In the Albacete bullring, André Marty, the beret looking larger than ever, sent us off to war. The enemy was cowardly, we were brave, our cause was just, we would win. Again that spiel about how you Americans have come as those before you came to save Europe from the Boche. The moment was serious; we were going off to the front, yet this man, the way he moved his hands, the words he spoke, that idiotic beret on his big head — this man was a cartoon.
As he spoke we could see large wooden crates stacked beside him. He ordered them opened. Brand new riﬂes, still covered with cosmoline. Russian carbines. (Some later said they were Mexican; I don’t know.) We yipped in glee. We cheered. We laughed. We waved our hands against the sky. Long live the Soviet Union. Long live Comrade Stalin. Long live the Frente Popular. Long live Comrade Marty. Thank God, we’re gonna have guns. Each had a long, slender tri-bladed bayonet. They were frightening — the thought of one entering your body, the thought of slamming one into the body of an enemy. We were given helmets, gas masks, cartridge belts with bullets. Now we were real soldiers. We cheered again.
We were called to attention, our leader wished us luck; but before we left, if we handed in our passports, they would be held in safety until it was time for us to return home. Good idea, I thought. I handed mine in. Some men, less stupid than I, did not.
We boarded the camions.
It was dark now. The truck I was on bumped along. We smoked, spoke an occasional word, that was all. Each man seemed holed in on himself. I was scared; still, I hoped to be a hero, to do brave deeds. Dick Merriwell. Jack Armstrong of the U.S. Marines. If I were hit, I hoped that I would die fast, with little pain. Were the others as scared as I was? None of my close friends were on the truck with me. I wished ]oe and Doug were. Joe would be talking away, describing war strategy, Doug would be his quiet self, calm, terse. I would feel safer with them nearby.
The trucks stuttered along in the dark, lights out. Going, stopping for long periods. We must be approaching the front. We listened for riﬁe shots, artillery. It was dead quiet. I slept some, as did the others.
The morning was clear, the air fresh, cool; it seemed everything on earth was dead still. It also seemed I was living a strange, surreal dream. We jumped off our trucks and sought out our friends, our squads, our companies. Seacord reorganized the machine gun company and I was made adjutant commander of Section 2, with three squads. Joe, Doug, Kavorkian, and Pete Shimrak, a Chetnik, were in my squads. I was exhilarated. I was on my way to hero, ﬁrst class.
Seacord ordered us to spread out and ﬁre ﬁve shots from our new riles at some distant rocks. Joe was at my ear. Don’t pull, squeeze, Dummy. Everyone was shooting, suddenly there was dead quiet. Two trucks with comrades were missing. Where? What? We would wait. What lousy luck. The rumor factory was at work, soon conﬁrmed by Comrade Stember, our new battalion commissar. Trotskyite fascists had inﬁltrated the truck unit and had driven the trucks into fascist. lines. In addition to the comrades, the trucks had carried all the battalion records. We kept hoping our comrades would turn up. Cardenas, I think, was among them. I never saw him again.
Years later, Bob Gladnick, in correspondence with a Spanish historian, leamed of a document held by the Spanish army which noted that two trucks carrying Americans had entered their lines near Chinchon, had been ordered to stop and disembark, had refused, and had fought until every last one of them had died. The drivers, too, who were not Trotskyite fascists, of course. On a trip to Spain, Gladnick was led to a mass grave where those on the trucks had been buried. Gladnick, who had rediscovered Judaism by this time, said a kaddish for the dead. Spaniards who had gathered to observe this strange American later told him that they too were descended from Jews; oddly enough, not unusual. in Spain. What one can conclude from this I don’t know. There was, incidentally, a high proportion of Jews in the Lincoln battalion, over 50 percent, as there was in the International Brigades.
Single ﬁle, led by Jim Harris and his staff, we marched over the romantic magical hills and dales of Spain. An olive grove here and there; in the distance, peasants working in the ﬁelds. The sky was cloudless. It had been briskly cool when we started but, as the morning waned, that huge simmering copper pot they call the sun in Spain began to boil and overﬂow. Men began to shed their overcoats, drop them, leave them behind. The heat began to overwhelm us. Soon I dropped my beloved sheepskin coat; I hoped some peasant would ﬁnd it. Our new riﬂes made us feel like real soldiers. We marched in silence, each step, we knew, taking us closer to the war front. It was not only we who were silent; the world itself was silent—the vast sky, the rolling hills, the olive groves. We marched.
I have no recollection that we ever stopped to eat. Perhaps we required no food. We were sustained by our beliefs, our hopes; we would conquer the enemy. Others might die, we would not. I would guess that by now our comrades on the two lost trucks had already fought and died. Was the mass grave already dug as well?
As we passed over the rounded peak of a hill, we suddenly heard the snap snap of riﬂe ﬁre. We were in sight of a narrow road, saw toy trucks and ambulances. Men moved like ants. Our steps, our heart beats quickened.
And then, and then we were at war, for the ambulances themselves dripped blood. Dog-tired soldiers in I.B. uniforms lay about the shoulders of the road. An enemy plane suddenly swooped low and amid hysterical shouts of Down! Down! we heard the whistle of a falling bomb and threw ourselves to the ground. My mouth was dry, I couldn’t swallow.
As we were ordered up a hill to our right, two men helping a wounded comrade toward an ambulance asked if we were Yanks. They were Englishmen. They presented us with encouraging words. They had been a full battalion several days before and now were but few. Our battalion commanders hurried us along. Somewhere ahead there were sporadic shots. It didn’t sound serious at all.
It was now dark. The battalion was sprawled about the hill and the order went out to dig in. With what? We had no trench shovels, had never been issued any. We dug with our bayonets and helmets. I remembered my duties as adjutant commander of Section 2 of the Tom Mooney Machine Gun Company. I went searching for my three squads. They and infantry company squads were intertwined. No one seemed to know where they were. Everyone was digging just where they stopped. I found Joe Gordon and his squad working away. Then I found Doug Roach and his squad, also digging vigorously. The third squad, with Kavorkian and Pete Shimrak, was with me. Sudden shouts in Spanish, a couple of shots. It was dark. ]oe’s voice. I ran over. We ain’t got no passwords and these guys loom up. What the hell are we supposed to do? Two Spanish soldiers stood cursing, their fury unchained. A Cuban comrade came over and straightened it out.
We, I, returned to our digging. I was cold. I was scared. I dug and I yawned. I fell asleep. Everyone reacts differently to fear. Some panic. Some become brave. I yawn. I fall asleep. Lucky.
Ever since the sun had gone down, the cold had been horrendous. Somehow, somewhere I found a thin gray poncho. It didn’t help very much. I hugged myself within its folds and cursed myself for having thrown my sheepskin coat away. Fortunately I still had the Windbreaker my mother had made. I was to have it until it was cut off me in the front-line hospital.
When I awoke it was dawn. The entire battalion was asleep, many well dug in. My trench was so shallow it could not have protected an ant. I commenced digging again, using bayonet and helmet. I was not much good at it and seemed to tire easily. That was fear again, it cut my lung capacity. On one side of me was a deep, beautifully cut trench in which its proprietor slept peacefully. He was a Negro named White, a powerfully built man. There was another White, a white man, who was to be shot for alleged desertion months later.
As the copper pot in the sky began to rise, Gladnick tumed up carrying a huge urn with hot coffee and chunks of bread. No one had ordered him to do it, he just did it. I suppose he had followed his nose to the cookhouse somewhere behind our position. My squad, enjoying every sip and every crumb, expanded right before my eyes, began to smile, even to laugh. I ordered the other squads to send someone for coffee and bread. Joe was his usual self. If he was scared no one could discern it. The fact is he was now in his natural element. He was talkative, full of know-it-allness; how he garnered the information he was more than willing to dispense to anyone who would listen could only be attributed to his peripatetic ways. We were, he said, in the second lines. The enemy was over there. The St. Martin road below led to the Jarama River bridge to Madrid. The enemy was trying to cut the road in half; there had been terrible battles and both sides had lost many men, but the Republican lines had held. The enemy, he said with a shake of his head and a little sneer, did not run away. They fought like hell. Madrid was still open to Valencia. The I.B. was heavily involved here. The British had taken a terrible beating. If we stay in a defensive position, we’ll be okay. His use of colorful expletives made my efforts look pale and puny. He made us laugh. When he was in a hurry, his slurp was more pro- nounced, but as I said, no one ever dared mention it. He had fought as a middleweight for his unit in the U.S. Army and had won the championship, which earned him many perks. He had surreptitiously spread Party leaﬂets about. He was allowed into the ofﬁcers’ library and was astonished to ﬁnd Marxist literature. That shows yuh how smart the capitalist enemy is, they wanna know everything we have to say the better to ﬁght us. We’re gonna beat ’em anyway. To Joe there were just two kinds of people, good guys and shits. Anyone he considered a shit, he ignored. When you were with him, somehow you felt more alive.
Doug’s trench was a marvel to behold. Deep, the walls perfectly perpendicular, with shelves dug into the earth which held the many objects he had managed to garner over time. A can of condensed milk was among them and he gave me a swig. The sweetness brought renewed energy and immediate contentment. He smiled broadly. Somethin sweet’s like a gal’s kiss. He had helped everyone in his squad with his portion of trench and was still looking for more work. I wished I had the nerve to ask him to help me dig mine deeper. Right next to him was an infantryman named Oscar Hunter, who was to become my commissar in Murcia, the I.B. hospital base. Oscar was a powerful man, and as I remember had played football for Morgan State University, a black college. A black man, he said he was part Seminole Indian. He was well-spoken, a literate man who hoped to be a novelist. He came from Chicago originally, but was living in New York, I think, before he came to Spain. Intelligent, quick-witted, witty, as a Negro he was on an upward track in the Party. Later, we were to have our cots side by side in the hospital and were to become close friends.
Seacord’s new runner arrived with an order to come to the company headquarters. It was below us, to the left, on the other side of a narrow gauge railroad track which traversed the hill we were on. Seacord was there with a man named Tomlinson, his adjutant commander. We are in the second lines, the enemy is over there, they’ve been trying to take the road below (just as Joe had said) Have your squads designate someone to get the food in the cookhouse, and he pointed to a low-slung, white-washed stucco building on the other side of the road. On the wall facing us was printed in large letters, MADRID 32 kms. Don’t hold me to the 32. When the sun is high, Seacord said, have your men take off their shoes and socks, give their feet an airing, we don’t want anyone getting trench rot.
It was a gorgeous sunny Spanish day, the frigid night air soon forgotten. We could hear ﬁring in the distance, but only sporadic; the residue, Seacord explained, of the battles earlier that month. It was now the middle of February. I talked with my trench buddies, went to visit Joe and then Doug, got to know Oscar better. He was one of those marvelous raconteurs—Mickey Mickenberg was another—who kept you wide-eyed, open-mouthed and laughing, if possible, simultaneously. I liked him, and was jealous of his story-telling ability.
For lunch, a mess of beans, a slab of bread, and vino rojo. Earlier, men from each section were sent to dig a latrine down below the battalion’s perch on this lovely round hill. The sun high, hot as all hell, we removed our shoes, our socks, some all their clothes, and enjoyed our siesta hour. Out of the western sky, a throb, closer, a ﬂight of what Joe told me were Italian Caproni bombers headed our way. Seacord’s voice, loud and clear, Stay down! Make sure you put your helmet on. I was on my back, stark naked. I couldn’t keep my eyes off those approaching huge black crows. From under their bellies, silver sticks ﬂoated down towards us. What a horrible shriek they made, what a howl. Put the helmet over your balls! Keep it on your head! Your balls! Your head! I was in a panic. The whistling, the whining shriek, closer and closer, ﬁlling your head until you thought it would explode. I couldn’t watch them any longer and shut my eyes tight. Ear-splitting explosions as each bomb hit the earth. There was a terrible odor—gas! Everyone started yelling, Put your gasmasks on, put your gasmasks on! The bombers were now directly over us, and away. Not gas, merely the odor of explosives. We sat up. Hurriedly dressed. I inspected my three squads, everyone was okay. No one in the entire battalion had been hurt. They had missed. Joe merely grinned, but I noticed he said not a word. Later, however, he said the statistics showed they hit the periphery more frequently than the bullseye. Certainly that was not so for cities, as we were shortly to learn about Guernica. In the ten days we lay on that hill, what Joe had said proved to be the case. The bombers came every afternoon at about the same time, dropped their load, and clumsily hurried away. Not one man was wounded from the shrapnel, but one day during the raid, two men side by side, infantrymen—thank God, not the machine gun company—shot a couple of their toes off and were carted away by the medics. Our disgust was palpable and very noisy. Dirty cowards. It was difﬁcult to forgive. Each person has her or his own threshold of fear. Those boys had encouraged each other’s fear. If they had been able to hold on another day, perhaps they would have become heroes. Who the hell knows. I hope for their sake they learned to forgive themselves. Not everyone can be el Lobo.
The second or third night on the hill, we came under artillery ﬁre. It was a horror. Seacord came to sit with me in my trench, now a reasonable depth, as the shells whistled terrifyingly overhead to burst somewhere behind us, alternating with those that burst somewhere before us. A searching ﬁre, Seacord called it. We pressed close together — it helped a great deal to touch — as the shells searched us out. You were certain that inevitably they would ﬁnd you and blow you apart. The best thing, Seacord said, is just to lie low until the damned thing is over. The inclination was to get up and run. You can pray, he said, and we both laughed. In an interlude, he left me to give comfort to Doug and his squad. I was terribly afraid, yet I had laughed, and I wondered how that was possible.
It became a regular pattern. Every afternoon during the siesta hour, the Capronis as we cowered under them came to lay their lethal eggs, and though they did come closer, so far no one was hurt. During the night the terrifying artillery shells searched us out. Hour after hour the earth trembled fore and aft, your teeth chattered, and yet you did not get up and run.
And then we had our second casualty. Our ﬁrst had been the battalion scout named Edwards, who had been killed the ﬁrst or second day of our arrival at the front. None of us had seen it, and I for one hardly knew him, so we sort of passed it by with a quick, painful shrug. I suppose for his friends it had been not so quick, and much more painful. During the second or third night of artillery ﬁre, an elderly comrade named Chelebian was killed. A piece of shrapnel had torn off a chunk of his head. His trenchmate had found him in the morning and had screamed. I forced myself to look. There he lay, dead, cold, rigid, his brains splattered inside his helmet, which had been thrown off by the collision of hot iron and brittle skull. We thought of him as a sweet old man—probably in his forties—whose wife had died shortly before he came to Spain. Many believed he’d joined up to forget.
And the twenty or so men on the lost camions. Were they so quickly forgotten? Now I realize I have not counted as casualties the two men who shot off their toes. They were, of course. Have I not yet forgiven them? Like most of us, they had volunteered to give their lives for the Party, for the cause, and had been wounded by their fear. They were casualties of war.
About the third or fourth afternoon during an air raid, improbable as it may sound, the entire battalion laughed. That morning when I went for daily instruction to Seacord’s h.q. he introduced me to a tall, well-built Negro who he said was now part of his staff, a man named Oliver Law. Just arrived in the lines and already on the company staff; must come well-connected, I thought. During siesta hour, when the Capronis made their daily run, as the bombs glinting silver off the sun began their descent, we could hear Law’s voice from Seacord’s headquarters call over the rumble of bomber engines, “Look, they’re dropping leaﬂets.” “Shut up!” Seacord yelled, “they’re bombs.” Old veterans now, three days in the lines, we laughed. Thereafter some of the men referred to him as Leaﬂets Law.
One night we left the artillery bombardment behind for a starlight
maneuver. Captain Jim Harris wanted his troops to experience a night march at the front. He was taking the opportunity to train us under war conditions. We gathered somewhere to the ﬂank of the hill, the enemy ﬁre desultory, and with him leading the way we marched through the night. As we assembled, my section commander, a man named McCarthy, received a ﬂesh wound and was left behind under the care of a medic.
I distinguished myself. By sheer happenstance my section led the battalion as it marched single ﬁle behind us. In front of me as we marched through the night, bullets sporadically whistling overhead—Seacord had explained that it is the one you don’t hear that hits you—were Jim Harris, Doug Seacord and Bob Merriman. It was, but for the occasional bullet overhead, a very quiet night. Jim Harris, usually a very laconic man, that night seemed to be very voluble as he spoke to Seacord and Merriman. I have no idea what he was saying. Every once in a while Seacord would hand signal me to stop and get down. Since I led the entire battalion lined up behind me, in my best Victor McLaglen, tough-sarge, What Price Glory? voice, I passed on the order. Down on your bellies, you sons-of-bitches! or some such, and the battalion threw itself to the ground. The entire front, friend, enemy, and God Himself must have heard me. When Seacord signalled me to rise and proceed forward, I stood, and, repeating myself in an even louder voice, ordered my comrades to their fucking feet and forward. I must surely have been overwhelmed with my sudden rise to power. I was in a movie and I wanted to be a hero, or sound like one at least. There in front of me within easy earshot were my top commanders, and not one told me to shut up. The enemy, which was entrenched only four or ﬁve hundred yards away, must have been dead asleep. Perhaps they were simply astounded at the sheer idiocy of their opponents. Perhaps they were just laughing at us.
Thus, with Bill Harvey’s loud voice echoing through the night in much the same way, we made a large circular movement, returned to our positions on the hill above the road, and retired for the night. One of the guys in my trench stumbled, shrugged, lay down and went to sleep. In the morning he complained of a stomach ache and I sent him to the medics. They found drops of blood at his belt buckle and on his back. He had been shot without knowing it, the bullet having gone right through him, not hitting anything vital. He survived, believe it or not.
I think it was that morning, when I made my duty call to headquarters, that Seacord informed me Jim Harris had ﬂipped and Bob Merriman was now our battalion commander. What many of us had long suspected had ﬁnally happened.
From Lenin on, our Party had basically thought of itself as an educational and propaganda tool. It was our main task to teach the masses that we were the leaders of the proletariat who would spearhead the revolution. We were the revolution, no matter what the line. If the Abraham Lincoln battalion was to serve its revolutionary purpose as an education and propaganda tool, it should have a commander who looked like a commander, an American commander, tall, handsome, and well-spoken, as later it would have to have a black man to command a battalion named after the Great Emancipator. But ﬁrst it was Robert Merriman. Jim Harris was pale-faced, slight, spoke with a Polish accent, was hardly prepossessing. Merriman could and would become friends with Hemingway, Dos Passos, the correspondent for the New York Times, Martha Gellhorn, Louis Fischer. With whom could Jim Harris become friends? His friends were his merchant marine buddies from the waterfront who could probably drink and ﬁght the great Hemingway under the table.
Secrets breed rumors. What rumor do you believe? Our leaders, and I mean the Comintern Commission that ruled the International Brigades, of which the Lincoln battalion was but a small part, seemed to prefer secrets and rumors to facts.
Everything about both men was alleged, rumored, sent off on ﬂight into thin air by whom we shall never know. Wife, friend, agitpropnik. Guess. It was rumored, as I’ve previously said, that Merriman had been a student at both the prestigious Lenin school and Frunze Military Academy. In truth, it seems he had spent a year or two in the ROTC while at the University of Nevada at Reno. It was also alleged he was not a Communist—supposedly further proof that we who went to Spain were not Communists but pure, 100 percent, anti-fascist democrats. But if Merriman was not a Communist, then why did John Gates, an honest man so far as I know, and also the most able commissar/ commander the Americans were to have in Spain, relate how Merriman and the brigade commissar, Dandy Dave Doran, gasbag non-pareil, had constantly boasted that as former students of the Lenin school they would never permit themselves to be taken alive by the enemy? Were they simply braggarts? Unfortunately for them, the enemy did take them alive and did shoot them, or so it has been believed for many years. Now Cecil Eby writes that he has received a manuscript from a Spaniard who’d fought with the Americans at that time, and who says Merriman was killed by enemy machine gun ﬁre as they lay next to each other on the battleﬁeld. What happened to Commissar Doran he does not say.
Was Jim Harris an instructor for the famed Chinese Red Army on its Long March, or wasn’t he? We felt fortunate. We did know he was a Polish American, a merchant seaman, a member of the waterfront Communist Party. After his dismissal, was he or was he not seen in the International Brigades prison in Albacete? Had he or had he not ﬂipped? Did he really shit in his pants, as Merriman reports? Where had this taken place? In his headquarters behind the second lines? Was he so scared that he would shit in his pants out of sight or sound of the ﬁrst lines? Oscar Hunter and I ran into him in Murcia. He recognized us and spoke to us in what seemed a garbled tongue. Polish? Is it or is it not true that Harris later fought with the Polish Dombrowski battalion, con- sidered among the best in the International Brigades, became its captain, and died in battle?
Every day now the Comintern archives in Moscow reveal their nasty information about the infamous way the Communist parties of the world treated their volunteers who went to Spain, brave men all. Perhaps one day they will rectify the rumors, secrets, allegations, and undo the lies. The dead cannot be disinterred. Yes, we went to Spain to ﬁght fascism, but democracy was not our aim.
To understand and reach into the very heart and soul of the volunteers in the International Brigades you must know who we were. We were Communists, the overwhelming number of us—80 percent of the Americans, John Gates said—and believers in Lenin.
Lenin demanded of his followers that they give “all of their lives.” And what Lenin demanded, we gave. Everything said after that is pure adornment, rationalization, line. A lie.
Yes, we gave all of our lives. That was our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. For in giving all of your life, you ﬁght to the death, but you also yield up all of your brain and your heart and your morality. You are not a free man.
So I reported to my squads, and anyone else who would listen, that Jim Harris had been deposed and Merriman was now our commander-in-chief. Joe Gordon said “It ﬁgured.” Doug Roach shrugged. Oscar Hunter kept a poker face.
The Capronis appeared during siesta hour, their bombs terrorizing the earth and us, but today, for the ﬁrst time, Moscas, Russian pursuit planes, buzzed the bombers. We cheered. We screamed. The Soviet Union, our savior, how we loved it.
As I remember, the Lincoln battalion left for the front around February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. At pre-dawn on February 22, Washington’s birthday, after the artillery shelling had long ceased its nightly horror, scared, asleep, I was awakened by a gentle pulling at my shoulder. It was Captain Seacord. Come along, he said. He had hand-picked two squads and, with a Captain Wattis, a Brit who was an officer in the XVth Brigade, leading, we wound our silent way over stone and mesquite. Joe and Ray Steele were in the other squad, some nine men, and my squad included Kavorkian, company commissar, and Pete Shimrak, among others.
As dawn reared its coltish roseate head, one by one, led by Seacord and Wattis, we ran, ﬂopped, ran, ﬂopped—at one point I hesitated, hated to rise again; Seacord looked at me quizzically, I blushed, rose — until we reached a battalion of men who crouched, slept, smoked long stogies behind a long battlement of stones. They were the Franco-Belges battalion led by Captain van den Berghe. Joe and I were introduced to him. Seacord hung a pair of binoculars around my neck, patted me on the shoulder, and, with the Brit at his heels, departed, running, ﬂopping, running, ﬂopping, until they disappeared.
Van den Berghe positioned Joe’s squad at the extreme right of the Belgians’ line, and then led my squad to a rise farther to the right, behind another wall of stones. There is, he said, a battalion of Moors facing us. They have tried to break our position several times. He spoke English well with an accent. He also pointed out two Christy tanks, ours, at the right ﬂank. You will not ﬁre, he said, unless they attack and I give the order. He returned to a position slightly behind his troops.
Morning was now in the saddle, the copper pot beginning to simmer. The nine of us sat behind our stone wall and looked at each other. Kavorkian had been given a gunny sack ﬁlled with hand grenades. What do we do with these? he asked me. I looked at him. I hefted the gunny sack in my hands. I didn’t know what to do with it. I suppose we should each have one, I said. Pete Shimrak suggested it might be best to bury the sack in the middle, so if we were attacked we could get at them quickly. No one seemed to want to hold one. They looked so lethal. What if you had one on your person and it was hit by a bullet? Since I was in command, I made the decision that we bury the gunny sack and its burden behind us where we could easily get at it.
I made a map of our position for whoever might relieve us. It showed our position, the position of the Franco-Belges with our comrades, and our tanks on our right ﬂank.
The sky was clear of clouds, very blue. The sun was spun copper. In the distance behind us, peasants could be seen tending their ﬁelds. The front was not quite dead, still punctuated on occasion by a riﬂe shot. Earlier, someone had brought us coffee and bread. We babied the coffee along and smoked. We had been issued Gauloises. We talked, some of the men napped. At noon, several men separated themselves from a pine wood on our extreme left, heading in the direction of our positions. Halfway, they ﬂopped to their stomachs. As they rose, one fell, hit before we even heard the riﬂe shots. The other fell on top of him. One of them began to scream with pain. The whole line stared in their direction. I kept looking at van den Berghe wondering what he would order. I saw him point to someone, ordering him down. It was Joe Gordon, no doubt preparing to go get the guys. We stared at one another. Kavorkian said something about the captain being a professional. We felt good about that. Shortly, two men left the pine wood, crawling, rising, running, crawling, until they reached the two men, who, it turned out, had been bringing us something to eat. We watched, barely breathing, as they hauled one man back to the woods, returned and got the second.
We could see our old friends, the squadron of Capronis, approaching what we assumed was the battalion’s position on the hill, and then the Moscas harrying them. We could see the glint of the bombs as they dropped lackadaisically, and then heard the rumble as they burst. With a suddenness that veritably shook the earth we came under heavy machine gun ﬁre. It was not necessary to give an order, we were all hugging the ground, pressing into it, biting our lips. I kept my eyes on the captain; he and his men were down as well. To my astonishment, some of the Franco-Belges were lighting up stogies and pufﬁng away. I tried to slow down my breathing. Our Christy tanks on the right began to ﬁre at the enemy positions. A runner from the captain slithered into view. The enemy will soon be attacking. Do not shoot until the captain gives the order. Swiveling on his belly, he slithered away. My lips were very dry and I kept wetting them with my tongue.
The enemy ﬁre was high over our heads, to keep us down, I supposed. If the enemy troops were to attack, their machine gun ﬁre would have to be high. Kavorkian and I discussed it, and felt better. I neglected to mention that Kavorkian was a man older than the rest of us, and someone who had fought in World War I. The Christys never stopped pounding the enemy positions. Then, to our astonishment we saw enemy soldiers rise in the perfect unison of the Roxy Rockettes and ﬂing themselves from their trenches. Some looked as if they had white towels wrapped around their heads. With awe and astonishment, both frightened and curious, like spectators at a colorful war movie, we watched as these men, their capes ﬂying, winged they seemed, came at us, running, falling, rising, running, falling. From us only the Christys ﬁred their guns. The enemy was still distant but approaching, their capes ﬂowing behind them. The captain, his back straight as a rule, knelt on one knee behind his troops. The Christys kept pounding. We lay there deathly pale, our mouths dry, in our ﬁrst battle, as the enemy seemed to ﬂy at us in slow motion. The captain held his ﬁre. Now the enemy were so close we could hear them yelling, bloodcurdling it was, and at last the captain gave his order. Our machine gun shot one bullet and stopped dead. But we were ﬁring our carbines at last, just shooting, the carbines becoming hotter and hotter in our hands, and the enemy was falling, still coming at us, still falling. The Franco-Belges were bringing dynamite cans to their lit stogies and ﬂinging them at the enemy. We were ﬁring, just shooting our guns. And then the enemy tumed tail and ﬂed, our ﬁre whipping at them. At our left, below us, Joe was sitting atop his parapet, soon joined by others in his squad, laughing and ﬁring at the retreating Moors. None of the men in my squad had been hit, but one man whose name I no longer remember in Joe’s squad had had the tip of his ear shot off. Captain van den Berghe came by to congratulate us. It warmed us, but not enough to ward off the cold as the sun began quickly to descend. We huddled close to each other. We had been in our ﬁrst battle and had survived, and we were suddenly very frightened as we clung to each other and one of the men began to cry. Kavorkian gave him shelter. We had, by the way, totally forgotten the buried gunny sack and its hand grenades. Fortunately, we had not needed them.
Under cover of darkness, we were brought beans, bread, vino. We spoke little, ate quietly and quickly. Drank our vino, smoked our cigarettes as we reclined low behind the stone breastworks. Wondered aloud what in hell we were doing here, trying to kill the men who were trying to kill us. We discussed that and concluded that men in all wars, no matter the cause, had their moments when they wondered at the sheer idiocy of war. Kavorkian, our political commissar, eschewed giving us an agitprop lecture, and I for one was thankful.
We began to hear the enemy taking their dead and wounded in and we sat there quietly and sad. As we set up a guard and prepared to take our turns sleeping, Captain Wattis appeared with another American squad, this one led by a man named Wohl. Many weeks later, after I became ambulatory in the Murcian hospital where I was bedded, Wohl’s body lay in state in the lobby under red ﬂags, and I stood before him as honor guard.
Through a night so quiet that the occasional riﬂe shot echoed, led again by Wattis we rejoined the battalion, now resting in a gully off the road. Seacord greeted us, gave us all an embrace, and then there was Joe, anxious to recount every detail of the battle we had participated in that afternoon. He was very explicit and full of beans and I fell asleep.