- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
Perhaps the most depressing place in town was the Plaza de Altozano. The municipal and provincial buildings had been taken over by International bureaucrats, pouter pigeons in swank uniforms and in perpetual motion. There were fleeting glimpses of Marty himself, popping in and out of his chaufteured limousine decked with tiny flags. Hovering around him were his next-in-powers, section heads and jefes of somethingor-other, bundled up in shaggy coats. In Albacete only one man had the right to cast a vote—André Marty. It was ironic that he had risen to power in the French Communist party on a platform of antimilitarism.
The Americans had little time to study the intricacies of rear-guard politicking and infighting. During the second week of January they left for their training camp at Villanueva de la Jara, some thirty-five miles northwest of Albacete. They were glad to go. Albacete could make a working stiff feel pretty small.
Having shunted the Americans to Villanueva, the Albacete base largely ignored them. Officially they were the 17th Battalion, XV (International) Brigade; unofficially they called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Truckloads of new faces arrived nearly every day, adding to the confusion of leaderless men drifting about the village without specific knowledge of what they should be doing. Since Philip Bart had remained at Albacete as their representative at the base, James Harris assumed command. Their table of organization called for establishing two rifle companies and one machine-gun company. The seamen were the most cohesive faction; they set themselves up as future machine gunners and named themselves the Tom Mooney Company (after Thomas Mooney, a militant workingclass leader in San Francisco who had been jailed on a trumped-up charge that he was responsible for a bomb explosion at the Preparedness Day parade in July, 1916, which killed ten bystanders).
The Mooneys got the best military leader in the outfit, Douglas Seacord, a soft-spoken Tennessean with a smiling, pirate’s face who gathered about him party stalwarts like Joe Gordon; Douglas Roach, a Negro wrestler nearly as wide as he was tall; and Ray Steele, a seaman who could outrun most men in the battalion despite his clubfoot.
Now that Bart was gone, many of the volunteers wished he were back again, for he had been a link, however weak, in the chain leading back to the party organization in New York. Authority had broken down. Harris earnestly wished to establish a training program but could not cope with the anarchy already plaguing his battalion and being compounded almost daily by the arrival of fresh recruits.
Adding to the difficulties at Villanueva de la Jara was the insouciance of the French-dominated bureaucracy at Albacete. Directives, whenever they arrived, were written in French and had to be laboriously translated. (Complaints netted only a few copies of French-Spanish dictionaries; French-English ones were unavailable.)
Complaints from Villanueva piled up in Bart’s office at Albacete: Where was their training equipment? What happened to mail from the States? When would overnight leaves be authorized? Why couldn’t they be billeted closer to Albacete? But Bart had no weight whatever with the International Brigades bosses at the base. The C.P.U.S.A. was only a microscopic part of a completely capitalistic power, and Bart was a nobody in it. He represented a nation that in the view of the Comintern was slightly more politically developed than Albania but considerably less so than Bulgaria. André Marty publicly expressed his disgust with those “spoiled cry-babies,” those “arrogant Americans.” The C.P.U.S.A. had committed a grave error in not sending a man with better credentials to represent the volunteers at the base, for the Americans were, at least initially, treated like second-class citizens of the world revolution.
During their stay at Villanueva, the Lincolns failed to acquire even a minimal knowledge of military art. Some of the men blamed Harris, saying he had the mentality of a sergeant—a first-rate sergeant, to be sure, but a sergeant nonetheless. He seemed to know what he was talking about, but he talked so little! At lectures he posed abstruse tactical problems in technical jargon and then wheeled to ask a recruit, “What would you do in that case?” No matter what the recruit replied, Harris was apt to shake his head and say, “No good. You’d kill off all your men that way.” What the answer should have been, they never learned.
The wind of change began to blow in late January, when there appeared two figures destined to lead the Lincoln Battalion out of confusion and into catastrophe. Sam Stember came from Philadelphia, Robert Hale Merriman from the Soviet Union.
Both Stember and Merriman were in their thirties—but at that point their resemblance ended. Sam Stember was a loser. He was a sagging man with the mien of someone who had spent the best years of his life sitting behind a beat-up desk in a dingy office, organizing for the party. He seemed to the volunteers like a used-up hack slipping backward after a long uphill climb toward the higher ranks of the party bureaucracy. He emitted, almost like a body odor, a weariness and dreariness that led the men to nickname him Last Chance Stember. Others alluded to him as The Jello. Presumably he had been sent on a temporary basis by the New York office to develop political leadership and to put some snap in the battalion commissariat.