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Chapter 2: The First American Volunteers & Their Battles

defend Spain leaflet
CCNY demonstration
Leaflet Urging New York City Students to Attend an Anti-Fascist Demonstration
(C.C.N.Y. Archives)
Protest at City College in Support of Loyalist Spain
(C.C.N.Y. Archives)

     Individual volunteers from the United States had been making their way to Spain during the initial months of the war but it was only in late 1936 that a real effort got under way. Idealistic and full of enthusiasm, students became a large source of recruits. John Gates, a former CCNY student and volunteer wrote:

     If the generation after World War I was the Lost Generation, we students in the first years of the Hoover depression were the Aimless Generation. But our very uncertainty drove many of us to search for answers and for a cause to live by.

     The student body of CCNY was in ferment. The old world had been found wanting; ideas and shibboleths of the past were examined, assailed, discarded; new, radical notions became popular.
(Gates, 16-17)

     Many of these students had embraced the tenets of socialism and communism. They felt that, in order to achieve a better world, they had to halt the spread of fascism.

Normandie postcard
Le Havre
The Normandie
Bernard N. Danchik Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 033:2)
Port City of Le Havre in the 1930s
Bernard N. Danchik Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 033:2)

     The first group of American volunteers set sail for Europe aboard the Normandie on December 26th 1936. Arriving in the French port of Le Havre, the men made their way to Paris, and then to the town of Perpignon, where they boarded buses and crossed over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Continuing their journey south, the volunteers at last arrived at the small town of Albacete. Located on the plateau of La Mancha, made famous by Don Quixote, Albacete was to be the headquarters of all International Brigades.
     After completing the required formalities and receiving hand-me down uniforms, the volunteers were transported to their training camp. With new men constantly augmenting their numbers, this first group of Americans formed a unit called the Lincoln Battalion.

internationals postcard
"All the Peoples of the World are in the International Bridages"
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:1BX)
Three-Pointed Star, the Symbol of the International Brigades
Lawrence Cane Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 029:1:2)

     In all, five International Brigades were organized: the German Brigade (XI), the Italian Brigade (XII), the Slavic Brigade (XIII), the Franco-Belge Brigade (XIV), and the English Brigade (XV), - composed of American, Canadian, British, and Irish people, among others. Although the Lincolns only constituted a battalion, they became popularly known as the Lincoln Brigade. All Americans, even the ones serving in other units, were styled Lincolns by the press.
     The International Brigades themselves were never monolingual. Various other nationalities, as well as native Spanish recruits, were dispersed throughout the five units.

Irving Rappaport
en route to Jarama
Irving William Rappaport
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:2:105:1)
International Brigade Volunteers en route to the Jarama Front
Paul Burns Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 184:1:6:1)

     In February of 1937, the Nationalists launched an offensive to cut off Madrid from the rest of Spain. The new Lincoln Battalion was roused and sent to the theater of action at Jarama Valley to take part in that battle.
     Among the men gearing up for their first fight was Irving William Rappaport, a former business student at City College. The five-foot-six, 120-pound volunteer had worked in a grocery chain before leaving for Spain. Better known as "Rappy," Irving left his job, where he had helped to organize a union. He told his parents that he was being sent to Paris as a delegate. "I didn't tell my parents because they wouldn't have understood," Irving later said. (Irving Rappaport vertical file, ALBA; Geiser, 13)

democracy mascot
Mascot of Democracy
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:2)
Irving Rappaport (right)
Irving Rappaport Vertical File

     Irving and the 400 or so men of the Lincoln Battalion, many of whom had not even had a chance to fire a real gun, moved out of their training camp in mid-February of 1937. At Albacete the Americans heard speeches encouraging them in the upcoming battle. Rappaport, slightly ill at the time, had been riding on a truck with a few other Americans in the same condition. Inspired by what he heard, Rappy decided to endure his malady rather than get back on the vehicle. The ill-fated truck was one of two lost vehicles that later encountered a Nationalist force and was destroyed, resulting in the deaths of Steve Debalko and Leon Torgoff. (Irving Rappaport vertical file, ALBA; Geiser, 13)

Jarama fighting
Lincolns at Jarama
Fighting at Jarama
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:1)
Lincoln Battalion Infantry at Jarama
Paul Burns Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: 184:4:35:1)

     Before the battle, the men received brand-new rifles and were given a chance to fire a few practice rounds. Rappaport later related that "... we fired five bullets each. That was our training." Their first attack ended in failure, but worse was still to come. On February 27, 1937, the Lincolns were ordered to charge the Nationalist lines with promised support of artillery, tanks, and planes. However, when the time arrived, no help materialized. The men, receiving scant support, were ordered to charge, and were decimated. "I saw men get their heads blown off," said Rappaport after the battle. Lying flat behind a tree, next to another wounded American, Irving managed to drag the volunteer back to their trenches. (Irving Rappaport vertical file, ALBA)

Jarama memorial
Memorial to Volunteers Who Fell at Jarama,
June 1937
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:5:42:1)
Irving Rappaport
("The Volunteer," March 2007, 20)

     In the hours following the attack, the Lincoln Battalion briefly ceased to exist as an organized unit. Most were killed, wounded, or tried to flee in order to escape the carnage. Eventually order was re-established and many who had initially fled returned voluntarily or were brought back. The reorganized Lincolns returned to the trenches at Jarama and remained there until they were pulled back in June. Before leaving, the volunteers put up a memorial to the large number of Americans who fell in the battle.
     Very little information is available on Irving Rappaport following the battle, but what is known is that he returned home in October of 1937, after contracting an illness. Irving was eventually reunited with the man he saved forty years earlier at Jarama. (Irving Rappaport vertical file, ALBA; "The Volunteer" March 2007, 20)

Ben Leider
Leider in plane
Ben Leider Ben Leider
Vertical File
Ben Leider
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 015:2:38:1)

     As the struggle for Madrid was taking place at Jarama, another battle was being fought in the skies over the Spanish capital. Using the newly acquired airplanes from Germany and Italy, the Nationalists were slowly taking control of the air. Among the ranks of the Loyalist fliers was thirty-five-year-old Ben Leider, a former student at CCNY. A "flying reporter" for The New York Post,, Leider had left his position to fight in Spain. On February 18, 1937 his plane was shot down and he was killed. (Ben Leider vertical file, ALBA)

Leider funeral
Leider watercolor
The Body of Leider Back in New York
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 015:2:38:2)
Child Watercolor from Casa Ben Leider
Benjamin Leider Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 194:1:1A)

     "Ben Leider, the first American volunteer to be killed while fighting the fascist invaders of Spain was a member of the class of '24 at this college," proclaimed a Ticker article. (The Ticker, March 15, 1937, 1) The first widely reported American casualty in Spain, Leider became a martyr in the eyes of many supporters of the republic. He was honored with a children's colony, meant to house displaced children, called Casa Ben Leider. His body was brought back to New York, where a memorial ceremony at Carnegie Hall attracted a large number of mourners. Leider was possibly the only American volunteer killed to have been brought back for burial on American soil. His body was laid to rest at Mount Hebron cemetery in Queens. (Ben Leider vertical file, ALBA)

loyalist attack
water truck
Loyalists Charging With Rifles
Small Photograph Collections
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 036:1:39:1)
Internationals at a Water Truck, Brunete
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:12:3)

     In July, the rested and reinforced Lincoln battalion, joined by another newly created American battalion, named in honor of George Washington, was mobilized to take part in a Loyalist offensive. In the Battle of Brunete that followed, the Americans participated in the capture of the village of Villanueva de Cañada. However the main attack on the heights known as Mosquito Ridge failed. Oliver Law, commander of the Lincolns and the first African-American to lead a predominantly white unit, was killed. The rest of the troops suffered devastating casualties.
     The Ticker published a letter from a Henry H., a graduate of the college who wrote on the horrors he experienced during this battle:

     ... a runner from the English Battalion ran past our gun but stopped to rest for a moment for a drop of water. I yelled for him to lie down but it was too late. A second burst of the enemy fire sent a bullet through his head down through his jugular vein and he dropped at my feet. I bandaged his head and then I saw his neck wound, the blood spurting out of his jugular vein. I had no more bandage so I stuck my thumb into the hole to stop the flow until Penn, the first aid man could crawl up with more bandages.

     What guts that guy had! He began to argue with us and try to convince us not to leave him there to die, for, since he was a volunteer, he wanted every chance possible to live. He pleaded with us not to go through his pockets until he was dead. It was amazing how he remained conscious so long as he did. Penn and I lay on either side of him as bullets swept over us
... (The Ticker, November 1, 1937, 4)

     For the remainder of the campaign, the Americans fought various holding and defensive actions. The Loyalists made modest advances in territory, but their casualties, especially among the volunteers, were high. Out of the 2,144 men of the English speaking XVth Brigade, only 865 men were left unwounded. These losses forced the Lincolns and Washingtons to combine into a single battalion. (Eby 200, 208)

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