American writer William Herrick’s account of his experiences as a volunteer in the Lincoln Battalion of the XVth International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War: 7

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William Herrick, 1915-2004 (photo Dick Duhan)

Back in Murcia, now ensconced in an office on Calle Nicolai, several blocks from the Street of Ragshops, I worked on the hospital newsletter with the help of an American boy who suffered from epilepsy. Why he had come to Spain in his condition, I don’t know. He had been wounded, and frequently suffered from seizures. When in high school I had had experience with someone suffering from petit mal, a boy who sat next to me, and I had learned how to be helpful, putting a handkerchief in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue, and so on. In Murcia, the kid’s name was Bercovici and he was related to a writer who was to become one of the Hollywood blacklisted.

Men were now being repatriated, but I didn’t ask, nor did Oscar Hunter, my pol, say anything to me about it. The men now coming to Spain from the States were told their hitch was only for six months. My group had not been told there would be a time limitation; we just assumed it was for the duration. Later, the limitation was arbitrarily rescinded. When men insisted they wanted to be repatriated after six months, they were vilified as Trotskyites or cowards or spies, and those who decided to leave without salvo conductos were called deserters. A number were shot. It got so bad that Tony DeMaio, as I’ve said, was dispatched to Barcelona to stand outside the American Embassy to nab those seeking refuge there.

In September, Joe showed up in Murcia and told me he was being repatriated, and so was I; unasked, it seemed. Oscar and Joe contrived it between them. I was doing nothing, simply marking time. At home I could make speeches for the cause.

The doctors gave me an X-ray picture, the bullet clearly marked, and an American surgeon advised me that back in the States I should make sure I saw a Dr. Davidoff at Beth Israel hospital in Manhattan; the top neurosurgeon in America, he said. Before leaving, Joe and I had a sad little party with Oscar. When we asked him if he would be going home soon, he said, They’re keeping me here forever.

In Albacete I appeared before a panel of the Service Sanitaire des Brigades Internationales and was given my honorable discharge, with “balle resté ” in spine, and lost capacity to work, “50%.” The democratic government of the Republic of Spain owes me a work limitation pension of 50 percent. I’m still waiting. It would come in handy in my old age.

Then Joe Colbert, who was leaving with us, and I went to Bill Lawrence’s office to retrieve our passports. John Murra told us to return the next day. When we did, hesitatingly, blushing—he was a decent man — he told us our passports had been with the trucks that had been lost on our way to the front. A stuttering falsehood. I said, you mean they thought our passports would be safer at the front than here in Albacete? He shrugged. It wasn’t too many years later when the world learned that the passports belonging to those of us stupid enough to have turned them in had been used by the Cheka throughout the world. We would, Murra said, receive Spanish passports in Barcelona to use until we arrived in Paris. There we would have to go to the American Embassy to obtain duplicates. And what will we tell them there? I asked. Still blushing, still unhappy with his task, Murra told us the responsible in Paris would instruct us.

Joe Gordon, Colbert, a fellow named Moran, and I left together via train. Murra gave me a large envelope with our personal dossiers to pass on to the Party responsable in Paris. I was still in Bill Lawrence’s good graces, it seemed. I had dissembled well. A red hot, steel-spined bolshevik, that was me.

Doug Roach was nowhere around. Murra told us he was at one of the convalescent resorts on the Mediterranean shore, and that he would probably be repatriated soon.

In Valencia, where we lay over for several hours, as Joe Gordon and I were promenading we ran into Ernest Hemingway, who said he’d come in from Madrid for a day or two. He and Joe had met when he had come to the front to visit the Americans. Doug had permitted the writer to shoot off several rounds from his machine gun. We told him we were on our way home, and walked him to his hotel. There he gave us a bottle of Scotch and an address. We thanked him and left for the address he had given us. It turned out to be a lovely old casa, beautifully furnished, and attended by several pretty young women, obviously daughters of the upper classes, who spoke English. Hemingway had telephoned in advance and the treatment we received was munificent. We left the unfinished bottle with them. I never got to thank Mr. Hemingway; perhaps Joe did at another time.

***

In Barcelona, camions filled with singing militia on the way to the front rattled through the streets; still, it was not the same city we had entered on that awe-inspiring day back in January. Though the sun shone with its customary African fury, it appeared gray to me — gray with unfriendly faces. We were still wearing our International Brigades uniforms, and the eyes that examined us were filled with anger. After walking the length of the Ramblas to our hotel, I found the back of my blouse spotted with spit. We had destroyed their revolution; was this their way of letting me know how they felt about it? I was aware of it, but I doubt that my comrades were. After those at the front were informed by the commissars of the Barcelona events in May, calling the Party provocation an Anarchist and POUM putsch and insurrection, many had remarked that those treacherous Trotskyite bastards should all be shot. Of course, many were. Irving Goff, an American whose exploits behind the enemy lines were nothing less than spectacular, told Alan Rockman, who was doing research for a dissertation on the Jews in the Lincoln battalion, that he and several other Americans, including one Alex Kunslich, were hurriedly sent by truck with the XIVth (Guerrilla) Corps to the hills overlooking Barcelona and that he “was given a tommy gun and looked forward to mowing down the goddam Trotskyite bastards.” He made a similar statement to Cameron Stewart, another researcher, this time adding the words “with relish!” Archie Brown, another Lincoln who was co-opted into the NKVD, boasted when he retumed home that he had killed more Trotskyites than fascists in Spain. Still another, someone named Cohen (not Morris, who after Spain was sent to England by the NKVD to consort with the Kim Philby gang), amused his New York friends and acquaintances at a cocktail party with tales of how he was co- opted into the GayPayOo in Spain and was involved, ha ha, ho ho, in executions. And who were they? How right George Orwell was when he refused to join the Intemational Brigades with the remark that he might have to shoot fellow socialists. His Homage to Catalonia is not the only written record of those days. The files of the Spanish Communist Party and the NKVD captured at the war’s close now rest in Salamanca. How proud they were to record in detail their murderous accomplishments.

After my comrades and I obtained our Spanish passports and were told at what hour at night to catch the train for Port Bou and then Port Vendres, France, we decided to blow our remaining pesetas on a big meal in what looked like a very fancy restaurant. We were greeted at the door by a snooty maitre d’ who examined us head to toe, and then said, “No hay pan.” No bread. We said we didn’t care if there was no bread, but he repeated, “No hay pan.” The joint was filled with well-dressed people eating what looked like delicious food, and we were four hungry ragged veterans of the war. “No hay pan,” he said yet again, herding us out. Yes, Barcelona had changed. The Party had done its work well. Down with the ragged and the hungry! Up with the bourgeoisie! And at the front, this is what our comrades were supposedly fighting and dying for. Despite everything, how bravely they fought, going into battle time and time again against overwhelming odds. The ceaseless and ruthless use of the International Brigades by their commanders would lead one to believe that it was Stalin’s orders that as many of these men as possible be sent to their deaths — they were just a bit too tough, too idealistic for his tastes.

Now angry and dismayed, we went to a working class bistro down near the harbor and finished all the tapas the bartender could muster, sluiced down with tepid cerveza. Moran, a merchant seaman built like a tank, drank six glasses with no more effect than if it had been water.

As we strolled towards the train station in the blackout, we were joined by an American in I.B. uniform who said he was returning to the front in a day or two. There were many women on the street offering their services. This guy kept stopping and asking something of one, then another. After three or so, one finally acquiesced to his demand and they went into a rather shabby building. He was down shortly and we asked him what it was he had wanted. To fuck a Spanish whore up her ass, he said. We shrugged and left him behind.

During the night, as the blacked-out train clanked hesitantly forward, foot by foot it seemed, we were bombed several times by Nationalist planes stationed in the Balearic Islands. I sat near Joe Gordon, and because he refused to reveal any fear, I also revealed none. We talked right through it. In the morning, we transferred at Port Bou for the Port Vendres train, and shortly we were in France. I don’t know about my companions, but I cannot say I was unhappy.