U.S. Veterans Reunite on Civil War Battlefields
Oct. 19, 1986
VILLANUEVA DE LA CANADA, Spain (AP) _ Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, an American volunteer unit that fought in the Spanish Civil War, this weekend indignantly rejected President Reagan's comparison of them to Americans helping Nicaraguan rebels.
About 100 veterans of the battalion, which aided Spain's elected leftist govenrment against the eventually victorious forces of Gen. Francisco Franco in the 1936-39 war, are on a two-week tour of the Spanish battlefields.
''You can't hurt me more than to liken us to the Contras,'' said Steve Nelson, 84, of Cape Cod, Mass., referring to the Nicaraguan rebels fighting their country's Marxist government.
''We were fighting against fascism and for freedom,'' he said Saturday. ''What are the Contras fighting for?'' He spoke while visiting a battlefield in Villanueva de la Canada, west of Madrid.
Reagan made the comparison on Oct. 8 when commenting about Eugene Hasenfus, an American captured after Nicaraguan soldiers shot down a Contra supply plane. Two other Americans in the plane with Hasenfus were killed.
Reagan insisted the Americans were not connected to the U.S. government but were free to aid the Contras, adding: ''Some years ago many of you spoke approvingly of something called the American Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.''
An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 foreigners came to Spain to aid the government of the Second Republic against rebel forces led by Franco. The Lincoln battalion of 3,200 American volunteers was part of the foreign force, called the International Brigades.
Franco received supplies and troops from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union sent arms and fighters to the republican side.
Charles Nusser, 72, of New York City, a Lincoln battalion veteran, said he first saw action in July 1937 in a republican offensive at Brunete, near Villanueva de la Canada.
''Before that I had only fired three rifle shots in my whole life, so you can imagine how much training most of us had,'' he said.
The American volunteers were mainly workers, union members, immigrants and members of the American Communist Party who regarded the rise of fascism in Europe as the greatest threat to world peace.
About 1,200 of them died in battles around Madrid, on the Aragon front at the battles of Teruel and Belchite, and in the northeastern region of Catalonia.
''We really believed we would win and save democracy and the Second Republic in Spain and then go back home, and the Spaniards could freely decide on the government they wanted,'' Nusser said.
By December 1938 most of the International Brigades had left Spain. Franco declared himself victor on April 1, 1939, beginning 36 years of iron-fisted rule that ended with his death in 1975.
Milt Wolff, 71, of El Cerrito, Calif., the battalion's last commander, said his fellow veterans' views on human rights ''remain much the same, although we are all older and wiser. Our sense of fairness and justice has never changed.''
The battalion's New York-based national association has fought for civil rights in the American South and opposed the Vietnam War.
It recently sent 10 ambulances to Nicaragua in support of the leftist Sandinista government. It criticizes the U.S. nuclear arms buildup and supports environmental causes.
Most of the veterans broke with the American Communist Party in the 1950s. Nelson has said only about 300 remain alive.
During a visit to Villanueva de Pardillo, a nearby village, Nelson, Nusser and other veterans paid an emotional tribute to Oliver Law, a black Texan who commanded the Lincoln Battalion for four days before being killed July 9, 1937.
''For years, blacks were forced to serve in the bottom rungs of the American military. Law was the first black man to rise to the command of a predominantly white American military unit and that historic achievement occurred right here in Spain,'' Nelson said.