Paul Burns

Volunteer, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter 1996-97

I was among a group of some forty replacements sent to Jarama from the Madrigueras IB training base in April 1937 to replace the heavy casualties suffered by the Lincolns in the battles of February 23rd and 27th. Even on that first day, I heard from Charles Nusser and Irving Chocoles about the extraordinary courage of Paul Burns. They told about how he had repeatedly gone into no-man's land under fire to bring in wounded.

A couple of weeks later, Pat Reade, one of the Madrigueras replacements, introduced me to Paul who was his company commander. Pat liked Paul for a couple of reasons: he knew he was Irish and he had learned of his bravery. My first impression of Paul was that he was too gentle to be a soldier. He spoke more like an observer than a participant. His voice was low and his stories stressed the bravery of other soldiers. He had action tales of the Flaherty brothers, and of Joe Scott and Joe Gordon.

I had little contact with Paul until the Brunete offensive in July. He was then commander of Company One. On the first day, when Oliver Law, the battalion commander, gave the order to go over the top, Paul was right behind Law. There were many casualties, but Law and Burns came through unscathed.

We went over the top again on July 9th at Mosquito Ridge. Law had assigned John Power and me as Paul's runners for that action. I was amazed by Paul's calm during the ten minutes we waited to begin the attack. Law had told us that there would be no cover fire from our artillery or aircraft. The fascists were on higher ground and we knew that our casualties would be heavy.

When Oliver Law gave the order to attack and charged up the hill, Paul raised his pistol over his head and said, "Let's go fellows." He was wounded within seconds. Law was hit two minutes later and died within the hour. Paul certainly would have been chosen to succeed him.

I next saw Paul, six weeks later at an impressive rest home - the mansion that had belonged to the magnate Juan March, the wealthiest man in Spain, then holed up in France awaiting a fascist victory. The mansion overlooking the Mediterranean had been requisitioned as a rest home for the wounded.

Paul told me that he expected to return to the battalion in a few weeks. The severity of his knee wound, however, resulted in his repatriation.

During the post war years Paul and I were colleagues as correspondents at the UN. I came to know him then as the gentlest person I ever encountered.

After recent housebound years, devotedly cared for by his wife Helen, Paul died in New York City on December 9, 1996.

- Harry Fisher