World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

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At war with the Army

Since the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) had been campaigning aggressively for U.S. entry into the war. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor gave the Lincoln veterans what they wanted. On December 8, 1941, Milton Wolff sent a one-sentence telegram to the president:

"We who fought the Fascist Axis in Spain proudly volunteer to march shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans for the final crushing of this menace to the independence and democracy of America and all peoples."

By the end of the war, at least 425 Lincoln veterans had served in the U.S. armed forces, in most every function from the medical corps to the Seabees, and another one hundred in the merchant marine and nursing corps.

As they entered military camps for assignment and basic training, the Lincolns were pleasantly surprised at what they found. Nearly all commented on how good the food was, in contrast to their garbanzo-bean diet in Spain. They also commented favorably on the abundance of supplies, the quality of their weapons, and the sophistication of the military organization. These advantages stood in notable contrast to their experience in Spain. The Lincolns would repeat these points throughout the war as U.S. industrial production soared to meet military demands and the Army achieved seemingly logistical miracles in fielding invasion forces.

The Lincolns also felt satisfaction by their reception among the rank and file. Although they discovered that many soldiers knew little about the Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War, the fact that they were combat veterans put them in the spotlight, even among officers. Most of the Lincolns took these opportunities to educate their buddies about the anti-fascist nature of the war. They acknowledged meeting a mixed response to these efforts. Nevertheless, they remained optimistic that the average G.I. Joe, if properly instructed in the war's objectives, would understand why they had fought in Spain and why they had to defeat fascism in World War II.

The major difference the Lincolns perceived between service in Spain and training in the U.S. Army was the quality of political education. Within the structure of the Spanish Republican Army and the International Brigades (of which the Lincolns were a part), each grade of the military organization, from the general staff and brigade headquarters to the battalion, company, platoon, and squad, had both a military officer with appropriate rank and a political commissar who was responsible for morale, education, and personal problems. Given the mistrust of the professional military whose leaders had rebelled under Franco, this double system protected the government from the army; the commissars technically outranked the military leaders.

Despite their realization that participation in the Spanish Civil War was politically suspect to government officials, Lincoln veterans, like Alvin Warren and Sam Nahman, were surprised to discover that the military had adopted policies that treated them as potential subversives. Instead of being assigned to basic training programs to prepare for war, many Lincoln veterans found themselves placed in limited service units, which included pro-fascists, Nazis, German and Italian nationals who refused to fight against their homelands, as well as assorted misfits. "I hadn't looked forward to being in the Wehrmacht," veteran Jack Lucid wrote wryly from Camp Ripley, Minnesota, but "that is what I am in here."

By early 1943, VALB leaders had become convinced that orders limiting the role of the Lincolns in the U.S. military expressed a government policy created in Washington.

Gathering testimony from veterans, including Wolff, Lucid, Moishe Brier, and many others, VALB executive secretary Jack Bjoze went to Washington, D.C. to meet with sympathetic political leaders, including Representatives John Coffee (D-WA), Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, as well as the syndicated journalist Drew Pearson, whose "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column appeared in many newspapers. The result was a series of news stories, beginning in April 1943, which described various cases of Lincoln veterans who had been denied the right to fight as equals in the U.S. army. P.M., a New York afternoon newspaper, headlined the problem in May 1943: "Premature Anti-Fascists Still in Army Doghouse." And a handful of congressmen publicly demanded that the army explain its policy.

Such publicity broke the dam, somewhat. To be sure, War Department officials continued to deny that political discrimination existed and cited as evidence the well-known examples of Lincoln veterans Bob Thompson and Herman Bottcher who had served overseas and won medals for their courage under fire. But after Pearson's articles appeared, many Lincolns like Edward Lending found that their applications for regular service were approved and they began to ship out for overseas assignments.

Always the Lincolns assumed that if military leaders understood why they had fought fascism in Spain, the army would alter the policies that kept veteran anti-fascists from the war zones. For them, the Spanish Civil War was nothing less than the first battle of World War II. From the moment the United States entered the war, as Private Daniel Fitzgerald wrote on December 8, 1941, the Lincoln veterans were determined to destroy fascism "once and for all."