Out of work and without much hope for the future, Nate Thornton was handed a leaflet in San Francisco that would eventually send him halfway across the world to fight a war which history would call the opening act to World War II. A life of heartache and struggle was the price he paid. At 94, he’s still fighting the Good War.
By Steven Tavares
He lay sitting upright in his well-worn, brown recliner. Hunched forward as the cushion cups his body.
Nate Thornton turns his head and stares at the intricate wood carvings fashioned with skill, layered in lacquer.
The images formed out of ordinary oak hark to a distant past when ideological vigor and economic disparity ruled the minds of every American.
A silhouette of a rifle-wielding soldier hang on the wall to the right of him, the purple, gold and red Republican flag of Spain is pinned by its four corners to left of him.
Seventy-one years ago, Thornton and 2,800 Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade made famous by Ernest Hemingway and marched to fight fascism in a foreign land, yet from his Hayward home–not far from the campus of Cal State East Bay–he still lives the unsuccessful foray into the Iberian Peninsula in his mind and sees histories tentacles wrapping around the United States today.
The Spanish civil war was the product a democratically-elected government being brought to its knees by General Francisco Franco and the Spanish military. Some historians argue the conflict was a proxy war between Soviet communists and fascist nations in Germany and Italy.
“It was perceived by people at the time that this is where we can take a stand against fascism and in retrospect to those who fought in World War II this was the dress rehearsal—this was the first battle—and we lost it,” said CSUEB professor of history Dr. Henry Reichman.
At 94 years old, the feeling that the atrocities of World War II could have been averted by simply defeating Franco still irritates Thornton to this day.
“I was a disappointed person,” said Thornton, “I was disappointed in how things turned out. Spain had been defeated and the United States hadn’t helped at all and just a year or so after that we had to go fight Germany anyway. So, it was a mess.”
INDOCTRINATION INTO THE COMMUNIST PARTY
The late winter of 1937 was still bare of employment in the Bay Area. Men still worked sparingly. Others who could find work did it sparingly and with meager earnings.
At 22, Thornton was part of the cadre of unlucky job seekers.
“There hadn’t been much chance for me to find a job,” said Thornton, “I’d find an odd job once in the while on the waterfront in San Francisco, but it was just for a day or two and then you’re off and back where you started from.”
His father was in the same dire financial straits and with a coal miner’s strike broken up by a group of scab worker still sour in the elder Thornton’s mouth, the situation was ripe for change.
Thornton’s father was 42. Still sprite, yet the world had made him weary. Father and son walked down a street in San Francisco. Nate saw a man passing leaflets on the street corner ahead. They reached the man in no time.
What they told us sounded so damn good, so much better than what we had that I was completely sold
The leaflets offered a chance at redemption—a new antidote to cure the social ills that had plagued downtrodden men like Nate and his father. The leaflets urged them to attend a meeting of the Communist party.
Wizen and fatherly, Nate’s father displayed some consternation. The inexperienced Nate had seen enough of what capitalism could do and urged his father to merely attend. The scene was a grown-up version of a boy pleading his dad to buy him a new red wagon.
They would attend after all. The party leaders rhetoric was too much for the Thornton’s to ignore and together joined the party.
“What they told us sounded so damn good, so much better than what we had that I was completely sold,” remembers Thornton.
Ideology or not, the communist party in the United States was seeking strength in numbers.
“It was indicative of the attitudes of the American communist party at the time. These weren’t communist organizations in the sense that they took volunteers of any political persuasion,” said Reichman, “As long as you wanted to fight fascism in Spain. This was the front line.”
A party leader named Archie Brown would be the impetus for getting the Thornton’s to join the Lincoln Brigade.
Thornton believes the enlisting of father and son to the Lincoln Brigades to be the only such case.
A group of six would commence to travel by bus from San Francisco to New York City. From there they would sail to France before trekking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Northeastern Spain onto the small town of Albacete.
This was done at the party’s behest without help from the U.S. government, which was still a staunchly isolationist nation on the eve of World War II.
“They never expressed any intimidation to us, but they never encouraged us, either,” said Thornton.
The U.S. customs, though, stamped their passport, “not valid for travel to Spain”, necessitating the detour through France, which Reichman says was also tenuous because of that country’s stated neutrality during the Spanish civil war.
‘I had it pretty nice in Madrid. I had a young woman who would make up my bed for me so I could sleep nicely. That was all she did, though,’ said Thornton with a sly smile.
In Albacete, he would volunteer to work in the kitchen, but became disinterested when he ranked only as a subordinate.
Thornton had experience as a cook three years earlier earning $30 per month working in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He would send his father $25 of his wages to save for him.
“I wanted to be the big guy, but I was the third cook. I got tired of taking orders from the chef,” said Thornton.
After a month, a call for men willing to be drivers went out and Thornton and his father jumped at the opportunity.
Like Hemingway during World War I, Thornton drove an ambulance carting away the wounded and the dead from the Spanish battlefields.
‘I’M SURE HE DIED IN BRUNETE’
Inexperience was something soldiers like Thornton needed to overcome and arrived only through trial and error.
On Thornton’s first day behind the wheel of the ambulance, he wisely brought someone familiar with the terrain and battle field of Brunete, a small town outside the capital, Madrid.
The road was uneven and better suited for horse-drawn carts. The sight of an automobile was a curiosity in Spain at the time.
The guide sternly told Thornton to stop the ambulance.
“Stop here and wait awhile,” said the guide.
Without hesitation, without a clue to its meaning, he brought the vehicle to a stop.
In the distance, over a 100 yards or so, Thornton and the guide saw a shell explode up the road.
The guide said, “Ok, now we can go.”
The battle at Brunete was harrowing for the Lincoln Brigade and the Republican Spanish loyalists. A rout ensued as Franco’s army bolted the defenses, killing masses of soldiers and coming up on a triage tent hidden in a creek.
“Driving back with a load of wounded and our people were being routed and they were fleeing and running, trying to get away from that creek. We had our first aid unit in a creek.
“We were driving along and some guy jumped on the running board of my ambulance and plopped over in front of me, so I couldn’t see to drive. I stopped the ambulance and poked him, motioned for him to move so I could see. He fell off. I guess he was dead. Made it as far as my ambulance. I’m sure he died there in Brunete,” said Thornton.
FRANCO’S FORCES OVERWHELM
Thornton had not seen or heard of his father’s whereabouts for months. He would later learn his father worked maintaining tires and trucks during the viciously frigid Battle of Teruel.
In the meantime, Thornton spent some down time in Madrid. The respite was welcomed and Spaniards loyal to the Republic showed great appreciation for foreign soldiers like Thornton.
“I had it pretty nice in Madrid. I had a young woman who would make up my bed for me so I could sleep nicely. That was all she did, though,” said Thornton with a sly smile.
In Madrid he would dine of the local specialties, including bacalhau, a dried codfish popular in the Iberian peninsula. He believes that many of the locals went without some basic food supplies to help the Lincoln Brigade.
Thornton says locals would routinely salute them fist flashing towards the sky, chanting, “No pasaran!”, a leftist slogan meaning, “thou shall not pass.”
By August of 1938, the war had turned decidedly against the Republican army. A fear that Franco’s army would brutally crackdown on any captured foreign soldiers permeated before it was decided to send them home.
…The capitalists are going to have to go to work with a pick and shovel like the rest of us…The system is breaking down.
Thornton would reverse the itinerary in which he traveled to Spain. From Albacete, through the Pyrenees, save a brief stay on the French coast due to a strike of port workers, across the Atlantic to New York and by land to San Francisco.
Thornton would quickly marry and decided against volunteering for the U.S. Army.
“I had been fighting before for 20 months, I felt I did may share,” he said.
Thornton exhibits contempt at the U.S. government’s treatment of Lincoln Brigade members upon returning home.
“They didn’t make friend with us,” he said, “First thing they did was to label us ‘premature anti-fascists’.”
Thornton slowly repeats it for effect. “Premature anti-fascists.”
“It was okay to be anti-fascists,” he mocks, “but don’t be premature. We had to wait for the United States to tell us when we could be anti-fascists.”
Like many during the Red Scare of the 1950’s, Thornton, because of his ties to the communist party felt the reverberations of irrational hysteria in America.
A LIFE OF ACTIVISM
Thornton was a carpenter by trade. He had just purchased the house on the foothills of Hayward in 1954. Working in the garage as he would any other weekend, his work was upset by the two parked cars across the narrow one-lane street.
He looked up from his work as the men dressed in ordinary suits flashed FBI badges from their coat pockets.
With political upheaval rumbling throughout the nation and a background certainly unwelcome in popular company, he became concerned.
Both men began asking him questions. How did he feel about certain stories in the news? What was he doing at work on the docks? What was his political views?
“I told them right there, I’m not answering your questions,” remembers Thornton.
The men left, but not without Thornton worrying for months when the other shoe would drop. It never did.
He believes he became the victim of untimely lay offs when his “radical” views became known to supervisors.
“Oh, I couldn’t keep my damn mouth shut. I would say bad things about our government—things I didn’t like that was going on,” said Thornton.
It wasn’t until Thornton became an “A book” carrying member of the Longshoreman’s union in Oakland that employment finally became stable.
Thornton’s streak of activism would continue with support for the United Farm Workers Union, protests of the Army base at Fort Benning in Georgia and trips in support of Cuba.
At 94, Thornton’s vigor has slowed, but his tenacity is still evident when he speaks of the future of the struggle.
“I think we’re on the verge of fascism right now. I think Bush and McCain are just like this,” he says raising his thumb and forefinger together, “Don’t let them kid you.”
“I see the Democrats and Republicans. They are two parts of the same party and the capitalists have set them up. When the capitalists can use the Democrats for their advantage, they use them, when the people don’t go for the Democrats, they go to the Republicans—back and forth.”
The cause in Spain may have been unsuccessful, yet Thornton still firmly believes in its potential to this day.
“I know that socialism is going to be the ‘-ism’ of the future,” he says, “I don’t know when it will happen, not in my time, I’m sure of that. Once this thing is all done, the capitalists are going to have to go to work with a pick and shovel like the rest of us. That’s what they don’t like. That’s what they don’t want. The system is breaking down.”