19-20 Julio “Much news from the front”

July 19-20, 1937

Robert Merriman’s diary from July 19 and 20, 1937

Merriman’s diary for July 19 was filled with news and he even needed to include another half page from the notes page at the end of June.   Merriman tells that Joe Dallet and Bob Thompson had a difficult session on the morning of the 19th with considerable criticism including accusations that orders are not being followed.  Returning in the afternoon, Merriman reveals that the men voted to have Seaman Louis Oliver become Commissar.  Merriman thinks the men made a mistake and calls Oliver a “bluffer”.    On the 20th, Merriman repeats the claim that men are already complaining about Seaman Oliver.  Oliver will arise again in the diary in September as he again clashes with Merriman.

Frank Chesler

Hyman (Frank) Chesler, Autopark, ALBA Photo 11-0015, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman says that Bill Carroll and Alfred Litwin will be going to Pozo Rubio to go to Officer’s Training School, as they were called out by Ernie Amatniek.  In a string of disciplinary notations, he says that Jesse Wallach had to be reprimanded for spreading rumors.  In the Autopark, Lou Secundy was having problems with Frank Chesler.  As an aside, I actually learned to swim in Frank Chesler’s pool in the 1950’s.   I thought he looked like Soupy Sales in the photo on the right.

 

The results of the battles near Brunete are filtering back to Tarazona.  Merriman notes that the Lincolns and Washington’s were joined into the Lincoln-Washington Battalion.   The number of effectives was down to 280 with 150 wounded and 30 dead.  He notes that Mirko Markovich is in charge of the Battalion with Vanderbergh second in command.  Steve Nelson was the Battalion commissar and was noted to have done a fine job at Brunete.    Denis (Dennis) Jordan, the Machine Gun Company commissar was also noted to have helped.  D. R. “Pat” Stephens mentions Jordan at Brunete:

The last of our troops crossed the river bed and the full retreat began. Our machine gun commissar, Denis Jordan, saw that one of our machine gun group was retreating without its gun. It was commanded by a Finn from Minnesota named Sunstrum. Jordan asked him where his machine gun was and he seemed aware for the first time that the machine gun was left behind. He and his group went back to the hill to retrieve it. We could not wait for them; we were in danger of being encircled. I asked Jordan if I could stay behind with my group to give support for Sunstrum and his men. Jordan said I could, but warned me to be careful. He said if Sunstrum and his men were not back soon I was to retreat and rejoin the battalion. I did not have to wait long. The men came back with the gun and we hurried back through the woods to rejoin the battalion. Jordan was worried, and had sent two patrols looking for us. One of the patrols was led by Mo Teitelbaum {Morris Granat} from Chicago. While looking for us, he had met an enemy patrol. An exchange of fire had taken place and Teitelbaum was wounded in the stomach.¹

Others did not fare as well.  Vincent Usera was removed from the Lincoln-Washington Battalion and sent back to Tarazona to help out with training.   Steve Nelson was critical of Usera and Milton Wolff told Cecil Eby that Usera said that he had been planted in the Lincolns as an agent of the US Government².  Harry Haywood said that Usera had left his post without permission and was dismissed by the Battalion Staff.³  Art Landis relates the events of July 9, 1937, in the attempt to take Mosquito Ridge (a.k.a. Mosquito Crest):

The Lincolns moved into the captured Fascist positions on the line of the knoll.  They established a makeshift headquarters in some trees immediately to the read.  At a hurried staff meeting held by Law, Nelson, {Paul} Burns and Usera, it was decided that the assault should continue; that they would attack immediately.  Oliver Law, Burns and Usera were to take the men over.  Nelson was to go only as far as the opposite ridge of the barranca and not attempt the slope until the forward movement had attained some degree of success…..  The advance began again. Paul Burns took the No. 1 Company over; Oliver Law the Second…  {Landis then relates the death of Oliver Law at the head of his troops}….

The Lincoln dead numbered between fifteen and twenty, with another thirty to forty wounded, among them Paul Burns, the courageous No. 1 Company Commander.  The Battalion pulled back from the slope to the knoll and set up positions there.  Steve Nelson now assumed full command of the Battalion.  The adjutant, Vincent Usera, had, for some unaccountable reason, failed to go over with the men.  He went to Brigade Headquarters instead.  Upon knowledge of this, he was summarily dismissed from the staff by Nelson, {Sid} Levine, and the remaining officers. 4

Eby is more graphic with the story:

When telephone lines opened, Colonel {Hans} Klaus {who was in command because of Copic’s injury by shrapnel} reported to Nelson that Vincent Usera was at brigade headquarters saying that the Lincolns had been smashed and asked for more reinforcements.  “We’re not in a safe position”, Usera said.  “No frontline position is safe!” Nelson bellowed.  “You get the hell back here!”  On his return, “cheery and crisp”  Usera coolly said he was ready to command the Lincolns, but the men were not having it.  “You’d be a helluva guy to give orders.  We haven’t seen you the whole fucking day!” exclaimed Carl Bradley of the staff.  Usera drew himself up, “Am I not the adjutant of the battalion?”  “No, you’re not”, broke in Nelson.  “Report to Brigade.  Leave your pistol here.”  After writing a note declaring he was at their disposal, Usera gave a smart parade-ground salute and faded away.²

This one episode is very indicative of the power and role of a Commissar in representing the interests of the men.

Haywood

Harry Haywood, ALBA Photo 177-179056, Tamiment Archive, NYU

Merriman makes the accusation that Harry Haywood was a coward and drunk.  Harry Haywood is an enigma.  Haywood was in the Lenin School with Copic.³   His greatest flaws probably come from being the ranking Communist Party member in Spain and having insufficient military training to be effective in what he was asked to do.   In his own autobiography, Haywood relates what he saw at Brunete:

We continued to march in the direction of Brunete to our new attack position, avoiding the road as much as possible.  Hitler’s and Mussolini’s planes were already bombing the roads.  Towards the evening we halted for the night.  Cunningham was called to brigade headquarters to get the plan of action for the next day.  At the time I thought it was strange that I had not been called.  Jock returned and unfolded a military map, asking me if I could read it.  Having no experience in military map reading, I said no.  He abruptly folded the map and marched off without saying another word, apparently having confirmed some derogatory judgement of me.

I mention this incident because from that time on, there seemed to be a definite cooling in our relationship.  At the time, I wondered if there was any connection between this action and an incident with {George} Nathan earlier that morning.  I had been standing roadside waiting for the Washington Battalion to pass so I could fall in with them.  Nathan, the chief operations officer for the brigades, marched past.  Out of the side of his mouth he snarled, “You’ll get yours”.

This came so suddenly and so threateningly, that I was taken aback.  I yelled after him, “What did you say?”  But he kept going without looking back.   Now, putting these incidents together, I began for the firsts time to suspect that the hand of Col. Copic was at work, and that he had begun lining brigade staff up against me in order to even the score.³

Later, when after Haywood was confronted by Cunningham, Copic was reported to tell Haywood,  “I told you these guys were no good, but you sided with them against me”,  he beamed.  “What are you going to do now?”³

It is disappointing to see the jockeying for position which occurred around Copic and how he played his officers off against each other.   In conclusion, one cannot be sure that Merriman’s statements about Haywood had any foundation and that they may have been part of a deus ex machina to get Haywood out.   Haywood’s downfall essentially started from the Americans’ attempt and failure to have Vladimir Copic removed as Commander of the XVth Brigade, and Haywood’s visible lead in that attempt.  Haywood would say that he had to agree with the leading comrades that his position in the Brigades was untenable after Brunete and he agreed with Earl Browder about repatriation to the US.

Other black comrades had scandalous accusations made about them at Brunete as well.  Walter Garland was accused by Cunningham of taking an ambulance to the rear and not returning.  Garland argued that he was ordered to take men to the dressing station.   And the worst accusations came against Oliver Law himself with later stories invented about him being shot by his own men.  Grover Furr has responded to these allegations in the ALBA Volunteer.   One must recall the times.  No African-Americans had ever commanded white units in wartime and while African-Americans participated fully in World War I, they were led by generally wealthy American National Guard commanders.  Blacks returned from WWI to the US to face the same Jim Crow who was taunting them as they marched outside southern military bases in the US.5  While the general positive attitude of the Lincolns towards integration of the Brigades was apparent, in a group of 1000 Americans, one could have expected hostility towards these black officers from some of the men, even if they were great military leaders.

Dave Mates was pulled out and sent back to the US.   Merriman speaks about a new policy requested by the Communist International (CI or Comintern) to save cadres, i.e. not have all Communist Party men killed in action.   In some moves, Jesse Wallach has requested a safe job.  David Jones, who was injured at Jarama, will be repatriated.  George Brodsky is to move to the Mac-Paps.  DeWitt (“Eric”) Parker will go to work with Ed Bender in Albacete.  Jock Cunningham was a fine fellow but he is criticized for not being a military man.  Briton Robert Traill was killed at Brunete.  As shown in a previous photo, Vladimir Copic was wounded by shrapnel.  Rollin Dart will come to the Lincoln-Washington Battalion to fill in for the wounded and killed leadership.   Usera’s removal led to him going to Tarazona to help in training the Mac-Paps.

July 19 Notes

Additional notes for July 19, 1937

Hene

Dr. Julius Hene, May 1938. ALBA Photo 11-0215, Tamiment Library, NYU

Merriman had more to relate from July 19 and these notes contrast with the intense reorganization seen on the diary pages for that date.  Merriman goes to the Secorro Rojo International (SRI) Number 1 hospital to meet with Rubin Kaufman, who shot himself in the foot in training.   There he meets with a Dr. Hans who wants to go to the front and have an American replace him.  Merriman puts in a word for Julius Hene who had been the doctor in Tarazona for the Mac-Paps.  It seems he is suggesting a swap of positions here.

Merriman goes to see Lucien Vidal and Jean Schalbroeck.  Our friends at the Belgian Facebook group, Les Belges de la XIV Brigade Internationale, have provided a short biography on Jean Schalbroeck (Sven Tuytens, personal communication, and with many thanks):

Né le 9 juin 1912 à Etterbeek (Bruxelles), mort à Mauthausen le 17 juillet 1942 ; militant de la Jeunesse communiste de Belgique, chargé de missions en Allemagne, capitaine à l’État Major des Brigades Internationales, résistant.

Jean Schalbroeck à Albacète

A Albacète, dans l’État Major d’André Marty
Jean Schalbroeck acheva ses études secondaires à l’Athénée d’Ixelles. Ses parents s’étant séparés, il quitta très tôt le domicile familial. Employé dans une firme industrielle allemande à Bruxelles, il était membre du syndicat des employés Membre des Jeunesses communistes depuis 1932 à Bruxelles, secrétaire de section, il entra au PC en 1934, mais demeura militer à la JC, puis aux JGSU, Il accomplit alors, vraisemblablement pour l’IC ou le KPD, des missions en Allemagne nazie.

Il s’engagea dans les Brigades Internationales en octobre 1936 et fut promu lieutenant en février 1937, capitaine en juillet 1937. Après avoir combattu dans la 35e Division, il fut ensuite affecté à la base d’Albacète en juillet 1937. ll parlait anglais, allemand, néerlandais, espagnol et français.

En octobre 1937, il devint chef d’État Major, secrétaire administratif de Marty, puis chef du service des investigations et de l’enregistrement des décédés au combat. Mal noté en septembre 1938, car « travaille mécaniquement sans aucune ligne politique et a commis dès lors de graves erreurs », il était en passe d’être déplacé. En revanche, Lise London qui le côtoya à Albacète, ne tarit pas d’éloges à son propos. Il quitta l’Espagne au début de 1939, demeura en France et ne revint en Belgique qu’au début de l’occupation. Il effectua des voyages en France occupée. Son activité est mal connue. Il travaillait dans une imprimerie et s’occupa de la propagande du PC dans le Brabant wallon. Il était cependant en liaison avec une petite équipe dirigée par un ancien officier des BI qui faisait du commerce au bénéfice du PC et qui touchait de près des membres de l’Orchestre Rouge. C’est à l’occasion d’un rendez vous avec eux qu’il fut arrêté le 29 avril 1942 à Bruxelles. Il vivait alors avec Ady Cortvrient, une militante du PCB.

Déporté à Mauthausen, il y succomba très rapidement.

SOURCES : RGASPI 495 193 416, Dossiers belges des BI ; Interviews Rachèle Gunzig et de Rose Lefevre-Genin ; Lettre d’Adry Cortvrient. — Lise London, Le printemps des camarades, Paris, 1998.

Rolfe

Edwin Rolfe, RGASPI photo Fond 545/Opus 6/Delo 975, Moscow

Merriman reveals that Lou Secundy and Vincent Usera were kind enough to help out a couple of nurses who were lonely.

On the 20th, Merriman speaks with “Harper and Rolphe”.  This is possibly Wiley Harper and most certainly the writer Edwin Rolfe, who was the Cultural Director for the Lincolns.   Merriman again brings up Louis Cantor as a problem and he appears to be positive about Vincent Usera’s contribution in training since Seaman Oliver is not working out.

Katine

Benjamin Katine, RGASPI Photo Fond 545/Opus 6/Delo 919, Moscow

Merriman says that he talked with Howard Hooker and found work for him.  “Ramón” again came to camp for training, this time to work with a crew of snipers.  Ramón was the weapons instructor at Pozorubio at this time.  In the Staff meeting, more assignments were made with Bob Thompson becoming the Chief of Staff for the Battalion and William Neure as his assistant.   Elliot Loomis will move up from being a driver to Liaison Officer.  Benjamin Katine will take Loomis’s place as a driver.   Art Landis helps in aligning the leadership of the Mac-Paps in October:

Battalion

Commander       Capt. Robert Thompson
Adjutant               Lt. Harry Schonberg
Commissar         Joseph Dallet

Company One

Commander       Lt. William Wheeler
Adjutant               Lt. William Neure
Commissar         John Blair

Company Two

Commander      Lt. Isidore Schrenzel
Adjutant              Spanish (unknown)
Commissary      Spanish (unknown)

Company Three

Commander      Lt. Joseph Dougher
Adjutant              Lt. Jack Thomas
Commissar       Wallace Sabatini

Machine Gun Company

Commander       Capt. Niilo Makela

Adjutant                 Lt. Ruby Kaufman

Commissar            Thomas Malone4

Catching up on those he sent to the brig, apparently Cantor has repented and wants to come back to the battalion.   Tom Hyde still is in jail at this point but will be out shortly. Ten drunks were arrested and put into jail.  We know from the RGASPI files that Vincent Sanchez arrested Wesley Mikalauskas and Francis Daly (RGASPI Fond 545/Opis 2/Delo 265, pg 22).

_____________________________

¹ D. R. Pat Stephens, A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War An Armenian-Canadian in the Lincoln Battalion, Canadian Committee on Labour History, 2000. pg. 65-66.

² Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, pg 192.

³ Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik, Univ. Of Minnesota Press,  1978, pg 482.

4 Art Landis, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid, pp 206-207.

5 Richard Slotkin, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality, Holt Paperbacks, 2010.