Salaria Kea and John O'Reilly

Volunteers who met and wed in Spain, 1938

Cleveland Magazine, 1975

© Cleveland Magazine Thanks for their permission to reproduce this piece, CC.

Why did these two young people and 40,000 others volunteer to fight, and die if necessary, in another peoples' civil war?

By Bob August.

The photograph is faded and cracked. On its face is printed 'Spain 1938.' The young couple in the picture is staring straight at the camera, unsmiling. She is a pretty young black women, and he is tall and lean and with a moustache and a shock of black hair.

"We were waiting outside the gate to welcome the heroes back from the front," says Salaria O'Reilly, a trace of teasing in here voice, "and I saw this tall fellow with the spit-polished boots. I said to my girlfriend, "Isn't he handsome? He's just for you."

John O'Reilly is quiet and thoughtful. He is much heavier now than in the old photograph. The moustache is gone, and the shock of black hair turned to grey.

"So many of us were just kids," he reminisces quietly, "some who knew nothing about handling a rifle, who had never seen a gun before in their lives. Thousands of kids were shot in the head at Jarama, shot when there was no reason for them to be shot, when they should have kept their heads down."

Nearly 40 years later there is little in the modest Akron apartment of John and Salaria O'Reilly to suggest the roles these two unassuming people, recently retired, played in the Spanish Civil War. Only the photograph - and a wall-hanging from Spain - recall their youthful adventure with the International Brigade, those men and women the Italian socialist leader Pietro Nenni would later describe as having unknowingly "lived an Iliad."

Jarama, Valencia, Cordoba, Seville…the names of places that roll so pleasantly off the tongue; Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Andre Malraux, W H Auden, Langston Hughes…..the names of literary men who went there to fight or to write or to drive ambulances; Hemingway's For whom the bell tolls and Picasso's Guernica, the testimonials rendered to a lost cause....our conversation on this evening is filled with all the echoes of an almost forgotten crusade.

It is believed that 40,000 volunteers went to Spain for the Republican cause. They came from many places - from all over Europe, Great Britain, and the United States - some 60 men from the Cleveland area alone - ordinary working men, seamen, intellectuals, shiny-eyed idealists direct from university lecture halls. In a civil war of shocking causalities and meagre medical supplies, one third of them died in the alien, sun-bleached land.

The first major engagement of the International Brigade took place below a long range of hills southwest of Madrid, in the Jarama Valley, on February 17, 1937. History records that of the 450 American volunteers from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who took part in the battle, 120 were killed and 275 wounded.

O'Reilly remembers a courtyard where the wounded were brought in on stretchers. Blankets were put over them and the stretchers were pushed off into a corner.

"They didn't even try to save them. They couldn't. They didn't have the facilities or the time," he says. "If you were hit in the head, you were out of luck unless you had only a scalp wound and were fortunate enough to come to. I watched and I had this terrible feeling of frustration. But I wasn't trained. I wasn't a doctor. There was nothing I could do."

Later John O'Reilly fought across Europe, from Normandy on, with the US Army in Word War 2, but he never again experienced anything like the war in Spain.

Why were they there? That is the question the O'Reilly's visitor has brought to this apartment house in Akron. I wanted to get beyond the abstraction that had provided their common bond - halting Fascism in Spain before it could sweep though Europe - and into the individual motivation of each choice freely made.

In histories of the world, lost causes get only casual mentions. To many the Spanish Civil War is seen merely as a darkening cloud signalling the gathering storm of World War 2. The simple facts of an immensely complex situation were that in 1936 an insurrection, eventually led by Franco, had overthrown the elected Republican government of Spain and that immediately Hitler and Mussolini had come to the aid of the Franco forces with both supplies and trained troops. The volunteers came in great numbers to help the beleaguered Republican side, many fought gallantly, many died and eventually the war was lost.

To some of us who were young in the 1930s the volunteers still seem romantic figures, as remote as the knights-errant in the books of chivalry we read as children. Their idealism, in retrospect, seems to belong to another century than this. Yet they were only people such as this unassuming Akron couple with whom I find myself sitting, almost 40 years later, in an average American living room.

"I was brought up in the belief that democracy could be made to work," says Salaria O'Reilly, but it is clear that she had had no childish illusions about what lay ahead for a black girl growing up in a segregated society. Time would bring disillusionment.

"I found out while I could study to become a teacher in Akron, as a black I could not teach there and while I could become a nurse, I couldn't practice there."

So Salaria Kea left Akron and enrolled in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York, where the atmosphere was friendlier for aspiring black girls, and graduated in 1934. She worked for a time in a tuberculosis hospital a hazardous assignment for a slight girl weighing only 103 pounds. Some larger, stronger nurses contracted the disease they were treating. She also enrolled for further studies at New York University.

And whenever any special opportunity was offered, she volunteered her services. She kept being turned down, Help for humanity was not being solicited during that time from black nurses. The most hurtful blow came following a flood in southern Ohio when disaster relief was being administered by the Red Cross. Salaria volunteered as usual, hopeful of an opportunity to return to her native state and serve there in the capacity in which she had been trained.

"The Red Cross told me they were accepting no black nurses, that I would be more trouble than I was worth."

Still smarting from this latest rejection, she heard a speech at NYU by a young Spanish doctor who had returned to the States after a vain search for his family in his war-torn homeland.

"He told is what was going on in Spain. It was a moving speech, a spellbinding speech," recalls Salaria O'Reilly. "At NYU, the Jewish doctors from Germany had been telling us about what was occurring in their country. They talked about Fascism and Nazism and I would question the doctors and they would explain things to me."

The speech by the Spanish doctor moved her. Here was a plea for help which carried no restrictions as to the colour of the skin. "It had seemed than in all the things I had wanted to do I had been rejected in my own country," she says. "I didn't know anything about politics. I didn't know anything about Communism. All I knew about was democracy, and anything that wasn't democracy wasn't for me."

So Salaria O'Reilly signed up to go to Spain and, as it turned out, to be subjected to enemy bombings, to sleep on dirt floors of huts with peasants and finally to be captured by German soldiers and held for six weeks in the constant fear that she was to be executed.

John O'Reilly had grown up poor in Ireland. Poverty had been the grinding fact of his existence in a country where jobs were scarce even in the best of times. When he went to England in 1928 to enlist for three years in the King's Irish Brigade of Guards it was not, he makes clear, out of any particular inclination to be a soldier but simply because it was a paying job.

When his enlistment was up, the worldwide Depression had arrived and even in England unemployment had become a major problem. In the following years, he drifted back and forth between England and Ireland, picking up what work he could get. The jobs were temporary and unrewarding.

"There was a saying then that if you wanted to find an Irishman, go to the Salvation Army," scoffs O'Reilly, but his memories of the period are not all grim. "There was a feeling of camaraderie then, that you all were in it together. If you had a penny, you shared it with your friend. It didn't matter if you were Irish, Scottish or Welsh."

One of his jobs was in a brickyard in Oxford. In the evenings he went to the university common and listened to the orators expressing every opinion in the political spectrum. Before long, John O'Reilly was out of work again. In a library, he came upon a small newspaper advertisement calling for soldiers to fight for the Republican cause in Spain.

If in Salaria's accounting of the decision she made there seems to a leaping toward opportunity, the youthful enthusiasm of a born crusader, in John O'Reilly's rendition, a different note is struck. There is a kind of fatalism, the desperation of a man who was drifting and without much hope, the victim of economic forces he could not hope to control.

"I thought there was going to be a war and if I was going to be killed anyway, it would be better to be fighting for the poor than for the rich", he says simply.

O'Reilly was among the earliest of the volunteers to go to Spain arriving in 1936, the first year of the civil war, and he was there until the end - which, for the volunteers, came with the official withdrawal of the International Brigade late in 1938.

Even now, looking back on their experience, Salaria and John O'Reilly seem to view it from perspectives as different as their personalities and the backgrounds from which they came. "I wouldn't trade my memories for $10,000," she says.

He thinks back to his experiences with the bitterness and passions of Ireland's internal strife, which he compares to Spain's, and says, "I think what I learned was that it is better to keep out of other peoples' civil wars."

The Spanish adventure started badly for Salaria Kea. At her first meal on the French ocean liner taking the medical team overseas, the medical officer in charge announced, "I've never eaten with niggers and I'm not going to start now." The ship's officers responded immediately with European courtliness and the rest of the trip, she recalls with amusement, she was the special guest at the captain's table.

Her arrival in France proved a liberating experience. For the first time in her life, she found she could eat in the finest restaurants, register at the best hotels, and nowhere did she encounter racial prejudice.

"When I got to Spain, I saw all the poor people, the shacks they lived in," recalls Salaria, "and I had never seen anything like it in all my life. They couldn't read and they couldn't write and the way they lived was to me unbelievable. My whole concept changed. I had had the feeling that in America only the Negroes suffered and that in other countries where there no Negroes everything was lovely."

She was not the only one being oppressed, she decided. The important thing now, as she saw it, was that she was "in the right place, helping people, and it didn't matter what had been happening to me in America."

She was introduced quickly into the harsh realities of this civil war - the bombings, the illness and the hunger. Always short of supplies and trained personnel, the medical teams moved among the Spanish villages doing what they could with what they had. Bandages were so scarce, she remembers, that when they were removed from the wounded they were washed and ironed and used again. Often there was no water, and sometimes eggs - frequently the only food available, - had to be boiled in wine, which alone was plentiful.

Salaria learned to sleep on the dirt floor of peasant's huts with the farm animals. One cold morning she awoke with an unusual feeling of warmth and coziness and found a sheep pressed against her on one side and a lamb on the other. Because of the chaotic nature of the war, individuals often were separated from their units, and Salaria was wandering alone through the countryside trying to get to Saragossa when she was captured by the Germans.

She describes the scene as if it happened yesterday. She is standing on a hill in the soft light of early morning. Below her a road meanders peacefully through a beautiful valley. Suddenly there is the roar of a motor and sudden brakes, and a car pulls to a stop near her. There are two soldiers in the car and they are shouting at her. "They were the first German soldiers I had seen, real soldiers, with armbands and insignias on their caps."

She turned and ran through the field toward the valley until she tripped and fell and lay motionless with her face against the ground, immobilized by fear. She heard orders being shouted in German but she couldn't move. Then one of the soldiers roughly turned her over with his rifle and pulled her to her feet. She still doesn't know the name of the village to which they took her and locked her in a room.

Then the interrogation started. At first they concluded she must be a Moroccan - unable to figure out what a black American woman could be doing in Spain as a nurse for the Republican side. Gradually, they left her alone to sleep during the quiet days. It was the nights with their frightening noises that she feared.

Several times she had been taken from the room at 4.30 in the morning and up four flights of stairs to where she could look down into a courtyard. In the dim light, she had seen men lined up and marched off.

"You could hear the women and children crying and you would hear them praying and then the orders would go out and the guns would go off. Everything would go dead quiet. No sound, nothing. Then they would take me back downstairs. I always thought the next morning would be my turn."

After six weeks, the Germans suddenly disappeared from the building amid such confusion she didn't know what was happening. They had withdrawn, the International Brigade had retaken the village and she was free.

With a quiet eloquence. John O'Reilly speaks of his feelings of warmth and kinship for the Spanish people. "We shared a common background, our roots in poverty."

Yet nostalgia has not softened his criticism, of the Republican failures in Spain. The first major action in which he took part was a strike against Franco's forces at Cordoba in 1936. It was a disaster. Afterwards a French officer named Major LaSalle was shot by the defeated Republican forces as a traitor, shouting his denials, according to the history books, before the firing squad.

"Because we had lost, that charge was made that he led us into a trap," O'Reilly explains. "Anytime anything went wrong, somebody would charge it was sabotage. This kind of suspicion was a problem throughout the war."

O'Reilly, who had trained in the well disciplined British Army, was appalled at the inefficiency and unmilitary behaviour of the Republican forces. He found that officers often were selected not for experience or leadership qualities but "because they happened to be members of some political organisation."

"I believe the main problem was that the Republican government was bending over backwards trying to prove to the world it was democratic. It was concerned that countries like France, England and the United States would see this as a battle between Fascism and Communism, which to them would be two evils, in which case they might even prefer that Fascism win.

"As a result the government never developed the disciplined army even a democracy should have. It never even had conscription until, I believe, the summer of 1938, late in the war. If it had started out with conscription and had built a disciplined Army, it still would not have had the tanks and planes the enemy had, but it would have had the manpower, and the result could have been different."

Historians have discussed at length the fierce divisiveness of the many parties on the Republican side, the struggles for power, the inscrutable role played by the Russian Communists. O'Reilly says simply, "I think the wrong people won."

In the midst of it all, a nurse and a soldier were quietly married, in front of an old castle, on May 1, 1927. [Ed. note:- She may have got the dates wrong here. In an earlier memoir she says they met in May, married 2nd Oct. 1937, CC. Other evidence exists backing up the October date.] When the International Brigade was disbanded, the war having been lost, late in 1938, Salaria O'Reilly returned to the States alone. John had to wait a year and nine months in England for clearance to join her as a US citizen. As racially mixed marriages were frowned on at the time by the US diplomatic corps, it took nothing short of a direct plea to President Roosevelt by Salaria to untangle the red tape.

It was not long before they were overseas again, in another war, she again as a volunteer nurse, he fighting with the combat engineers in Europe. After the war John got a job with the New York transit authority, and Salaria found employment, Stateside this time, as a nurse. Retired now, and living in Akron to be near her family, the O'Reillys are a modest, unassuming couple - surprised to find that someone wants to talk about the volunteers who went to Spain, a little embarrassed by the suggestion that they were heroes once.

John O'Reilly escorts me to the parking lot, a little apologetic about not, he is afraid, having helped me get to the bottom of it all. Standing beside my car in the parking lot, he seems caught up again, for a moment, in the emotions of an old frustration as he describes the day he left Spain. "I saw the pockmarked buildings and the old women in shawls…and I told myself that somehow I would come back, that there people would be avenged."

He didn't go back, of course. Nobody did.

Salaria Kee: A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain

To read more about her, check out this pamphlet issued by the Negro Committee to Aid Spain with the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, New York, 1938. More here ...

Reprinted by the Bay Area Post February 6, 1977, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Introduction by Marion Merriman Wachtel, Commander of that Post.

Other documents about Salaria Kee

An extract from Passing Through, a memoir, on meeting John in Spain. More here ...