- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
Every night for several weeks the chosen men drilled in close-order formation at the East Side Ukrainian Hall. During rest periods, party dignitaries like Earl Browder, the general secretary, and Jack Stachel, director of the maritime section, made brief speeches explaining that they were the vanguard of an American working-class army, and relating the issues in Spain to a United Front against fascists throughout the world. Those not weeded out were issued ten-dollar bills and instructed to obtain passports. They invented fanciful reasons for travelling out of the country visiting an uncle in South Africa, completing art study in Poland, undertaking theological studies in Palestine. Aliases were common but by no means universal.
Then one night their two leaders were introduced, both selected by higher-ups in the party. Phil Bart, political commissar, would be in charge of the group until they reached Spain and began to undergo training, at which time James Harris, military commander, would take over. Bart was a cartoonist for the Young Worker , the official newspaper of the Young Communist League, a position that somehow seemed more suitable for this quiet man in his waning twenties than leadership of men shipping out to war. Pale, thin, and asthmatic, Bart aroused antipathies among many volunteers cast from rougher molds. Harris (alias Jackson) was a PolishAmerican seaman said to be an ex-Marine sergeant who had fought in China as an adviser to the Red Army. He was solidly built, sandy-haired, unassuming, and almost inarticulate. To the seamen among the men he was an authentic proletarian, not a Union Square revolutionary.
By the middle of December there were more than a hundred men drilling each evening at the hall, and each day fresh recruits arrived to study the intricacies of about face and present arms. Out-of-towners began to arrive, largely from Boston and Philadelphia; they were put up at the Thirty-fourth Street Y.M.C.A. and given $1.50 per diem maintenance allowance. Shortly before Christmas, eighty of the most promising recruits were separated from the others and informed that they would sail in a few days on the Normandie . The hall was filled with thumping, stamping, and cheering. The eighty men were divided into ten squads. Absolute secrecy was to be maintained. Until instructed otherwise, men were not to communicate with volunteers in other squads, and only squad leaders were allowed to speak with Commissar Bart. No drinking would be tolerated under any circumstances. Following a timetable designed to space them at wide intervals—to confuse federal “spies”—the squads went to an Army-Navy store situated under the Third Avenue Elevated, near Fourteenth Street, and purchased fifty dollars’ worth of equipment per man from the store owner, a party sympathizer not unwilling to mix profit with politics. I n identical black imitation-leather suitcases bound with yellow straps, the recruits packed away a random collection of army surplus—khaki shirts, rubbersoled brogans, puttees, woolen mittens, and fleece-lined jackets. Some, with their own money, bought sheath knives and even long-tubed gas masks, musty with the smell of dead rubber. A few brazen souls went uptown and opened charge accounts at fancy men’s stores. “The better the stores, the more guillible they were,” recalled a leader of this raiding party. A pair of boots from Abercrombie & Fitch lasted one volunteer the whole war.
The sailing date was December 26. Party leaders eld a clandestine bon voyage celebration (without lcohol) for them in a movie house near the Communist party headquarters a few hours before they boarded ship. Each volunteer got a parcel containing a carton of Lucky Strikes, a Gillette razor, two cakes of Palmolive soap, and a tin of G. Washington Coffee (an early-modern “instant”). They were handed third-class tickets issued by World Tourists, Inc., a Manhattan agency specializing in tours to the Soviet Union. (No one asked who was paying for their passage, because everyone knew.) Further, each man received a ten-dollar bill to cover shipboard expenses, including tipping, a repugnant bourgeois affectation necessary to reinforce the fiction that they were tourists. Before arriving at Le Havre, they were to receive fifteen dollars apiece to prove to port authorities they were not vagrants—but it was forcefully emphasized that this money had to be returned to Commissar Bart as soon as they cleared customs. In case they were asked where they were going, they should say that they were bound for the Paris Exposition. (It apparently did not occur to anyone that the exposition was not scheduled to open until summer.)
Like parachutists jumping out of an airplane, they left the theatre one by one at regular intervals. Earl Browder stood near the door, an expensive cigar clamped in his jaws, and shook each man’s hand. One volunteer recalled his surprise when he discovered that Browder’s hand was soft, warm, a little gummy—not the hand of a workingman. They went off to war on the uptown subway, the nickel coming from their own funds. No family or friends waited at the pier to see them off. Most of them had not told anyone where they were going. At the last minute, four men changed their minds.