Spanish Civil War Letters From American Volunteers Essay, Research Paper
from CANUTE FRANKSON
July 6, 1937
My Dear Friend:
I’m sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed
explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this
is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every
kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and jim-crowed us; why I, a Negro who have
fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?
Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly
against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part
of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human
civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in
their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we’ll save our people in America,
and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and
slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler’s Fascist heels.
All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but
look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with
the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our
tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for
souvenirs—living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a
hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their
heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us.
But these people who howl like hungry wolves for our blood, must we
hate them? Must we keep the flame which these masters kindled constantly fed? Are these
men and women responsible for the programs of their masters, and the conditions which
force them to such degraded depths? I think not. They are tools in the hands of
unscrupulous masters. These same people are as hungry as we are. They live in dives and
wear rags the same as we do. They, too, are robbed by the masters, and their faces kept
down in the filth of a decayed system. They are our fellowmen. Soon, and very soon, they
and we will understand. Soon, many Angelo Herndons will rise from among them, and from
among us, and will lead us both against those who live by the stench of our burnt flesh.
We will crush them. We will build us a new society–a society of peace and plenty. There
will be no color line, no jim-crow trains, no lynching. That is why, my dear, I’m here in
Canutefrom JACK FREEMAN
October 22, 1937
Dear Mom, Pop, and Herbie,
Six months after leaving home and almost five months after arriving in
Spain, I’ve finally gotten to see some actual warfare. This morning marks my tenth day in
the front line trenches and, altho this front is technically speaking pretty quiet at
present, still we’ve managed to squeeze in quite a lot since we came up.
We moved into the trenches one morning before light and, as soon as
dawn came, the crap began to fly. Then started my education. Some of the old-timers
explained the various sounds to me. At first anytime anything whizzed, whistled, or
buzzed, I would duck. Then I found out that any bullet which passes anywhere near you will
whistle. Ricochets, that is, bullets which have already hit the ground or a rock or
something and bounce off in a different direction, buzz when they go by. When bullets come
very close they sound more like a whine than a whistle.
But the most important thing of all about these bullet sounds is never
to worry about any bullet you hear. Bullets travel much faster than sound, strange as that
may seem, and the bullet is way past you by the time you hear it. As it’s put out here,
"You’ll never hear the slug that gets you."
Of course, it’s pretty hard to control your instinctive tendency to
duck when you hear a loud noise, but the only time it really pays to duck is when you hear
a burst of machine gun fire and hear them come over you. You can’t, of course, duck the
first few if they’re coming at you, but you can get out of the way of the rest of the
The same thing goes for artillery too, except for trench mortars and
very heavy stuff.
A trench mortar gun looks like a fat can between two wheels. The barrel
points almost straight up and the shells go all the way up into the air and then almost
drop. You can judge after a while if they’re going to your right or left, but if they’re
coming in your general direction there’s nothing to do but hope. Heavy artillery goes very
slow and you can hear them coming, but they usually head for the rear lines anyway.
Well, the first morning I’m keeping low in the trench and not too much
interested in the intricacies of military education, when these trench mortars start
coming over. They whistle for a long time before they hit and that just increases the
agony, waiting for them to land. When these things start coming the battle commander
shouts "Everybody down in the trench." So I stick my nose six inches below the
level of my heels and then the commander finishes his sentence, "That doesn’t go for
the observational staff. Locate that gun."
So I found out what observing under fire meant. Poor me has got to
spend my time sticking my nose thru peep holes when it’s much more comfortable two feet
below, and my head and shoulders over the parapet half the night, and when the big
bastards come over instead of dropping we’ve got to watch. It was pretty tough the first
morning but I soon got used to it.
You see, after a while you get the feeling that what’s going to happen
to you, if anything, will happen pretty much in spite of anything you do. That doesn’t
mean we become dauntless heroes and walk out of our way to take risks because we like to
watch the patterns the bullets kick up in the dust, but it does mean that we don’t become
nervous wrecks bobbing up and down every time a mosquito buzzes around your left ear. It’s
the only kind of defense mechanism you can adopt.
Shortly after noon that first day we went over the top. For about three
quarters of an hour after the beginning of the attack I didn’t think I’d get a chance to
climb over that hump. I was stationed next to the commander in a pretty exposed
observation post keeping wise to how our boys were going, so that the attack could be
properly directed. The commander, you understand, does not move up until the troops have
taken up a position, even a temporary one, in advance of the original lines. But if you
think that’s safe, you’re cock-eyed. He’s got to keep calm and see everything that’s going
on when every instinct is pulling him down to a covered position.
Communication with the men out front is maintained by runners. Pretty
soon we ran out of runners, so I got my chance. But the company I had been sent out to
contact had had some tough going and was pretty well scattered and difficult to find. I
went out, couldn’t find the company commander nor anyone else who knew where he was. So I
was in a fix. I didn’t want to return until I had contacted them and I couldn’t find them.
I roamed around that god-damned no-man’s land, sometimes running, sometimes crawling,
sometimes snake-bellying, and holy cow, was that a time. I didn’t of course know where in
hell my men were and one time I crawled up to within fifty meters of the fascist lines
before a sniper reminded me where I was.
The hardest thing out there is not keeping going once you’re on the
move, but starting once you’ve stopped. When you get down in between two furrows in a
plowed field or behind a little ledge where you know you’re about as safe as you will be,
it sure is tough to get up and start going thru the air again, especially since you know
there’s plenty more stuff in that air besides you.
Another thing. This time they used trench-mortars against the attacking
men. The thing to do when you hear them whistling at you is to drop so that you’ll be out
of the way of any shrapnel or flying bits of shell. Most of the time I could hear them
whistling at me and then the sound would reach a high point, and from then on it was
whistling away from me. That scares you, but once the whistle is behind you you know
you’re safe a little longer.
But of the six hours I spent out in between those lines the worst
moments were three times when the whistle of the mortars approached, came overhead, and
then, instead of receding, kept coming louder. There’s very little time involved, but you
think fast out there. Here’s that damned shell falling at you, no place to move to,
nothing to do. In that brief instant you get a horrible feeling–not of excitement or
fear, but just resignation. You are a dead man aware of the fact–a body which is lifeless
except that its mind knows it is lifeless. I don’t know if you get that. And then, three
separate times, those damn shells land within ten feet of me, and were duds! This isn’t
literary exaggeration, I’m not writing a phony adventure story. I could see where
the shells hit and dropped dirt over me and failed to explode.
Get my point. We are in danger continually and it is not pleasant. But
there is a gamble, a risk, a probability. However when there is no probability,
when it’s a certainty–it’s coming at you and you know it–then you’ve got something. Try
thinking what you’d think about if you had two seconds to think it in.
Well, I couldn’t find the company and it was starting to get dark, so I
decided to go back. But I found that wasn’t so simple either. Dusk is always a dangerous
time, so everybody is especially watchful. This day there had been an attack, so the
fascists were especially jittery and there was a hell of a lot of fire. I waited for it to
quiet and started back. This time I attracted fire from both sides because neither side
knew what I was. It’s a funny feeling to be fired on by your own men. I had a couple of
more scary moments, but I finally got in.
In one or two days we’ll be relieved and I’ll write some more. I am
still bodily and mentally unhurt.
Jackfrom CECIL COLE
October 22, 1937
Well hello everybody—
We’ve been here at the front for almost five weeks. It’s not so healthy
here. Too much "lead-poisoning" going on to be exactly comfortable.
Since I last wrote I’ve been advanced again. Now I am Chief of Brigade
Scouts. That in itself is making life less sure. So far I’ve been beyond the Fascist lines
twice and up to them six times. All at night of course. In fact we do most all of our work
at night. We have to move very slowly to avoid being seen. Three times now I have been
seen & shot at.
The first time I was about twenty meters from their line. They opened
up on me with a machine gun & six or eight rifles. Believe me, I hugged the ground.
They hit the heel of my left shoe at the seam several times and actually blew my shoe
apart there. Five of the "slugs" passed thru the seat of my pants, one just
burning my "fanny," but none closer. However my "fanny" is a little
sore still to sit on. Needless to say, I was plenty scared.
The second time they caught two of us, myself and one of my sergeants,
about 50 meters from one of their out-posts. It was pretty gruesome, as we hid behind two
dead comrades who had gotten "it" in the attack a couple of days before. We lay
there for three hours. Every time we moved, this damn sniper would put a shot along side
of us. Finally, after the moon went down we got back. I had 3 holes in my coat to show for
Cec from CECIL COLE
Jan. 29, 1938
I was strafed one morning, when I was returning to the brigade, in a
truck. There was the driver, three comrades against the cab, and myself against the back
of the truck. The driver evidentially saw them first and started to stop, turning off his
motor and heading toward the bank. This was the first I noticed, then came the staccato
crack of heavy machine gun and there was the 1st plane, not over 40 feet above us. It
killed the driver instantly, taking off most of his face. The truck was then stopped
against a high bank to the right of the road. I shouted something to the other three and
jumped out. The only place I could see that offered any cover was between the motor and
the bank. The planes were not coming head on, but from the side of the truck away from the
bank. They dove three times one after the other, all seven of them, and finally went away.
I was never so terrified in my life. You see, there was time between each plane’s dive, to
think, and the continual tightening up and letting down was horrible. It’s not a very
heroic nor pretty picture, but it’s true. The fact is, I haven’t yet gotten back on my
feet–mentally–yet. It was the first time I had time to be afraid. The other times I was
doing something and moving, but that helpless feeling of no place to go and just
waiting–waiting, really got me.
Incidentally they also dropped hand bombs, but they all hit on the far
side of the truck. If one had landed any place on my side I’d be so full of lead they
wouldn’t have to dig me a grave, I’d just naturally sink into the ground.
Cecfrom TOBY JENSKY (American nurse)
June 21, 1937
To-nite we had our first dance. We invited the boys of the Lincoln
Battalion and a good time was had by all. I’m still on night duty, but I was relieved for
a few hours so I did my bit of dancing. The dance was also successful in keeping the
patients awake and now at 3 A.M. they’re just about popping off. But what the hell. Among
the boys were a few I knew from the Village, so we talked & talked about New York and
I really feel much better now. During the full moon, you can sit outside and read it’s so
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