- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
With the thermometer steady at 62 degrees, it was winter cruise weather as the Normandie cast off its lines at midday on December 26, 1936, carrying the first group of American volunteers to the Spanish Civil War. In all, there were seventy-six men, whose backgrounds defy glib generalization. Aboard were a former junior-high-school principal from Alabama, a Negro county-fair wrestler from Cape Cod, a Japanese-American cook from the West Coast, three Boston-Irish brothers, a one-time West Point gunnery instructor, a Daily Worker columnist, an Armenian carpet salesman, a City College soccer star, an Army deserter, a Texas red-neck, and a Greenwich Village denizen who told everyone he wanted to die. Many of them had been to sea as deck hands, but the perspective afforded passengers was new to them.
Nearly one third of the first seventy-six men were worldly, hard-core types from maritime organizations; all of these men were fiercely loyal to one another and a little condescending to “the snot-noses of Union Square” who got their revolutionary fervor out of books read at City College and New York University. There was a handful or so who had obtained some military training in the lazy peacetime army. Douglas Seacord, the West Point gunnery instructor, had drilled them in bayonet technique back at the Ukrainian Hall. Martin Hourihan, the school principal, had served one year in the U.S. cavalry before his mother got him out, clinging to her devout hope that her oldest son would enter the priesthood. Joe Gordon ( né Mendelowitz), a man’s man and a Communist’s Communist, had learned more about fighting in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, where he grew up, than in the U.S. infantry, from which he had recently deserted.
Among them, too, were many national guardsmen, although for the most part these were party infiltrators like Tiny Agostino, a sullen stalwart from upstate New York who never took his politics with a grain of salt—or humor. A few chaps had taken courses at The Workers’ School, downstairs in the party headquarters, on “How to Organize Communist Party Cells in the U.S. Armed Forces.” One graduate, a seaman named Robert Gladnick, had been in charge of this activity at Randolph and Kelly fields in Texas. Though he had never had military training, he had been at least briefly involved in a military environment.
Contrasted with these warriors, the large number of Jewish intellectuals aboard the Normandie were abysmally green. All had done their stint on picket lines and were up on party theory, but few had ever fired a rifle. A major reason they gave for volunteering was “to take a crack at Hitler.” They had been told, and had seen the information repeatedly confirmed in the Daily Worker , that German storm troopers made up the bulk of Franco’s army.
This ethnic dimension of the war was lost upon the contingent from Boston, men like the three Flaherty brothers and their friend Paul Burns, a labor writer in his middle thirties. For them, fascism was simply a reactionary political movement bent upon destroying the hardwon gains of the working class. It had to be turned back in Spain before it spread like a virus through the socalled Western democracies. They were weary of ballot boxes and picket lines; they wanted to confront the enemy headlong, with steel. The war in Spain offered a special taste for each palate.
Because it was the winter of a Depression year, they had the boat almost to themselves. In tourist class there were only a dozen other passengers, one of whom was an athletic-looking man wearing a massive signet ring, the design always turned to his palm. Word got out that the seal was that of Annapolis and the suspect an agent from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Bart warned his volunteers not to engage in conversation with the “government spy.” The maritime contingent fuelled the spy theory, for it diverted Bart’s mother-hennishness away from them. Having just left the strike kitchens of the New York waterfront, where they had dined on leftovers from the Fulton and Washington markets, they planned to enjoy the plush comforts of the Normandie . Ignoring Bart’s strictures about drinking, they put away bottles of wine at meals and argued that it was the nondrinkers who were arousing suspicion. Moreover, they had scouted the ship and discovered that second class was filled with statuesque girls of the Folies-Bergère. Despite Bart’s admonition that these girls were thoroughly “bourgeois” parasites, the seamen proceeded to storm second class. They had no money but soon established mutual interests with the girls. The seamen, if their tales contain even a grain or two of truth, broke records and made history on the Normandie crossing.
Even though it must have been perfectly clear to everyone aboard who the men were and where they were going, Commissar Bart continued to behave as though the ship were infiltrated with spies. Whenever his charges gathered together in groups of more than five, Bart dispatched Bobby Pieck, his eighteen-year-old assistant, to whisper commands to disperse. They whiled away the hours at poker (playing for matches, not money, because gambling was a capitalist vice), at muscle-building exercises, and in thumbing through dog-eared, obsolescent R.O.T.C. manuals that circulated surreptitiously like choice bits of pornography.