Clarence Forester, Albacete, Spain with Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Photo credit: https://fletcherwarren.com/research (accessed 2017.Apr.01), - Text under photo: ""Clarence Forester, Albacete, Spain - Author's Personal Collection"" (author: Fletcher Warren)
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Below text credit:
St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN) - August 24, 1997 - - (Section: EXPRESS Page: 1G), Author/Byline: D.J. Tice, Staff Writer
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A HAVE-NOT'S WAR - IN THE TROUBLED 1930S, THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR SERVED AS A BLOODY DRESS REHEARSAL FOR WORLD WAR II. CLARENCE FORESTER OF MINNEAPOLIS WAS ONE OF 2,700 AMERICANS WHO FOUGHT IN SPAIN'S TRAGIC ORDEAL.
Ernest Hemingway's ``For Whom the Bell Tolls'' is the most famous of many books written about the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
- - - The novelist described the feeling shared by American volunteers in that faraway and long-ago struggle as ``a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all the oppressed of the world'' ... an almost ``religious experience'' of ``absolute brotherhood.'' And ``the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling ... You could fight.''
- - - Clarence Forester of north Minneapolis was one of the Americans who had that feeling. During a violent truck drivers' strike in Minneapolis in 1934, he had learned, he says, ``that sometimes to get the rights you should have, they're not just given to you, you have to fight for them.''
- - - Last November, Forester celebrated his 81st birthday in Spain. But he felt, he says, ``like I was 23 again.'' In 1937 and 1938, Forester had passed his 22nd and 23rd birthdays in the warm and fervent land of bullfights and flamenco dances.
- - - Forester went back last fall as one of 380 aging veterans who served in the Spanish Civil War as part of ``international brigades.'' They were guests of the Spanish government for an emotional weeklong tribute to their unsuccessful struggle six decades ago to defend the Spanish Republic against a military uprising.
- - - The old soldiers returned, many aboard wheelchairs or armed with canes, to be cheered and hugged by crowds of Spaniards who mostly know of the veterans' deeds only through history books and stories told.
- - - Nobody has ever outcheered or outhugged the Spanish. Mingling with impassioned 1996 crowds, Forester thought back to the throngs that had saluted the international brigades as they left Spain in November 1938 at a moment when the war was going badly for the Republic and final defeat was near.
- - - ``Somewhere,'' Forester says he kept thinking, ``I'm going to get hugged by somebody who hugged me in 1938.'' Small children of the war years, he figures, would now be about 65.
- - - Forester has lived most of his life between his two pilgrimages to Spain - fighting for America in World War II, working a career as a machinist, enjoying a happy 47-year marriage.
- - - But the impetuous, idealistic crusade in Spain, Forester agrees, always has remained the defining event of his life. He told his story in a recent interview and in an oral history in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.
- - - Forester had always been what he calls a ``have-not.'' He was born in 1915 in the little town of Alfred, N.D., the ninth of 10 children. The family was poor and got poorer when Forester's father died. At 15, having had scarcely any schooling, Forester snuck aboard a freight train and headed for Minneapolis.
- - - Soon he moved to Superior, Wis., where he lived for several years with two older half-brothers. They were ``well-established radicals'' Forester says, ``and I did a lot of reading there.''
- - - By the time he returned to Minneapolis, Forester was ``radicalized,'' he says. ``I would have to say that I was an extreme leftist,'' he adds.
- - - He also recalls that a person could get labeled a ``commie bastard'' during the '30s for advocating such programs as Social Security and unemployment insurance, which are now ``sacred cows to everybody.''
- - - The early 1930s were bleak Depression years. Forester was then part of a ragtag army of unemployed men, frightened and angry, often homeless, often hungry. He frequented the Gateway skid-row district of downtown Minneapolis.
- - - At the Gateway, Forester says, ``You could always find a rabble-rouser making a spiel: socialists, communists, unionists. And the Salvation Army. The Army had a band there, and there would be some preaching. And then you could follow the band to their headquarters and get a half sandwich and a bowl of soup.''
- - - The world was ablaze with political passions. Everywhere, economic desperation fanned the flames of bitter class and ethnic conflicts. Utopian dreams billowed from a bonfire of harsh realities.
- - - In America, pressure for expanded rights and political power for workers and the poor led to sometimes violent battles over unionization and to the controversial, government-enlarging New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt. In Minnesota, the left-leaning Farmer-Labor party was in power through much of the decade.
- - - Overseas, ideological blazes burned out of control. In the Soviet Union, a brutal Communist regime claimed to be the spearhead of a worldwide struggle for equality and workers' rights. In Germany, Italy and Japan, fascist dictatorships, militaristic and racist, claimed to be defending national purity against modern decadence and left-wing revolution.
- - - A cataclysm was coming. In 1936, crusaders and aggressors from around the world descended on Spain for a deadly free-for-all that became the dress rehearsal for World War II.
- - - Forester was at center stage.
The thing to do
- - - Spain had suffered political turmoil since the latter 19th century. Ethnic separatist movements worsened conflicts between a desperately poor peasantry and a rigid, old-world ruling class. In 1931, a broad-based uprising overthrew Spain's king and established a republic. For several years, an elected government of moderate socialists presided over Spain's most optimistic days.
- - - But extremists of both the right and the left were not content. Violent strikes, assassinations and revelations of corruption destabilized the republic and weakened centrist political leaders.
- - - In early 1936, a more militant left-wing government was elected. That summer, the Spanish army rose in revolt, led by Gen. Francisco Franco, a violent and inflexible nationalist who would become Spain's answer to Germany's Hitler and Italy's Mussolini.
- - - Hitler and Mussolini themselves were eager to test their war machines and to set up a sympathetic regime in Spain. They quickly sent Franco massive support, including aircraft, artillery, tanks and some 50,000 troops. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sent less generous help to the Republican side, while encouraging hard-line Spanish leftists to fight for control of the besieged government.
- - - The various dictators' interventions prevented either side from winning a quick victory. The Spanish Civil War slowed to a vicious grind.
- - - Far away in Minneapolis, Clarence Forester was following events in Spain and growing indignant over the non-intervention policy and arms embargo America had implemented, along with most other democracies.
- - - On Jan. 21, 1937, a delegation of Spanish college students touring the United States appeared at a rally at the old Minneapolis Auditorium. Thousands listened to the students plead for American assistance to the Spanish Republic. Forester was there. He had heard volunteer soldiers were also being sought. That night, he says, ``I made up my mind that going to Spain was the thing to do.''
- - - It may seem a peculiar decision from the vantage point of the 1990s. But the Spanish Civil War was an international sensation in the embattled 1930s. The cause of the Spanish Republic was utterly enthralling to left-leaning people of that time. To them, it seemed to flawlessly embody an eternal struggle between all that was idealistic and forward-looking against all that was petrified and hateful.
- - - Nearly 40,000 brigadistas from 40 countries, including 2,700 Americans, made the same decision Forester did.
- - - ``It just seemed to me,'' Forester remembers, ``that if something wasn't done, Hitler would take over everything. The Japanese were on the march. It looked like sooner or later we were going to have trouble. Spain was the first opportunity to do something about it. For me, it wasn't that different from going on that (truck drivers') picket line in 1934.''
- - - Forester enlisted in what became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It was illegal to travel to Spain, but a recruiter gave Forester a bus ticket to New York City. In Manhattan, he was to ``stand on a particular street corner and hold my suitcase in my left hand.'' Someone came along and put him on a ship for France. Stage by stage in the same surreptitious manner - by train, taxi and on foot - he was guided through France and across the Pyrenees into Spain.
- - - ``At the time,'' Forester says, ``I didn't know who was organizing (the volunteer effort). But it was the Communist International. The money probably came from Moscow.''
- - - On the ship going over, Forester ate all he wanted for the first time in his life.
- - - Forester served with Republican artillery units from March 1937 until November 1938. He tells no detailed combat stories, but says he was there when ``a lot of the Lincolns got killed'' during a disastrous retreat across the Ebro River.
- - - Casualties were shocking throughout the Spanish Civil War. About 900 Americans were killed, a full third of those who served. Altogether, counting Franco's postwar purges, the conflict took more than 500,000 lives.
- - - Forester remembers meeting Hemingway on the Fourth of July in 1937, when a group of American writers visited the Lincoln Brigade at the front. Already famous for his tragic stories of stoic heroes, the eventual Nobel Prize winner distributed beer and cigars. He invited the troops to come up to his Madrid hotel room for a shower should they ever get the chance (Forester didn't).
- - - Forester thought the swaggering Hemingway ``was a pretty nice guy. A lot of people thought he was a booze hound and a womanizer. Well, if that was his life, it shouldn't bother me.''
- - - The fate of Hemingway's book illustrated Americans' conflicting feelings about the Spanish Civil War. A runaway best seller, ``For Whom the Bell Tolls'' was unanimously voted the Pulitzer Prize for 1940. But the award was never given because of the political sensitivity of Hemingway's sympathies for the Spanish left.
- - - Yet, the left was also disappointed. Hemingway's book portrayed infighting and incompetence within Republican forces. It also described atrocities committed by the left behind the lines. (These never involved American volunteers and were matched by Franco's side.)
- - - Franco, at all events, won the war, taking Madrid in March 1939. Five months earlier, the Republic had sent Forester and all the other foreign volunteers home, in a final, futile attempt to win decisive international sympathy.
- - - Within five years, Forester was back in war-torn Europe, fighting in the American Army throughout the 1944-45 drive across France and Germany. He was there at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp - a sight, he says, that ``really proved to me I did the right thing in going to Spain.''
- - - Among the Buchenwald inmates, Forester found about 30 Spaniards who had fled into France at the end of the civil war. It gave him pleasure to scrounge extra cigarettes and candy bars and rations for them.
- - - ``I was impressed with them people,'' he says of the Spanish. ``They were the first ones who put up any meaningful resistance to fascism.''
- - - Forester says other GIs observing the horrors of Buchenwald gained an understanding of why Americans like him had volunteered to fight fascism in Spain. Yet, America as a whole has never been sure what to think of the Lincoln Brigade.
- - - Lincoln Brigade veterans often suffered discrimination as suspected communists, particularly during the 1950s Cold War ``McCarthy era.'' Forester himself lost one job with a military contractor because of his service in Spain. The organization of Lincoln Brigade veterans was for many years accused as a communist front organization.
- - - Today, Forester says, many Spaniards seem to think ``it's time to forget'' the hatreds of the civil war, although that is difficult. For his part, Forester remains bitter that America ``is the only country where the government has never in some way indicated that to have fought fascism in Spain was the honorable thing to do.'' He angrily decries the support the American government gave to Franco's regime over many years.
- - - Franco had kept Spain out of World War II. He governed harshly until his death in 1975, when power transferred to Franco's hand-picked successor, King Juan Carlos, heir to the ancient Spanish throne. The king quickly restored democracy to Spain. He serves to this day as a constitutional monarch.
- - - In 1996, a freely elected conservative government took power in Spain. Conservative leaders did not cancel last November's tributes to the brigadistas, planned by earlier Socialist governments. The conservative leadership, however, did not attend.
- - - For the old veterans, Forester says, last November's heroes' welcome in Spain was ``the most wonderful experience of our lives.''
- - - ``I know from personal experience,'' Forester says, ``what it's like to be hungry and homeless.'' After the war, he says, he found a trade as a machinist and ``learned what it's like to have a good life,'' complete with a house and a Cadillac. His wife, Hazel, whom he'd married in 1941, died in 1987. They had no children.
- - - ``What's always still with me is the difference between the haves and the have-nots,'' Forester says. ``I'll never get rid of that.
- - - ``I'm glad to have been a have-not. And I can feel I almost became a have.
``Almost is close enough for me.''
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(In a three-year struggle, insurgent nationalist forces under Franscisco Franco overthrew an elected socialist government. ... The Civil War tore Spain apart. ... While researching "For Whom the Bell Tolls," novelist Ernest Hemingway visited American volunteers, including Forester, at the Spanish front.)
clarence foresterabraham lincoln brigadefinntownfinn townminneapolis history