Chuck Hall was 23 when he volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the force of Americans defending the left-wing government of Spain against fascist insurrection in 1937. Hall, whose father was a schoolteacher, had finished three years at the University of Chicago, but the Depression had forced him into a factory job when he learned of Francisco Franco's military revolt against the newly elected Republicans. "It was a time when people got radicalized very rapidly," he recalls, "because of the situation in the country, and also because the danger of fascism was great, starting with Japan's invasion of Manchuria, then Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. And then every time you went to the movies you saw Hitler standing in front of some 10,000 people, proclaiming that he was gonna conquer the world."
Activists in the American Communist Party and various labor unions could provide contacts for young men who wanted to fight in Spain. "In a way, it was an underground movement," says Hall. "When we left Chicago we were furnished with bus tickets. Then when we got to New York we were furnished with tickets on the Queen Mary." Hall landed in France in October 1937 and trekked across the Pyrenees into Spain, where he was assigned to an eight-man machine-gun unit. In March 1938 Franco was mounting a major offensive aimed at Barcelona; 150,000 Nationalist troops had broken through the Republican defenses at Belchite, and as Hall's unit advanced it passed others that were retreating: "We were advancing toward what we thought were positions that were gonna be occupied in order to defend them, when actually there was no position, there was nothing left. We went with our little machine-gun squad and came under fire. We tried to dig in and wait and hold out, but we faced a whole day of bombardment by artillery and planes until we couldn't hold out any longer. When the tanks came over the brow of the hill ahead of us we had to retreat because we had nothing to fight them with--we didn't even have hand grenades! It was really ridiculous to send people armed that way up into the kind of defense that was coming."
Hall was captured and sent by boxcar to Burgos, the fascists' stronghold, where he was imprisoned for 13 months. By April 1939 Franco had won, and Hall was sent home.
After serving in World War II Hall worked in the insurance business and later became an engineer. Though his children visited Spain, Hall resisted. "I never would go back until Franco was dead." In June 1977 he finally returned, arriving in time to witness democratic elections. Last year Hall got the last laugh over the generalissimo: the parliament awarded honorary citizenship to surviving veterans of the international brigades. Some 380 brigadistas converged on Madrid and were honored in the Madrid Sports Palace before a roaring crowd of about 10,000. The memory of it still overwhelms Hall. "As we walked through the area approaching the sports palace there were thousands of people lining the streets, and every time somebody came along that looked like a veteran they were applauding and throwing their arms around us."
Hall and Chicago's other four surviving brigadistas will be honored this weekend at a program hosted by Roosevelt University. "Spain in the Heart: 1936-1996" will feature a lecture by Stanford historian Peter Carroll; the documentary film You Are History, You Are Legend, about last year's celebration; and a performance of songs and poems by Jamie O'Reilly and Michael Smith. It takes place Saturday at 7:30 at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan. Tickets are $20; for reservations, phone 773-769-2665. --J.R. Jones
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Chuck Hall by Nathan Mandell.