Extract on Spain from a book by Thomas (Red) Cushing Soldier for Hire, London, 1962, John Calder
Not long after what turned out to be the final episode in the Finn-Cushing saga, my three-year engagement came to an end. I toyed with the idea of re-enlistment, but after long consideration I rejected the notion.
While on demob leave, I stayed at the Army and Navy Club in Lexington Avenue, New York. I took the opportunity of visiting all the army posts where I had friends. To keep myself solvent I boxed a few times. Then, one morning in 1936, I wandered as far as the Army Base in Brooklyn, hoping to bump into somebody I knew. A transport happened to be in and I thought some of the old Panama crowd might be in the area. Oddly enough, of all the characters I had met during my brief military career, the one I missed most was the irrepressible, irresponsible, irredeemable Finn.
My luck was out. None of my former comrades showed. The sight of so many soldiers swaggering round as if Brooklyn belonged to them, however, had its effect and I knew that sooner or later I should have to rejoin. The army was in my blood.
I finished up in a saloon bar, sitting at the same table as five or six young fellows, listening to their conversation and occasionally chipping in when the talk became general. Somehow we had got on to the subject of soldiering abroad. During a lull in the discussion, an unmistakably military figure detached itself from the bar and slid easily into the seat next to mine.
'I'm recruiting for the Lincoln Washington Battalion, now serving in Spain,' he announced without preamble. 'Any of you guys interested?'
'What are the prospects?' I asked him.
He shrugged. 'Well, I guess that depends on what you can do. Have you soldiered before?'
I fished from my wallet the army documents I carried around with me and dropped them on the table in front of him. He scrutinised them in silence, lingering especially over an impressive list of courses I had passed.
At last he looked up and eyed me appraisingly. 'Seems to me you're the type we want, brother. Can't guarantee it, but with these qualifications you should swing a commission.'
'Never mind the commission. My interests are tipple and bananas.'
He smiled. 'Me, I haven't been to Spain, so I'm no authority on the native panther-sweat. The pay for a platoon commander comes out at a hundred and twenty-five bucks a month and that's only the first step for a guy with your background.'
'Yes, 'tis an attractive proposition, I'm thinking. You can count me in.'
'You sure make a snappy decision, pal. When could you be ready to go?'
I glanced casually down at my wristwatch. 'By eleven hundred hours, give or take five minutes. At what pier do I have to report?'
The recruiter, not sure whether to take me seriously or not, assured me that my services would not be called upon as quickly as all that. There were a number of formalities to go through, documents to be signed and so on. He suggested that I should accompany him to his headquarters and fill in the necessary forms, so I downed my drink and bade him lead the way.
I could see that two or three of the others were weighing up possibilities but when I urged them to come along too, they refused to commit themselves, saying they would like a couple of days to think things over.
When we left the bar and took a subway to the Bronx, I made a closer inspection of my new acquaintance. He seemed to have completely sloughed off his military bearing. He had a dark intelligent face, under a shaggy mop of long wavy hair, and was obviously of Jewish origin. As he talked constantly with his hands, I could not help noticing his dirty fingernails. He never told me his name.
First we went to a building on the Grand Concourse, where I was medically examined and pronounced physically fit. Then, we proceeded to a dingy office not far from Union Square. There I completed a sort of application form, signed on the dotted line and was duly inducted. I received a cash advance of fifty dollars and was warned to hold myself in readiness. They had my address and would communicate with me when the next replacement contingent was ready to move.
A day or two later, my instructions arrived. I was ordered to report to an address on Eighth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. It was a large building and appeared to be functioning as a social club. I was introduced to a number of curious characters, all belonging to the school of thought that condemns soap and water as capitalist luxuries. Even before they opened their mouths, I knew what I had let myself in for. I had stepped into a gathering of Communist Party members.
Although I had no time for such crapology, I decided to ride along with them and find out how they ticked. I therefore listened patiently to my long-haired friend's appreciation of the situation.
The replacement draft, he told me, was already standing by in the next room. I had been appointed conducting officer and was responsible for shepherding forty volunteers from New York to the Spanish front. At nine o'clock on the following morning I would pick up the party at the club. We would then travel by 'bus via the Holland tunnel to the dockside, where we would board a Greek ship flying the Panamanian flag. Our destination was Spain, but owing to the fluctuating fortunes of war, it was impossible to forecast the port of disembarkation.
The 'Commissar', as I had mentally labelled him, next led me into a dance hall, where I passed on his information to my comrades, who were apparently filled with eagerness to come to grips with the enemy. When I first saw them, my heart sank. There were intellectuals, homosexuals from the nearest freight yard, students from Columbia University and a generous sprinkling of Bowery bums and dead-beats, who had evidently espoused the Communist cause in order to be issued with meal tickets.
When I had finished, the Commissar gave them a long political speech, loaded with the usual Communist clichés. The workers of the world had to unite, fight for freedom, win a lasting peace and had nothing to lose but their chains. The students and the self-styled intelligentsia lapped it all up, but the talk made little impression on the bums. The squad was then dismissed and the Party members gathered round me, eager to give me a propaganda injection.
'Gentlemen,' I said to the shower of nanny goats, 'I'm a professional soldier, not a politician. I've volunteered to go to Spain simply for the experience. As far as I'm concerned, you can stick your Communist racket up your jaxies! So cheerio, comrades! I'll be seeing you at nine o'clock to-morrow morning.' With an ironic bow to the Commissar, I made a quick exit.
As the future seemed uncertain, I decided to spend the evening in O'Mara's, an Irish hostelry on 2nd Avenue and 23rd Street. There, by an odd coincidence, I fell into conversation with two young Irishmen who said they were returning to Ireland to join General O'Duffy's Blue Shirts.
'And who the hell might General O'Duffy's Blue Shirts be?' I asked them.
'I'm told it's some sort of independent brigade the General's taking across to Spain,' one of them replied.
'And on what side would the Blue Shirts be fighting?'
'Well, aren't they Catholics, you ignoramus? And wouldn't they be supporting the Nationalists and Franco?'
'Bejasus!' I exclaimed. 'Then I'm on the wrong side again! That'll be another excommunication looming up for me. In any case, it will be like old times, with the Irish trying to destroy each other. And what about the British army? Whose side are they on?'
'I wouldn't be knowing that. I've heard that a British battalion and a Canadian battalion are operating out there as a brigade under a fellow called Tom Wintringham. Pat and I are hoping they've joined the Republicans. We'd dearly love to have another crack at the English.'
The more I questioned those lads, the more obvious it became that they knew as little about this Spanish affair as I did. I began to regret the hours I had spent poring over the sporting pages of the daily press instead of studying reports of what was happening in the world. The most I could gather was that the Russians, the Germans and the Italians were all mixing it in Spain, but the real ins and outs of the struggle had me mystified.
Anyway, next day I proceeded to the Social Club and mustered my contingent. To my amazement there were no absentees. I marched them to the waiting buses and away we went to Hoboken to board the Greek ship.
I think she was named the 'Zenochandiros', but my Greek being of the flimsiest I would not take my Bible oath on that. She was certainly flying the Panamanian flag, just as the Commissar had stated. We were conducted to the after part of the vessel and directed into one of the holds which had been converted into a troop deck. At least thirty years old, the 'Zenochandiros', I learned, had carried every kind of cargo in her day, including donkeys, cows, bananas, onions and a powerful fertiliser. The individual smells still lingered.
At the start of the voyage I selected four of the toughest specimens in my outfit and made them section commanders with nine men each to look after. I gave them considerable coaching in man management and in what the whole bunch needed most - personal and collective hygiene. None of the forty had ever undergone military training, so throughout the trip I lectured them on patrolling, scouting, the section in attack and in defence, the approach march, advance to contact and so on. They all seemed interested with the exception of a scholarly type called Rudi Rudovsky. Rudi was of middling height and scraggy build. I fancy the only fight he had ever waged had been against pernicious anaemia. He was a strict vegetarian, existing wholly on salads and nuts. Although a tolerable fart would have blown him into the sea, he caused me more trouble than the rest of the mob put together and was ready to argue on the drop of a hat. His sole topic of conversation was the inevitability of world Communism. No matter what subject was under discussion, Rudi would immediately switch it on to the Party rails. If I asked my trainees how many stoppages there were on a Lewis gun, Rudi would reel off a dozen reasons why the Communist worker never came out on strike. If I was dealing with First Aid, Rudi would prove conclusively that Russia had the finest hospital service in the world. Anything the West could do, the East could do better was the basis of all Rudi's impassioned utterances.
We docked at Cartagena, where Rudi charged me with being a subversive element. He complained that I had confined my lectures to military matters, that I had obstructed his political propaganda and that on one occasion I had threatened to beat his brains out with 'Das Kapital'. The Party boss to whom he complained simply laughed in Rudi's face and slung him out of his office. I never saw him again, although I was informed later that he found himself a cushy job in a leave camp down at the base, preaching the Cause and dodging the column.
I was sent to a vast training area up in the Sierra de Guadarrama, north of Madrid, where I remained for four months. Then, as platoon leader in Number One Company, the Lincoln Washington Battalion, I went into action.
We were operating against the Italians on the front southeast of Madrid. Although we were out-numbered three to one, our sector was surprisingly calm. The Italians had evidently used up all their courage and energy fighting the unarmed Abyssinians. Matched against a small but determined body of professional soldiers, they preferred to remain under cover. They would make occasional sorties, advertising their activities with an ineptitude that Wolf Cubs would have laughed at, and scurrying back to their burrows if one of us so much as sneezed. There was a formal hate session every morning, but we suffered no casualties.
We had no idea what the overall situation was. Any information about the general course of the war was carefully withheld from us by the Party leaders. Gradually it dawned on these political panjandrums that what they needed in Spain was less tub-thumping and more military know-how, so at last they decided to ship me back to the States with a view to recruiting some young men with initiative and leadership qualities.
Rumour had it that Madrid was almost surrounded, that enemy reinforcements were marching down from the north and that most road and rail communications to the northern parts had been cut off. My best way out, it would appear, was from Barcelona, up in the northeast corner of the country. I was advised to get in touch with a notorious blockade-runner who had been christened 'Potato' Jones after the first illegal cargo he had landed on the Spanish coast. He would arrange for me to cross to France on one of the three vessels he had working for him - the 'Stanwell', the 'Stancook' and the 'Stanhope'.
I reached Barcelona without mishap and there, in a dockside tavern, I located 'Potato' Jones, who turned out to be a swarthy Welshman with an eye for business. Everything was fixed up satisfactorily and a day or two later I sailed on the 'Stanwell'. Although warships of the Italian Navy were patrolling the waters between the Balearic Islands and the mainland, the 'Stanwell' successfully ran the gauntlet and deposited me in Marseilles. There I picked up a freighter, which took me to Baltimore.
Eventually I reported to the Party H.Q. in New York and received my instructions. I had to hang around the Army Base in Brooklyn, keep my weather-eye open for soldiers awaiting demobilisation, take them for a drink, paint an attractive picture of the pay and conditions in Spain and try to persuade them to join the Lincoln Washington Battalion. I was given a wad of notes to cover my expenses on the recruiting expedition and also approximately a dozen addresses of doctors who would be prepared to carry out medical examinations without asking awkward questions.
I put the money to good use by treating myself to regular drinking bouts in the bars of Brooklyn. My conscience would not allow me to conduct a serious recruiting campaign. In case I was being watched by my sponsors, I frequently chatted with young soldiers in bars and restaurants, but I made no real attempts to lure them to Spain. For six months I played the role of the reluctant recruiter in and around Brooklyn, always promising results but never achieving them. It was not altogether surprising that the organisation began to view me with suspicion. Finally, I was ordered to return to Spain.
I was to sail on a ship belonging to the Stag Line, and to throw dust into the eyes of the authorities, I was handed a seaman's book, an A.B. certificate and a life-boat certificate - all obtainable from the Seamen's Institute at an inclusive cost of twenty dollars - and advised to present myself to the ship's chandler.
Everything went according to plan and a couple of days later we steamed away from Pier 50, Manhattan, on the long run to Spain. I formed one of the crew, but I never discovered the precise nature of my duties. Sometimes I worked in the galley; sometimes I did lookout duties; sometimes I did a stint on the fo'c'sle head. I was even called upon to steer and a fine mess I made of it, too. I shall never forget the Captain coming up to the wheelhouse to remark dryly, 'I don't mind you writing your Jasus name on the face of the ocean, but why the hell do you go back to dot the "i"?'
The food was dog rough. For breakfast we had curried rice and fish; for dinner salt meat stew and potatoes. The baking flour we had on board was full of weevils and down in the storerooms lurked rats as big as polo ponies. Still, after we reached mid-Atlantic I lost all my enthusiasm for food. A heavy storm struck us, pummelling and buffeting the ship non-stop for more than forty-eight hours. Furious seas swept over the ship, battering down the doors of the fo'c'sle and flooding into our berths. One night I sprang from my bunk into about two feet of water. Another disturbing factor was that the heavy cargo in the holds shifted, giving us a slight list to starboard.
After following a zigzag course that must have doubled the normal coal consumption, we docked at Marseilles. The redoubtable 'Potato' Jones, who was still cocking a snook at the Italian navy, shipped me across to Barcelona. I guessed that the situation was getting desperate, for within an hour of disembarking I was despatched to the Teruel front.
We were now in the thick of the fighting, with very little hope of respite. My only consolation was that I met Frank Ryan, another Tipperary man, who had once been either the Editor or Sub-Editor of the An Phoblacht. Tall and scholarly-looking, Frank had a thin, hawk-like face, dark hair and a humorous mouth. He was serving as a machine-gun officer with the Attlee Battalion. One of the men in his Company told me that thanks to Frank's intelligent siting of the guns in a defensive position farther south, practically the whole of an Italian Brigade had been cut to ribbons.
There was no marking time on the Teruel front. Severe fighting had been the order of the day there for six months before my arrival and for once I knew what war really meant. I also realised that we were getting the wrong end of the stick. Enemy attacks were growing in strength and we were being slowly pushed back towards the coast.
At length we were contained on the Ebro riverfront, with our forces strung out along the north bank. The position could only be described as critical. One day I crossed the river with a reconnaissance patrol with the intention of getting some idea of the enemy's strength. Taking full advantage of the natural cover, we proceeded for two or three miles without incident. Then suddenly, as we were cutting through a valley, all hell broke loose. Raked by a merciless crossfire, we scattered and ran.
It was a case of every man for himself. I found myself pounding along beside a fellow called McClusky. Neither of us knew where we were, but we were both confident that we were heading for our own lines. We maintained a cracking pace until we could no longer hear rifle fire and then we halted to take stock of our surroundings. There were trees, bushes, rocks and bleak eroded hills. After a brief conference, we decided we were 'somewhere in Spain'. We were about to press on, when we heard voices coming from the direction of a large cave. We advanced without hesitation. McClusky, assuming we were amongst our forward elements, actually opened his mouth to shout the password, but before he could litter a sound, I gripped his arm warningly.
'Spaniards!' I hissed. Wait here.'
I dropped flat and wormed my way cautiously towards the cave. When I was only thirty yards away, I could see five or six Spanish soldiers squatting round a campfire. Whether they were Fascists or Loyalists
I neither knew nor cared. I certainly did not propose to ask them. I crawled back to McClusky, silenced him with a gesture, and pointing to a distant copse, began to run again. Not until we had plunged in amongst the trees did I tell him what I had seen.
'I'm of the opinion we've passed clean through the enemy's lines,' I said. 'I don't like it, McClusky. We've no maps, so we'll have to proceed by guess and by God. If we're picked up, we've no photographs, no documents, no means of identification. As members of the International Brigade, we're liable to be shot on sight. I've a queer feeling we're not far from the border, but before we can cross into France, we must negotiate the Pyrenees. The alternative is to follow these foothills until we reach the coast. 'What do you think, McClusky?'
Poor McGlusky seemed incapable of thought, so I made up his mind for him. I led him deeper into the hills and bore quietly to the right. My theory was that if we kept going long enough, we were bound to reach the sea.
I forget how many days and nights our trek lasted, but we were footsore and weary when it ended at Port Bou. We had no trouble in persuading an old fisherman to take us to Marseilles in his trawler and there we hung around 'on the beach' for the next two months. Every day we visited the English quay, scrounging our meals and waiting for a suitable ship. 'We earned what we could by acting as touts for the various bars and brothels, but without regular 'handouts' from the Seamen's Mission, we should both have starved.
Sick of this aimless drifting, I went to see the American Consul. I had no credentials, as all my papers were in Spain, but he promised to help me to the best of his ability. The result of his inquiries on my behalf was an official screed stating that nothing could be done. By participating in a war in which the U.S.A. were non-belligerent, I had automatically forfeited my citizenship.
On receipt of this depressing information, I wandered along the Canebire as far as the recruiting office for the French Foreign Legion. I passed the entrance half a dozen times before plucking up the courage to march in. Once inside, I put my case forward with such eloquence that I was immediately escorted to the Depot of the Legion at Fort St. Jean, where my treatment proved altogether different from what I had expected. Instead of brutality, iron discipline 'and an austerity diet, I enjoyed the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the Depot and four excellent meals a day, including a litre of wine. Furthermore, I imagined that as a potential Legionnaire, I would have been whipped straight into uniform and left to rot in some remote part in the desert. On the contrary, I was left to my own devices and the Foreign Legion seemed in no hurry to enrol me officially.
This dilatory attitude quite baffled me until one morning I bought the Continental edition of The Daily Mail and scanned the headlines. It was perfectly obvious that Great Britain and France would soon be fighting Germany. I had no doubt that the imminence of a second World War had affected the recruiting programme of the Foreign Legion. Many others, as indeed I did, must have thought twice about soldiering for the French when they could be serving their own country.
Consequently, I made an appointment with the British Consul. I told him my full story, underlining my varied army experience, and stated bluntly that I would like to be back in England before the balloon went up, as I had every intention of joining the British army. The Consul listened sympathetically, noted down my particulars and said he would get in touch with me within two or three days. For diplomatic reasons I gave my address as the Seamen's Mission.
Three days later the desk clerk at the Mission had news for me. The British Consul had rung up asking me to call on him at my earliest convenience. I hurried to the Consulate at once and was delighted to hear that he had fixed everything satisfactorily. He provided me with all the necessary documentation, a rail and boat ticket, a letter of introduction to any recruiting office in England and enough cash to see me through the journey. He wished me luck and away I went.
I had no difficulty in squaring matters with the French Foreign Legion. The authorities understood that my first duty was to my own country. Several Britishers who had been on the verge of joining had also cancelled their applications at the last minute.
I travelled to England by way of Paris and Dieppe, disembarking at Newhaven and proceeding to Victoria. It was only when I boarded the English train that I noticed my ultimate destination was Cardiff. Why I was sent there remains a mystery to this day. As I was leaving Victoria, with a view to catching a 'bus to Paddington. a slimy-looking character tried to sell me The Daily Worker. His smug references to the Spanish Civil War so incensed me that I hauled off and belted him one. I derived a great deal of personal satisfaction out of that blow, throwing into it all the anger and disgust I felt about Communist mismanagement in Spain. It symbolised for me my complete repudiation of the Party line.
Hungry, miserable and in rags, I stepped off the train in Cardiff with only a few shillings in my pocket. It was dark and I knew nobody. so I walked as far as the Central Police Station, where I unburdened myself to the desk sergeant. I was given tea and cakes and was allowed to spend the night in a cell.
Next morning I set out for the recruiting office, and after a promising interview, I was taken to the reception room of a huge barracks. I was accommodated temporarily with the Welsh Regiment, sharing a barrack room with half a dozen other recruits. We were all in civilian dress and no specific duties were allocated to us.
I was lounging about with my roommates when the Commanding Officer of the Welsh Regiment, preceded by a cocky little Captain, came in to inspect our quarters. I promptly called the room to attention, moved forward, halted in front of the C.O. and announced crisply,
'Reception Room. All personnel present. Awaiting disposal, sir!'
The C.O. eyed me approvingly. 'You've soldiered before. Are you a re-enlistment?'
'I fancy I detect a bit of a brogue. You must be ex-Irish Army.'
'No, sir,' I said again. 'Ex-American Army!'
The C.O. looked surprised, questioned me closely and then moved on. He must have been favourably impressed for shortly after his visit one of his junior officers buttonholed me and sounded me about joining the Welsh Regiment. I had already expressed my preference, however, and I had no intention of changing my mind. My heart was set on a cap badge that had always held a special appeal for me. I had first seen it in the cap of a cocky young soldier in Sloppy Joe's, when I was soldiering in Shanghai, and had never forgotten its triple-turreted castle with St. George's colours bravely flying above the central tower. Even in those days I had entertained a warm regard for the 'Skins'.
And thus it was, on a grey day in November, 1938, that I was ordered to report to my chosen regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The wheel had indeed turned full circle, for the 'Skins' depot was in Omagh, in County Tyrone. As the train pulled out of Cardiff, I could already smell the burning peat and hear the fiddlers tuning up for a jig and see the glasses of poteen waiting for them after they had got everybody in the room beating out the rhythm. I should be the wrong side of the border, but by all that was holy, it would be good to be back in Ireland again.
For the initial index of articles on lreland and the SCW