Fighters of Fascism Return to Spain, This Time as Heroes Civil War's International Vets Gather to Receive Honorary Citizenship, Thanks

Article excerpt

For Reg Saxton, the decision to volunteer in a war in which he had no personal ambition or relatives at risk was a simple one.

"I felt something must be done to stop the advance of the Hitler empire," says the retired physician from West Sussex, England, who went to Spain to fight dictator Francisco Franco.

The International Brigades of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War pulled 40,000 people from across the globe to fight fascism. Thousands fell on the battleground and their effort failed. But last week Mr. Saxton, along with hundreds of others from 29 countries, returned to Spain as heroes to commemorate the Brigades' participation 60 years ago in some of the century's fiercest civil combat. Six decades and 21 years since the victorious Franco died, about 350 veterans of the Brigades have been granted honorary Spanish citizenship and have come to Spain to help the country - and themselves - put that chapter of history into perspective. With Adolph Hitler in power in Germany, and Benito Mussolini ruling Italy, many people saw Spain as one more notch in the fascist belt. So they volunteered. While the German and Italian governments supported Franco, thousands of volunteers from those countries joined the Brigades in the war, which pitted the "Brigadistas International" and the supporters of Spain's republic against Franco's army and wealthy landowners. The Soviet Union also sent volunteers, and the Soviets were responsible for most of the military supplies and nearly all of the volunteer organizing against Franco. "I'm not a Communist, but I am an antifascist," says Robert Peters, originally of Wales, of his spur for joining the volunteers. His entrance into the war was typical: Sneak into Spain from France, get two weeks of training - "not enough for all we had to go through" - and then into battle. Mr. Peters was shot in the back one day during a battle at Brunete. The Brigades lost nearly every battle in which they fought, a result of a combination of poor training, inexperienced leadership, and lack of equipment. International treaties kept most nations from selling arms to either side, but Franco was given military superiority by German and Italian armaments, planes, and troops. Despite his own reliance on foreign aid, Franco despised the Brigades, and most soldiers captured got a field execution instead of a trip to a POW camp. Peters, who has been a merchant marine, described living conditions on the front as "shocking, terrible." Food was scarce and primitive, with a hearty meal consisting of salt-dried fish and chick peas. Clarence Kailin, recruited to the Brigades by Communists in Wisconsin, says that eventually troops were reduced to bread and whatever water they could find. His diet improved only after he was hospitalized from a sniper's bullet. Despite the bad food, disease, and an enemy eager to kill, Mr. Kailin says he never wavered in his commitment to the war. "That never occurred to me," he says, despite the fact that nearly half of the 3,200 Americans were killed in combat. Many of the American volunteers were Communists, like Kailin, or Communist sympathizers, and all firmly believed Spain was the place to make a stand against fascism and for the people, regardless of the odds. …