- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
But halfway across, all of them were unnerved by a news flash posted by the purser for their benefit: Chairman [Samuel] McRcynolds of the House Foreign Affairs Committee declared he would urge the Department of Justice to apply the section of the Criminal Code providing $3,000 [fine] or a year in prison for enlistment of Americans in a foreign war.
Bart’s face bore a pained “I told you so” expression. To be arrested at Le Havre and extradited to the United States would be an ignominious end to the volunteer movement. The men glared at “the O.N.I, spy,” but he gave no sign of inward triumph, shame, or concern one way or another. Infantry manuals and other incriminating documents were tossed out of portholes.
At Le Havre, French customs officers winked at the volunteers and passed them through without looking inside their black suitcases. It was New Year’s Eve, and the men wondered how big a time they could have in Paris on a couple of dollars. But to their surprise, they were dispersed to boardinghouses and dingy hotels in Le Havre for two days. They devoured newspapers left behind by the crew of the Washington , which had just sailed. Back home the birth rate was down and typhoid was up. They heard of the sit-down strike in Michigan, where 34,000 workers occupied seven General Motors plants and defied the capitalists to evict them.
There were no hoped-for Paris leaves when the men finally arrived there, on January 2. After a free meal- bad enough to be commented on at the time and good enough to be recalled in the lean months ahead—they were shuttled across the city to the Gare de Lyon, where they boarded the night train headed south to Perpignan. The third-class compartments were jammed with hundreds of International Brigades volunteers. There were factory workers from Milan, purse-lipped refugees from Germany, cement-jawed Slavs, blonds from the Baltic with rucksacks. In many of these faces the Americans read tales of suffering and hunger: these were antifascists forged from alloys bitter beyond the ken of most Americans. Everything they possessed after half a lifetime of labor lay wrapped in small paper parcels held between their knees. The babel of strange languages and the heady disorder of men bound for war spilled over from the compartments to the platforms outside, where hundreds of French well-wishers saw them off. A foreign volunteer asked Joe Gordon his nationality. “ Juif ,” he replied. As the train pulled out of the station, men were singing “The Internationale” in a dozen languages. words were different, but the melody and the mood were identical.
At daybreak a vast river, the Rhone, appeared out of the mist. In the frosted fields workers wearing blue jackets and black berets pruned black vines that protruded from the earth like immense cloves. Bonfires of their cuttings lighted the way to Spain. Beyond Narbonne, the tracks ran across salt flats beside the sea, and a lookout called from the window, “Hey, I see the Pyrenees!” And sure enough, he had. From the railroad yard at Perpignan they were led into a high-walled enclosure and told to keep out of sight. They were dirty, tired, and hungry. Some sneaked out and brought back long loaves of bread.
After nightfall they were loaded into battered school buses, which bumped for several hours over a rutted road climbing into a gap in the looming mountains. Beyond the French frontier station, shut for the night, they dropped down from the mountains and debarked on the parade ground of the Castillo de San Fernando, a massive castle crowning the heights above the town of Figueras. Assigned a section of straw within a dark subterreanean casemate, they hung their suitcases on saddle hooks jutting from the wall. In a cavernous room lined with plank tables and lit by two weak lightbulbs, they were served beans from steaming washtubs and goat chops from a skillet twenty-five feet wide.
A few days later the International Brigades volunteers marched down to the railroad station, led by the Americans because they were first alphabetically. As they passed through the streets of Figueras, townspeople lined the curbs, cheering and bombarding them with almonds. A train camouflaged with zigzag smears of green and yellow paint carried them to Barcelona. Already they had picked up two plagues that remained with them to the end: lice and dysentery. It was midafternoon when they marched from North Station to the Plaza de Cataluna for their demonstration under the window of Consul General Perkins.
Dawn found them south of Tarragona, the tracks running beside the Mediterranean—“as blue as everyone said it was”—or passing through hamlets—“unreal, like Hollywood villages.” On southern slopes, almond trees were already in pink blossom. On tiny farms Spaniards clenched fists and called “ Salud! ” to the passing volunteers. At Valencia, capital of the republic since November, when the government had fled Madrid in panic, they ate in the plaza de toros , where bullfight posters sagged and flapped in the wind. Since the outbreak of war no bulls worth mentioning had been fought in Spain. Spaniards of both sides had found more interesting animals to kill.