas, where the people were poor, and had had some experience in making something last longer than the law allowed. It wasn’t long until I learned to do without new parts.

We went to work at four in the morning and finished at ten to twelve at night, seven days a week.  I hadn’t been working many days until I found that it was the custom regardless of the work to be done, for most of the men to take off Saturday afternoon and go to town. I couldn’t understand this, as the vehicles were in bad repair and the military situation serious.

I was soon given charge of all American-made vehicles, as it was thought we knew more about them than the European workers and this would help speed up the work. I was given seven men, American and English, and each man had a Spanish boy from twelve to fifteen years of age as a helper.

These boys lived at home, and worked the same hours we did, on half rations. They were poorly clothed, and never complained. We had boys not a day over fourteen who would overhaul an engine as good as any man and did it consistently.

I found myself reverting to the old capitalist method to get the work out. I didn’t care what the other thought of me, the trucks had to go and we had to get them ready.

It would take a European mechanic ten days to overhaul a small engine. They always took it out and mounted it on a motor stand, arranged everything a certain way, and generally killed a day before they got down to business. In America the only time we pulled an engine out was to replace it, or at least to replace the crankshaft. I caught myself saying “In America we do it this way,” and found myself very unpopular.

I decided to do things my own way and let them do as they liked. I would overhaul an engine complete in one day, the truck would leave while the other guys were getting ready to work. At first I was accused of sabotage by the foreman. He said no one could do that amount of work in one day. I asked him to have a seat and I would show him. Since he was a mechanic he would know if I was doing it right. He refused to watch and sent me downtown to be transferred to another outfit.

When I got downtown it seemed to me the man in charge had my record from the time I came to Detroit in 1935 and he told me to tell the foreman to go straight to hell and put me back to work. I went back to the garage, couldn’t find the foreman, and went to work anyway. Finally he came by and wanted to know what I was doing. I told him what the man said and he blew his top; walked away and never bothered me again.

It wasn’t long until we had things going our way. A chart was kept on the wall showing how many vehicles were repaired by each group. Mine always topped the list, and finally my group was turning out more vehicles than all the rest put together.

Sometimes a convoy of fifty to 150 vehicles would come through and due to their condition about half would be towing the other half. We would take the disabled and repair them (if possible), before the convoy moved on. This often required working seventy to eighty hours without sleep or rest. On has no idea just how long he can work when he realizes the necessity to do so, especially when you have come to win or die.

One day one of the kids came and told me that the radio said the temperature would drop to zero the next morning. I had about seventy-five trucks and cars in my charge, and since anti-freeze was unknown. I instructed the kids to drain all the radiators and blocks that we were responsible for. Then I followed them to be sure none was missed.

I assumed that the other departments had heard about the warning, as they spoke the language and could understand the broadcasts. The next morning over 100 trucks and cars had frozen and the motors were burst wide open. This meant the loss of the vehicle, almost for the rest of the war. Some of the trucks were brand new, and had been brought over from Russia and other countries at great expense and risk.

We set about trying to repair the motors. It was tragic. I could imagine how a doctor must feel when he had about 150 badly wounded men and doesn’t know what to do first. The motors had to be taken out of the trucks, taken apart, welded, maybe patched, maybe laced, or a combination of all three. The way the Europeans worked this was a bout a week to each motor and to make matters worse, we didn’t have much time to spend on this project, as we had to keep up with our other work.

We continued to keep ‘em rolling as best we could. Food wasn’t too good, but I was brought up on beans and sow-belly, so the burro meat and snails didn’t bother me.

The blacksmith forge was in the rear of the building. These men were all civilians and they worked like dogs. They slung the sledge hammers day in and day out, beating the steel into whatever was to be made, straightening axels, making parts etc. They never complained.

I found that the civilians were suffering the most from lack of food. The farmers had food but there were no trucks to transport it, and also some of the big farm owners were against the Loyalists and had refused to sell the food.

I worked with a Spaniard who seemed to know where everything was if you had the money to buy it. He told me he knew a farmer who had hundreds of sheep, and we could cook one at his house if we had a way to get it to town. He knew I had papers that permitted me to go anywhere I wanted in a truck and, of course, was giving me the hint.

I got the truck, picked up Antonio, and we went to the farm and purchased a sheep. (For 400 pesetas!) We brought it back and his family prepared it. I invited the blacksmith crew to dinner. They said they had plenty, to eat and that we, as guests in their country, should eat it ourselves. I didn’t go for that and managed to persuade them to come.

First we had the blood. That is a delicious dish but I didn’t speak the language well enough to learn how they made it. Then we had the meat, nothing but meat. I had given Antonio money to get bread, potatoes, etc., but he claimed he was robbed (likely story) so all we had was meat.

We enjoyed it anyway, as all the meat we had was burro, or horse, — horsemeat was good when the animal was young, but usually it was old horse, one that was half starved, had perhaps been found wandering the countryside, and shoe leather would have been tender in comparison.

A couple of days later I smelled burning hair in the back of the garage. I found the blacksmith crew was burning the hair off the sheep’s ears, so they could eat the meat. They had to take what they could get.

I liked the way the crew worked and when I got cigars from home, or a tobacco issue
I always gave it to them. They would only take two cigarettes each, unless I raised a little hell, kidded them, then they would take another one, no more. They were real guys.

One time an army officer came through with a Rolls Royce, an old four-cylinder job, worn out, but he wanted me to fix it. The bearings were burned out in the engine. I told him we had too many trucks to work on to spend our time working on an officer’s car and besides, I only worked on American vehicles.

He said he had a box of American R. G. Dunn cigars he would give me if I would fix it. The crew was so short of tobacco, I agreed to fix it. When he came for the car he didn’t say anything about the cigars. I reminded him, and he opened a box, took out five and offered them to me. This man was French and the only way he could have gotten American cigars was by robbing a dead man’s package or stealing them from the mail. I grabbed the box, ad ran down the middle of the garage and he was right after me. I saw he was going to catch me, and I began throwing the cigars to the men as I ran. I leaped over a transmission, circled a few motors, he tripped, fell across a motor stand and passed out.

By this time all the cigars had been “distributed” and I proceeded to pick him up, meanwhile using a few choice English words I had learned in Arkansas.

We got notice that the fascist armies were cutting the country in two, and that everything and every foreigner were to be moved of of Albacete, north into Catalonia. We formed a convoy of perhaps a hundred trucks and were waiting in line to say goodbye to the Spanish workers, kids we had worked with and the women who took care of our barracks, and served us food.

This was something I’ll always remember. A large crowd of people, perhaps 100 or more, gathered around the Americans and began crying, both the men and the women. The men said we had taught them how to work, that the Americans were the finest of the lot. They had little gifts for us, one would give a ring, another a cigarette, another a shawl or shirt, or something special he had been saving for himself, perhaps for years.

What impressed me the most were the girls. They cried and cried. They said the Americans were the only ones who had not forced them into something, that we seldom complained about the work they did. Some wanted to go with us, said they would take care of us no matter what, until we were sent home. I guess all of were crying before it was over. I hope they survived the terrible slaughter that followed.

It wasn’t long until we were moved up near the Ebro River, as the Ebro offensive was being prepared. I was put into the infantry, where I had never been. They were terribly short of mechanics and I couldn’t understand why I was in the infantry. I questioned the commander about this. He said maybe I was afraid. I said hell no. I wasn’t afraid, but trucks were broken down, and waiting to be repaired, and at the same time the men had to walk, sometimes hundreds of miles. Even the kitchen truck was a bunch of junk, and half of the time was late with the food. Finally he agreed that I could repair the kitchen truck. I got my little sack of tools, and did the best I could with it. Then the food was put on the truck and I was told to take it to the Ebro front.

An anarchist officer got in the front seat with me and several other men in the back. I drove over a bump, and spilled some of the food. The officer raised hell and said I wanted the men at the front to starve. I told him I was sorry but he kept on.

He kept it up for miles. We came upon a wounded man staggering along the road, holding his guts in with one hand and waving with the other. I stopped and told the officer to get into the back, and let the man in the cab. He refused and said the only reason I wanted an officer to get in the back was because the wounded man was American.

Now old Hillbilly from Arkansas doesn’t like to be insulted, especially where his honor is concerned. I got out, went around to the other side, opened the door, and with a few choice English words I had picked up in the mountains of Arkansas, proceeded to remove the anarchist gentleman from the cab at the same time roughing him up a little here and there with a right or two to his jaw, and other conspicuous parts of his anatomy. The boys in the back continued the project and threw him in the back.

I dropped the wounded man off at a field hospital, and to my surprise he was on the train with us when we left Spain.

I was eventually put in a repair base to help keep the military vehicles rolling. There were about forty of us. We stayed in a building on one of the great farms of Spain, 25,000 acres. I understood for the first time how some of the landholders of that country lived. You could read about it from now on and still not understand.

They even had an underground bar. This was before the days of air conditioning. Steps went down about forty feet, where a stream of water passed alongside the wall. I was told that the peasants had worked for three years to divert the water through the mountain and underground into the cavern. The water in order to be cold, had to be below ground thirty-five feet or more. They used the water t cool their wine, champagne, etc. The room was covered with tiny tiles. It was magnificent. When the weather was unbearable we went below to cool off.

Fuel was always a problem, as trees have long since disappeared from most of Spain. What are left are mostly shade trees and the trees in the Pyrenees. The only place we could get fuel was in the bombed out towns. We used the beams from the buildings. The coal was in fascist hands.

One day we went to a little village near the Ebro to get beams. One of the buildings had been blown half in two and there sat a beautiful piano, on the second floor. We loaded it on the truck, hauled it back to the farm, and put it under the shade of a tree.

I could play a little by ear and when all the world seemed to be lost we would gather around that beautiful piano and play and sing. It was finally cut up for firewood, as the rain had ruined it.

During the fighting in the Ebro front, almost all the motorcycles had been put out of commission. The thirty-fifth division had lost all their machines but three. One day a truck backed up and unloaded about twenty in my stall, and the driver read a military order to fix them and to do nothing else but that, that no other order was to be followed and that no officer had authority to countermand it. It was signed by Captain Hunter, (not his real name), head of transmissions and communications for the thirty-fifth division.

I was to work, taking parts off one to fix another until I got most of them going. Each day when one was ready a man was ready to take it back. All I had left was a bunch of scrap.

One day Captain Hunter came by and said he had no reels to lay telephone wire and could I design something that would fit on a man’s back so he could run with it, take cover, etc., without having to put it down. I said I thought I could. I figured out a rack that tied to a man’s back, with a spool on it for the wire, but I had to have some leather for the straps, and there wasn’t any.

I thought there must be some leather somewhere in Spain. I got myself a roll of cash from the secretario, and took off in a truck. In one of the villages I found a store that had a roll of leather about six inches in diameter and about two feet long. I offered to buy it but he wouldn’t sell. I gave him the old patriotic line about his country needing it to defeat the fascists but it didn’t help.

I told my buddy in English to take the truck to the bottom of the fill and to catch the roll when it got there. I gave the merchant another chance but he wouldn’t budge so I gave the roll a kick and it went down the hill, right into my buddy’s hands. The merchant started screaming in Catalan, which I couldn’t understand, but I didn’t listen anyway. I ran to the truck and we took off. I finished the reels and delivered them to the captain.

My old buddy Bob Reed was in Spain, but I had missed him many times. I did one day see him for a few minutes. I was afraid he might get killed as he was a foot soldier, strictly by choice. He seemed to be in the toughest battles and contributed everything he had.

One day I was to deliver a motorcycle to the front. I had never ridden one except a couple of times, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I figured what the hell, here we go. I got some tobacco I had been saving for Bob and headed the sixty miles to the front.

I had gone about twenty miles when I came upon a convoy of about 2,000 horses, moving bridge material toward the Ebro. There was a line of two abreast next to the mountain and I had to take the outside. One must bear in mind that I wasn’t a very good rider, that there were no guard rails along the road, and in some cases it was about 1,000 feet to the next stop in the direction of hell.

I figured this is disastrous. I can’t turn back, and I can’t go ahead. I thought, what the hell, men lose their lives from bullets, so maybe they’ll pick me up 1,000 feed down. I started out in low gear, kept my eyes toward the horses instead of looking down, and slowly moved along.

What I was afraid of was the horses might rear up or become frightened at the machine but nothing happened and I went through without incident.

I got there, delivered the machine, picked up another one to bring back, and accidentally ran into the outfit Bob was with. They were almost all asleep as they had been fighting for several days without rest. I stayed around until the kitchen truck arrived. Everyone jumped up to eat. They were a pitiful sight. I guess this was the first time I realized just what the men were going through at the front.

I realized that even though I had worked as high as eighty hours without rest it was nothing compared to what the soldiers at the front were going through. They had been fighting for days, hadn’t been able to sit down, hadn’t had their shoes off, sometimes food couldn’t get through. I found that I was in heaven by comparison. After everyone had eaten I pulled out my three packages of tobacco. I passed it around. I had no papers. The boys used leaves from the olive trees, or tried to, some had old pieces of newspapers. Some were so desperate they just ate the tobacco and let it go at that. I felt ashamed among them. They were quiet, and in a couple of hours took off for the front, most never to return, as that turned to be the toughest battle of the war.

I got to the base garage okay and continued slinging iron. The Ebro front went from bad to worse and the food was pretty terrible. The civilian population was starving.  Men, women and children roamed the countryside looking for food, which did not exist. Any animal that could be caught was eaten. That went for cats, dogs, frogs and snakes.

I suppose people with backgrounds like mine had a little easier time of it. It was not uncommon, where I grew up, for people to eat turtles, hawks, crows, opossums, etc., but in Spain birds are almost nonexistent, and when 26,000,000 people are crowded into such a small country, a wild animal doesn’t have much of a chance, except on the big estates where the average Spaniard was not allowed to hunt.

Also, I found there were many prejudices against certain foods. The Spaniards would not eat turnips or corn. They raised them for the animals but they were considered animal food, the same as grass. I knew turnips had a certain amount of vitamin C and I also knew I was not getting much of it. I loved vegetables, cooked or raw, and I was always eating raw turnips, when I had the chance. Even the Americans thought I was crazy, and the Spaniards thought I was out of my mind.

However, I must say that when I got back to New York we were given physical examinations and outside of things that had always been wrong I was in perfect health and showed no sign of any deficiency. I said, “Boys, you can laugh about the Arkansas hillbilly all you want, but those turnip greens and turnips are what helped pull me through.” The doctor agreed.

There is a weed down south we called the flux weed. I don’t suppose that’s the real name for it. It is a good cure for diarrhea when a tea is made from it. About a cupful would do the job, unless something serious was wrong. I had forgotten what it looked like, but I knew what is smelled like, and one day I found some of the stuff on a mountainside.

I had been bothered the first two weeks I was in the country but never afterward. Some of the others were suffering and losing weight to the point where they could hardly walk. I made a pot of the tea from the weed, the boys drank it, against their will, and in about three days most of it was cleared up.

I told a doctor in New York about this, as the boys still were not convinced that the tea had anything to do with it. The doctor laughed and said that many of the medications used for treatment of diarrhea had some extract from this weed and that not all country cures were fake.

In the previous pages I spoke about the unsung heroes of the progressive movement. Certainly the Spanish people, both great and small, contributed everything they had. In about a m million cases that meant their lives. But the thing I’ll always remember was something that happened to us after we crossed into France on our way home.

We were a trainload of volunteers. Several hundred were being sent home to show the “non-intervention” committee, that the Loyalist government was sincere when it promised to evacuate the foreigners. There was a general strike in France at the time and not one wheel turned, not one train was allowed to move that carried any passengers, only what was considered necessary to maintain health and welfare. The only train that carried any passengers was the one we were on.

The strikers had made special provision for us in order that we might get home as quickly as possible. We had a fine meal in the international zone, boarded the train, and started across France. The train stopped in some village and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of police. They were close together. There were thousands of French farmers, peasants and workers, standing alongside. Not one word was spoken.

It seems that the people wanted to give us food, for they knew we had been starving, some for three years. The government forbade them, fearing a riot, or perhaps a revolution or civil war, as the people were wrought up about France not opening the borders so food and supplies might be delivered into Spain. The people had stood helplessly by and watched the Italian and German bombers bomb the defenseless cities across the border.

The people of the French village demanded that they be allowed to deliver the food to the train. They had put so much pressure on the government that it feared civil war if they were not allowed to go ahead. It finally told the people they could deliver food, providing they spoke no words. They agreed. They thought, after all, they wanted us to have the food, that was the main thing.

They handed us hams, chocolate, liquors, canned foods, packaged foods, oranges, apples, beer and many other things including the best of French champagne. Not one word was said. We didn’t even know their names or the name of the town. We were told not even to thank them, just take it and keep our mouths shut.

One needs to know about the French economic situation to appreciate what happened. Few Americans realize the poverty of the European people at that time. The French workers received less than one third the pay an American worker received for the same work. The food they handed us was food that very few of them could afford themselves.

No French worker drank champagne. They drank the cheap wine that never saw a bottle. It is sold like we sell gasoline. The big tank trucks delivered it to its destination. If a French worker in that time had any meat it was horse meat or perhaps and old work ox that couldn’t work any longer. What a sacrifice it was for them to give us ham. Chocolate was almost unknown, except an ounce or two at a time, and yet they gave us hundreds of pounds.

It was only one day until we were able to have all the food we wanted and I think it would have done more good in the stomachs of the French people than it did in ours. Our food shortages ended when we crossed the French border. Theirs was not to end for many years, as World War II was immediately at hand.

I was terribly sick all the way across, as it was in December when the ocean is rough and also, I guess my insides hadn’t gotten used to good food. My guts were used to grinding up anything from raw turnips to dog’s hindquarters and that bourgeois food upset me.

The last day I managed to get out of bed and walk a little. We could see land a great distance away. Fog cut off the view. We were coming into New York harbor and all of a sudden there stood the old French girl herself the Statue of Liberty.

My throat closed. I couldn’t speak. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

I have often been criticized by members of my family for going to Spain. Also, many friends cannot understand why I went. I think that the volunteers who went to Spain are among America’s finest people, and I am right proud to have been among them.


Noble later expanded his work into an autobiography that remains unpublished.  Copies are available within the NYU Tammiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives Collection, ALBA 083 Marion M. Noble Papers, and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Libraries. Special Collections Department.

Summary from the University of Arkansas site:

Rough draft of unpublished autobiography of Marion M. Noble. The work relates to Noble’s participation in various progressive causes from the turn of the century through his fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Of special interest is Noble’s account of his days as a student at Commonwealth College (Polk County, Arkansas) from Fall, 1932 through Spring, 1934.


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