The following afternoon, February 23, 1937 as the battalion readied itself to leave the gully and enter the frontline trenches before going over the top, Seacord informed me the machine gun company would remain in reserve, but asked if I would take Kavorkian and Pete Shimrak and set up our machine gun at the left ﬂank of the battalion’s position. I told him that the gun had ﬁred only one shot and then quit. He said there was enough time for us to take the gun to the armorer down the road, have it repaired, and then return to set up our position.
The road was under heavy artillery ﬁre, but we managed to ﬁnd the armorer, a man named Sugrue, if I recall correctly, who worked on the gun for a few minutes, oiled a few parts — it was an old 1918 Vickers-Maxim which the Russians had shipped to Spain; later they would send a lighter and better machine gun — and the three of us found our way to the position Seacord had pointed out. It was now deep into the afternoon; the battalion had moved into trenches to our right, and as we began to set the heavy gun in place a sledge hammer hit me in the back of the head. As I fell, I wondered who could have hit me. I must have been unconscious for a few minutes, but as I came out of it I heard Kavorkian say, “Poor Bill, he must be dead.”
I tried desperately to move, to speak, to let him know I wasn’t dead, don’t bury me, but I was paralyzed head to toe and could not utter a word. I also felt no pain. Soon Pete Shimrak appeared with two medics carrying a litter. By then I had found my voice, and as they placed me on the canvas I uttered the memorable words, “Long live the Communist International,” for one must die bravely, and I was positive I was dying. It was not as frightening as I had always believed it would be. I remember it distinctly. The best word to describe it is peace. I felt at peace, and very fatigued. I would be very grateful for the rest. I did not feel the needle as one of the medics gave me a shot.
When I came to I was in an ambulance on the way to a front-line hospital, half in and half out, paralysis receding, the oncoming pain in the back of my neck so agonizing I did not stop screaming the length of what seemed an endless ride through hell as above me a dead man leaked blood, piss, and shit into my face, and a Frenchman at my side cried, “Merde, merde, merde” in counterpoint to my screams of “Mama, mama, mama.” War— very romantic. A great adventure.
I received another morphine shot when Iwas carried into a front-line hospital reeking with the smell of hot blood. There was much screaming. As through a haze I saw bandaged men moving about, and then felt the soft touch of Spanish nurses as they whispered soothing words. I woke again to hear the words, “Poor Bill, he’s dying.” This time it was ex-commissar Marvin Stern, leaning over me, one hand wrapped in bandages; then there was Walter Garland, his plump belly dappled with iodine—a case of bullets he was carrying had been hit and exploded— and Paul Burns, one of the infantry commanders, also with a ﬂesh wound, and several other American comrades. The battalion had in clear daylight gone over the top in idiotic World War I fashion and been repulsed, with some twenty dead and sixty wounded. They shushed and whispered encouraging words as a soft-faced Spanish nurse began to feed me pitted dates. I can still remember how sweet the meat tasted, how pleasant and soothing it was to my tongue as I lay there half in, half out, believing I was dying. The morphine masked the pain, but I could not move my head or feel my hands. Soon there was another American lying nearby, an infantryman named Reinlieb, and when my morphine wore off I joined him in an endless howl of pain so loud the other comrades who were spending the night in our ward could not sleep and kept begging the nurses to give us morphine.
In the morning, my pain again masked by dope, Stern, Burns, Garland, and several others whose wounds had been slight and who were about to return to the front, whispered goodbye and wished me luck. Garland, a tall, slightly obese and light-skinned African American who was in my machine gun company, kissed me on the forehead and I asked him to give everyone my regards. I was to see Burns and Garland again, survivors of the war, but Stern became one of those rumors, allegations, mysteries.
Marvin retumed to ﬁght in the horrendous battle of February 27. He was not one of those who mutinied. He helped repel a Moorish attack early in March, and then, the front moribund, asked for a transfer to a French battalion. Shortly thereafter, Phil Cooperman approached Marvin in the line and asked him to come along.
That was the last seen of Marvin Stern by his American comrades. When Oscar Hunter was bedded next to me in the hospital late in May, he told me that Marvin had told several comrades he was keeping a journal in which he was noting the history of the Lincolns, and that he vowed to show his journal to Earl Browder upon his return to the States. Marvin, to say the least, was not being very wise.
Shortly thereafter, when Steve Nelson replaced Sam Stember, an abject ﬁgure, as battalion commissar, he held a meeting and told the assembled troops, whose morale was at nadir and for good reason, that he would answer any question they asked. Mickey Mickenberg (later Monis Maken) stood and asked Nelson, What happened to Marvin Stern? Nelson’s response was quick and to the point, I don’t know, and don’t ever ask again! (The second phrase of that answer doesn’t seem quite to go with the ﬁrst, does it?) Nelson was never, so far as I know, asked again.
In August 1937 Phil Bard, now a member of a committee of three — Max Bedacht, a Party politburo member and General Secretary of the International Workers Order, and a young man named Martin, an officer of the National Maritime Union, were the other two—appeared in Murcia. There was a party for the committee at one of the hospitals. I had recovered from an unsuccessful operation to remove the bullet from my spine and was ambulatory. I went to the party. Of course I spoke to Bard. He had brought regards from my mother and sister, whom he knew from the Communist Coops. As I’ve said, he was a gentle, soft-spoken man, one who could be called a sweet man. After we spoke for a few minutes, I said more or less the following: Phil, Marvin Stern was a friend of yours, a good comrade, no one seems to know what’s happened to him; perhaps he’s still alive, can’t you look into it and do something about it?
His response was quick, and it wasn’t sweet, and it wasn’t soft-spoken. In Party matters, he said, friendship doesn’t count, the Party comes ﬁrst—and don’t you forget it!
I had been in a jam with an NKVD man just before this, which is another matter, and I thought caution was called for. I nodded and left him.
In the middle 19505, Mickey Mickenberg told me that every time he met a French I.B. man in Spain he would ask if he’d ever encountered an American named Marvin Stern. One day, during the Brunete offensive in July 1937 he connected.
He had known an American named Marvin, he said, in one of the French penal battalions (a collection of drunks, criminals, and dissidents—Marvin?) and, as was the custom with battalions of that sort, Marvin had been sent out with a patrol to cut barbed wire before an attack, a most dangerous mission, of course. One afternoon —it was nearly always in the afternoon, the sun high, visibility clear—on just such a mission, Marvin had been killed.
Rumor? Truth? What?