Remembrance Day: a grandson learns of his grandfather's noble fight against the fascists

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      Recently, I came across a photograph of my grandfather. It's from 1937, and he'd just arrived in Spain to fight for the Republic. Posing in front of an olive tree, he's young and vital and looking intently into the camera. It's an image of steely determination and a portrait that resonates across the decades.

      I never knew my grandfather. He died 10 years before I was born, so I never had the chance. As a boy, I would hear the odd mention of him having fought in the Spanish Civil War, and having served in the navy in the Second World War, but there were never many details. With some research, I've been able to piece together his story, a Greatest Generation saga that took him around the world and through two wars.

      Paolino "Paul" Sarti was born on May 21, 1908, in Sí£o Paulo, Brazil. The son of Italian immigrant farmers, he set off for America at age 19 and settled in Chicago. In 1931, he moved to New York, but times were hard. He sold newspapers, worked as a waiter, and, like many people at the time, he often found himself unemployed. The Great Depression, and the hard realities of the immigrant experience, galvanized left-wing politics within Paul. He became staunchly anti-Fascist after seeing what that movement had done to his ancestral homeland of Italy, and the gathering Nazi storm in Germany.

      In the summer of 1936, a Fascist general, Francisco Franco, led a coup against the democratically elected Republican government of Spain. It quickly became more than a localized civil war, with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini providing Franco with arms and soldiers. While the western democracies remained neutral, the Soviet Union and Mexico sent assistance to the beleaguered republic. Foreign volunteers, organized by the Soviet Union as the International Brigades, began to pour into Spain. They numbered almost 40,000 and came from 53 different countries, including 2,800 from the United States and 1,500 from Canada. They came as soldiers, pilots, doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers, all eager to take up the Republican cry of ¡No Pasaran! : "They shall not pass!"

      Although he had no military experience, Paul enlisted in the American unit, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, which became popularly known as the Lincoln Brigade. Because the U.S. officially was neutral in the case of Spain, and raising troops for a foreign army on American soil was prohibited, it wasn't easy getting to Spain. Many of the American volunteers travelled under noms de guerre. Paul took the name Paulino Sala Perez and began his long and dangerous journey to the front.

      So what kind of men went to Spain? They were idealists and men of conscience, united by the belief that the Fascists had to be stopped in Spain, or it would only be a matter of time until they'd be fighting them in their homelands. To be sure, a good number of them were involved in left-wing politics. George Orwell fought in Spain and was seriously wounded. Canadian doctor Norman Bethune went and revolutionized battlefield surgery. There were outright Communists, fellow travellers, and socialists, but the volunteers crossed all party lines and came from every walk of life, as did their support. The Lincoln Brigade even became something of a cause célí¨bre, attracting such supporters as Ernest Hemingway, who spent much time in Spain with the brigade and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls as a result. Although he didn't always agree with the politics of the Lincoln Brigade, Hemingway, a strident anti-Fascist, saw its cause as noble and wrote of the Lincolns: "No men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain."

      And die they did, in scores. Poorly trained and ill-equipped at the beginning of the war, the Lincoln Brigade suffered horrendous casualties, especially in early battles (by the war's end, more than a third would be killed in action, and almost every survivor would be wounded at least once). By the time Paul set out for Spain, more than six months had passed since the Lincolns had first fought, with frightful casualties, at the Battle of Jarama. He must have had a pretty good idea he wouldn't make it out of Spain alive. But he still went.

      After travelling by steamship and railroad, Paul arrived at the Lincoln Brigade headquarters in Albacete, Spain, on October 22, 1937. After training, he was assigned to the First Company of the Lincoln Brigade infantry and sent to the front at Teruel–one of the most gruelling and decisive battles of the war. It was snowy, miserable, and bloody. Aside from the usual hazards of battle, soldiers had to cope with blizzards and frostbite. Fighting was bitter, and parts of the city changed hands several times. It was a brutal and anachronistic clash that saw 19th-century trenches and cavalry charges combined with 20th-century mechanized weaponry and tactics.

      While the battle in Teruel ground on, Paul and other Lincolns (as well as the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion) were redeployed to a rear-guard diversionary thrust at the village of Segura de los Banos, about 70 kilometres north of Teruel. On February 15, Paul was wounded in action, shot in the leg while advancing on a fortified Fascist position. He was taken to a field hospital, then to the Red Cross, finally winding up at a hospital in Madrid. After two operations, Paul recovered and was reassigned as an MP to the base in Albacete, where he served until the international volunteers were demobilized. By November 1938, when Paul and the other remaining Lincolns finally made their way over the Pyrenees and back to the States, it was obvious that the Republic was doomed. By the following April, Franco had crushed the remaining resistance and established a dictatorship that would last until his death in 1975.

      Back stateside, Paul set about readjusting to civilian life. He married my grandmother, Yolanda, and started a family, but things were not always easy for the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. Not only had Spain been lost–a crushing blow–but they were often harassed and vilified by the government for their politics. When it was found out that Paul had travelled to Spain under a false name, it became apparent that he would lose his American citizenship. So he took the only chance he had to keep it–by going back to war, this time for the U.S.

      On October 8, 1943, Paul enlisted in the navy. He trained in upstate New York and Newport, Rhode Island, then reported for duty as a deck gunner aboard the USS Alaska , the lead ship in a new class of battle cruisers. At more than 800 feet and with a displacement of 27,000 tons, she was bigger and faster than most battleships and a truly formidable ship.

      Paul served on the Alaska through her commissioning, fitting out, and shakedown cruise through the latter part of 1944. He sailed with the Alaska from her home port of Philadelphia down the eastern seaboard, through Chesapeake Bay and south into Trinidad. There were still U-boats sitting off the American coast at this time, but the Alaska had no enemy engagements during her time in the Atlantic. He was mustered out of the navy on January 31, 1945, and once again went back to civilian life.

      Researching my grandfather's life was time-consuming, but relatively easy. Putting it together into some sort of context, however, is much more elusive. Is it just the story of a soldier-sailor? A footnote to the Italian diaspora of the early 1900s? A parable about our modern military engagements? Or is it simply just one chapter in a family's history?

      In a way, I suppose, it's all those things, but it's also very personal to me, especially on Remembrance Day. I'm proud that my grandfather fought the good fight, that he was ready to give his last full measure in the fight against fascism, and that he stepped up when few others were willing. If his story illustrates anything, it's that some things are worth fighting for. War may be horrible, savage, and inhumane, but the defeat of fascism was worth the price. The men who fought for the Spanish Republic knew it–it just took valuable years for others to pick up their fallen standard. When the Allies finally brought fascism to its knees, it had cost 60 million lives.

      Regrettably, Paul Sarti never lived to see Spain's return to democracy. He died in 1956 and is buried in Long Island National Cemetery, in Farmingdale, New York. There is no epitaph on his navy-issued military headstone, but there should be. Perhaps, even, the concise, handwritten summary in his Lincoln Brigade performance review: "a very good anti-fascist".

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      Carl Silverman carlgsilverman@gmail.com

      Jan 14, 2013 at 11:00am

      My father a VALB veteran too. Probably served your
      grandfather. Perhaps one day wars will be obsolete, yes?