Chapter I: The Lonesome Ride Home
The trip back to San Francisco from New York was not too exciting. The Veteran's Committee had made some sort of deal with the American Bus Lines that ran to most major towns and cities. In my case the fare from New York to San Francisco was $35. This also included a breakfast valued at 25 cents, a lunch at 35 cents and a dinner valued at 45 cents. The trip took five days and five nights.
I sat next to a woman as we left the Chicago area. We got to talking. I told her I had been in Spain for the past year and a half fighting against Franco as a member of the Spanish People's Army. "My," she blurted out, "why are you riding a bus with all the money you made as a mercenary?"
If she was representative of the thinking of the American people, then I knew I had a tough job ahead of me trying to explain my presence in Spain.
I was lucky upon my return to San Francisco. Some people were waiting for me at the depot. I stayed with a Swedish longshoremen and his wife. For the next two weeks I was well-fed and rested and gained back some of the 23 pounds I had lost in Spain. While I was fattening up I checked with my union, the Marine's Firemen's Union, about shipping out. I had not paid any dues during my absence. Dues were $75, a large sum in those days. I was given a shipping card with permission to make a trip and pay off the debt on my first voyage.
I had heard a rumor that one of our veterans, Stanley Postek, could not be processed to leave Spain when most of the Internationals did because of his wounds. He had to go across the Pyrenees into France and ended up in a French concentration camp. He was able to escape with the help of some French Communists and was now hiding out in the seaport town of Marseilles, trying to stow away on an American ship for the United States.
Stanley was one of the young organizers that had been attracted to organize seaman into the Marine Workers Industrial Union. Most of his work had been done in and around New Orleans and Gulf ports. He was also an aspiring boxer and fought his way pretty high up in the ranks of the heavyweights. In fact, just a few months before he took off for Spain he had achieved the title of heavyweight champ of the Pacific Coast. He gave up his boxing career and set out to join the Lincoln Brigade in Spain.
I recall the morning that he caught up with our company. We were stationed not too far from the Rio Ebro. Our outfit was in a preparedness position and spending a lot of time training for the assault we were soon to make across the Ebro. Our ranks needed some reinforcements. In fact, we needed more than that. We needed food and a change of clothing. We needed tobacco and letters from home. The truth was, things were going badly for our side. Franco and his generals were winning more and more territory and with that the food supply. We were hungry and many things pissed us off which, if we had been well fed, would not have bothered us.
Here we were on a hot day, no idea of what tomorrow would bring, when we noticed far off down the road a truck approaching. A food truck, we hoped, since this was the way food was brought to us, in barrels aboard an open truck. It was also the way new men and replacements were brought to our battalion. We were in luck. It was our food truck and holding onto the side panels were several replacements. Among them were two that I recognized immediately, Archie Brown from San Francisco and Stanley Postek. Of course there were handshakes and hugs and greetings. Among the ranks of the vets we had a few characters who loved the excitement of making any newcomer feel that he was finding himself among a pack of weirdos. One such character was Johnnie Coons, a sailor from the West Coast. He started to sing a World War I song; I think it was called "I Want to Go Home" and one of its passages was "The bullets do whistle, the cannons they roar. I don't want to go to the front anymore. Ma, Ma, I'm too young to die. I want to go home." When our new arrivals heard this they looked at each other in disbelief. Archie seemed completely flabbergasted, but Stanley quickly sensed that it was all seamen's humor, that we were not brought over by the enemy.
About a week before we were assigned to go into action by recrossing the Ebro and routing the fascists on several fronts, something happened to Stanley and he ended up in the hospital. After a week of chasing the fascists back toward their home base of Salamanca, we found ourselves relieving the Lister Battalion atop Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols. Hill 666 was a high spot atop a mean, rugged, arid, rocky ridge that overlooked the main entrance toward the city of Gandesa, which we had our sights on. It was on this mountain ridge that the fascists had dug in when they learned that the republicans had forded the Ebro. Their positions were immensely fortified, making it almost impossible for us to move them one foot, forcing us to become exposed. While we could see our objective, Gandesa, in the distance, there was no way we could get near it, let alone capture it, unless we broke through the lines atop this mountain.
Each hour that passed made this possibility less realistic. One day the fascists mounted an artillery barrage against us; it lasted from daybreak until seven o'clock that evening. At least one shell a minute hit the ridge we were on.
Perhaps it was the shape of the mountain ridge or indecisive aiming, but the attack did not do the damage the enemy expected. A few of our men were killed, some wounded. But we managed to maintain our positions and not cede one foot.
Many of the shells lobbed at us would slap the rocky ridge of the mountain, then ricochet to the rear of our position where they either exploded or spent themselves. It was one such shell that bounced off our position, then whirled itself down through the valley at our rear which connected with the road that carried our supplies to the front. As luck would have it that day, Stanley was once again riding to the front in a food truck. He had just come out of the hospital. With one hand on the truck's side panel and the other hand holding onto the food barrel, Stanley was expecting to join his comrades in the next few minutes. As the truck rounded the bend in the road, the ricocheting shell landed on the cab of the truck. It killed the driver and his helper immediately. The blast of the shell demolished the truck as well as blowing Stanley high in the air, slamming him against the mountainside some 30 feet away. He was picked up by the medics, bleeding and unconscious, and rushed back across the Ebro to the nearest hospital. His arm was smashed and the blast of the shell played havoc with other parts of his body, too.
I decided to rescue him. With this mission in mind, I joined the SS President Monroe, an American President Lines ship, for a trip around the world. One of her main ports in the Mediterranean would be Marseilles, where I expected to locate Stanley and stow him away. When we pulled into the dock, my eyes were trying to search him out. I spent a good part of the day looking for him, and it was only when I checked with some longshore members of the Communist Party that I learned that "the tall American with the wound in his arm" was safely stowed on board an American vessel bound for New York. I felt relieved that he was safe. As our vessel moved on down the Mediterranean, we passed the coastline of Spain. The war was still raging. While Barcelona and many other principal cities had fallen, Madrid was still holding out. Our radios were picking up broadcasts from both sides. The Madrid radio exhorted the republicans to continue the fight, while the fascist Franco stations were telling the people to throw down their guns and give up. It was sad. Very sad.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three