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Lincoln Brigade


During the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, thousands of Americans joined the international brigades that fought a losing battle against the Fascist army of General Francisco Franco. Many members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade did so out of leftist ideals, and later they were punished during the McCarthy era. This weekend several veterans returned to Spain to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the decisive Battle of the Ebro and to bid farewell to Spain and their fellow brigadistas. Jerome Socolovsky reports from the Ebro River Valley.


The aging American brigadistas proudly held their Liberty Bell banner as an old Spanish civil war fighting song was played.


SOCOLOVSKY: Behind them the bombed-out hulk of a church remained frozen in time as a memorial to their last major stand against Franco's forces. Across the valley stood Hill 666 where Jack Shafron(ph) was wounded. Two years earlier Shafron had set sail for Europe with a friend. The Spanish civil war had seized the hearts and minds of a generation of young leftists around the world.

Mr. JACK SHAFRON: Now maybe we were a little idealistic, a little whatever. We were young.

SOCOLOVSKY: Shafron and the other American brigadistas formed the Lincoln and Washington battalions. They believed that in coming to the aid of Spain's democratically elected republican government, they were fighting for ideals set forth by America's forefathers. This weekend as they visited village after village in the Ebro River Valley, the Americans were welcomed as heroes.


SOCOLOVSKY: High school bands played, and local mayors gave speeches. For Shafron it was the fulfillment of a great wish that his grandchildren came along with him and got to see this, because in the United States, especially in the '50s, the treatment he got couldn't have been more different.

Mr. SHAFRON: The FBI could constantly come around. `Don't you want to "cooperate"?' in quotes, meaning, `Tell us who all the Communists are that you know and we won't bother you.' My stock answer was, `No,' with a few epithets with it. And they would get me fired.

SOCOLOVSKY: Some brigadistas were even jailed when the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was accused of being a so-called subversive group. But all that seemed to matter little to 89-year-old Clarence Kaelin(ph) as villagers helped him out of his wheelchair and down a steep hillside. At the bottom of the hill, concealed in the thick overgrowth, was a tombstone draped in the faded flag of the prewar Spanish republic. Underneath lies the grave of Kaelin's high school buddy from Wisconsin, John Cookson(ph). Kaelin had wanted to see the grave just once.

Mr. CLARENCE KAELIN: I'm not going to live forever. So it had to be now or never, you know?

SOCOLOVSKY: One out of every three American brigadistas died in the civil war, but Cookson's grave is the only one that remains intact. Countless other graves were destroyed during the Franco dictatorship. But during a previous visit to Spain several years after Franco's death in 1975, Shafron fulfilled a vow he had made in the trenches with respect to the dictator's final resting place. He went with his son to the giant cathedral-like mausoleum known as the Valley of the Fallen. But first, he stopped at a drugstore and bought a vial.

Mr. SHAFRON: And took it back to the hotel, filled it with urine. Seth and I went to the cathedral at the Valley of the Fallen, and standing over Franco's grave I poured it out.

SOCOLOVSKY: For NPR News, this is Jerome Socolovsky in the Ebro River Valley, Spain.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.