Letter-Aug21_1980-P149This chronology is from some letters Bill wrote to Lee Burke and Wally Dent of the Veterans of the International Brigades, MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion of Canada.


 

The following dates are approx. correct and are from a very incomplete diary I tried to keep while in the Basque country.

July 19. 5pm Ar. Portugalete. Outer Harbor of Bilbao, Vizcaya. (As far as I could subsequently discover, the first Canadian to arrive in Spain.)

July 20. Enrolled in Communist Milicas. Depart with Columna for San Sebastian. (Columna Stalin)

July 21-25. Fighting in San Sebastian to recapture strong points held by Requetes & Falangistas. Many of Army came over to us.

July 25. Capture of Commandancia Militar. San Sebastian in hands of Republic.

July 26.          Column greatly enlarged and name changed to Columna Perezagua. (Brigada de Choque). Column advanced on Vittoria. Occupied the town of Orchandian and Ubidea. Column led by Jesus Larranaga.

Aug 1.             Transferred to mountains at Tolosa. Fighting to stop rebel advance.

Aug. 11 – 15.  Retreat from Tolosa.

Aug 15.          Retreat from Erlitz.

Aug 16-19     Rest in San Sebastian. City shelled by 3 Fascist cruisers, (Espania etc.) aided by German pocket Battleship. Many of us were sunbathing on the beautiful Playa de la Concha at the time.

Aug. 20.         In the hills above Irun.

Sept. 3.          Retreat from Irun to San Sebastian.

Sept. 13.        Retreat from San Sebastian.

Sept.               Column again greatly enlarged and name changed to Batallion Ferezagua.

Fall ’36           Oct 1. Attack on Oviedo, Asturias.

Later. Attack on Vittoria. During which I was blown up and suffered concussion. (But I was lucky one, as every other member of my machine-gun squad was either killed or very badly wounded.) After a few days in a field hospital returned to the Battalion.

Nov. ’36 – Jan 1937.

I seem to have lost the pages of the diary for this period, and I don’t rightly recollect the details of where exactly we were during this period, except that we [were] fighting most of the time. I do remember that on Christmas Eve 1936, found us on the gently sloping side of a mountain, the ground solid granite and altho there was no snow entirely covered in deep frost. The ground [was] too hard to dig foxholes. We gathered what brushwood was available which together with dwarf-trees we made into camp-fires. Each section gathered around a fire and huddled shivering in our ponchos. As far as the eye could see were these hundreds of fires twinkling in the night and way over on the far side of the valley were similar distant fires, showing were the fascists were encamped. About once or twice an hour one of their 75s would fire, the shells bursting harmlessly amidst the rocks way above us on the upper ridges of the mountain, looked along at all the flickering lights in the night and I though of the Christmas carol “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks at Night.” It was around this time that I began to read in the Euskardi Edition of “Mundo Orero” some very brief and isolated reports about a “Brigade of International Volunteers that had been formed, and was operating in the vicinity of Jaen, on the Central front, and that this Brigade included Americanos.” On reading this I at once put in for a transfer to this “Brigade.” By this time most all of my original “compadres” and “companeros” in Columna Stalin and the original Perezagua had either been killed or badly wounded and were no long around.

1937

Feb. – Mar. Battalion Perezagua again transferred to the Asturian front in preparation for the 2nd assult on Oviedo. (The Battalion Perezagua had the honor of being called “Le Primero Batallion de Choque” on the entire Northern Front.

Feb. – Mar.    2nd Attack on Oviedo. Towards the end of March was wounded and sent to several hospitals in Vizcaya.

Mar 31. Was in the hospital in Durango when the town was almost destroyed in dive-bombing and machine gun attack by The Condor Legion. Was transferred back to Bilbao where I found that my transfer to the “International Brigade at Jaen” had come thru.

April.   Sent to small village between Bermeo and Guernica to await a boat to take me to France from Bermeo. It was from here at the end of April, only some two or three miles Guernica that I witnessed the destruction of the town by neverending waves of German bombers of the Condor Legion. The bombing started in the afternoon and continued until well after dark. On April 28, was transferred back to Bilbao. During the night of May1. Left Portugalete (outer port of Bibao) on a fast patrol boat for St. Jean de Luz, France.)

May 2. – 14. Leave and convalescence in Paris

May 14. Leave Paris for Spain (via Pyrenees)

May. (End) Joined Washington Battalion under Oliver Law.

July.    Brunete.

Then in Lincoln Battalion.

Aug.    Belchete & Quinto.

Transferred to Mac-Pac. Battalion

Sept.   Fuentes del Ebro. Where I was wounded.

Quit hospital after some weeks and rejoined the battalion near Madrid. Then Teruel & retreat to the Ebro. Then crossing of Ebro & attack on Gandesa. After some two or three weeks, due to reoccurring trouble with my right hand – result of wound at Fuentes – was pulled out and sent back to hospital, first in Barcelona and then in Gerona, from where I was evacuated at the end of December ’38., to hospitals in Sete, Cannes & Nice, along with some dozen East European Brigaders. With the aid of French comrads, managed to evade the police watch on us and made my way to Paris, where again with the help of comrades, obtained a job with a photographer in Ave. Jean Juares, where I worked illegally till August 1939, when I went to London England.

The following is a story Bill tells about hopping freight from Halifax to Sioux Lookout on his way to join the Relief Camp Workers in BC. It is an excerpt from an interview Bill Williamson did with the London Imperial War Museum in the early 1990’s.

Bill-Train

Anyways, the upshot was I was going west to join the camp strikers in BC because of course they were far better organized out there and I remember one sunny evening, we all piled into Alice’s uncles car and he drove us out to a well known stopping place on the Canadian National Railway where they changed engines. They always stopped there anyways and it was almost as if you were boarding a ship. We just got off and waved goodbye and then climbed on to the blind baggage behind the crew. There were one or two others who were already there. It was strange going by car to a hobo assignment sort of thing.

And then I hung in there. But I was finding I was tired of hanging on to the blind baggage behind the tender and the front connecting part of the baggage car so I climbed on to the tender and hooked my arm over a stauncher thing and the fireman came around to ease the coal and took a look at me and didn’t say anything. Sometimes they’re mean and sometimes their very accommodating. This was a very good crew.

Then when we came to end of the 150 miles. It was always in the back of my mind that I would like to be Jack London on one of his epic train hobo journeys.

When the trains were steam driven, they had to stop and the engine was taken out to the loco sheds and the fires were raked, recoaled and rewatered. The engine pulls way out in the front of the station and you slip off either beforehand or before it stops. Mostly when it starts to come into the yards and then you go around and meet it and catch it when it goes again.

By this time whether it is the same crew or not. And they said, “Oh you are still here!” Because for most hobos after one section, that’s enough. I hung in there again and it didn’t cause all that much interest. And then the same thing happens at the next section, and the next section. By this time they’d pass word along with new crews coming on that some crazy guy is hanging on there all the time.

Of course when they stopping at each section and recoaling and refueling with water in the tender and so, you have plenty of time to make a bit of grub or do other necessities and so on.

And by the end when it was coming to Montreal. It is 26 hours later and I was still hanging in there and by that time, I was sort of like a museum specimen. The first thing a new train crew did was come and look over the rear of the engine to see whether I was still hanging in there.

Of course all the other guys that I had started off with from Halifax had dropped off long ago. Other ones had come and left in the meantime but I was the only one who kept on.

I’d beaten Jack London’s record by a hundred percent and even when we got to Montreal which of course is a very big station, you got to drop well before hand. But then I caught the same overland express as it was leaving and went up quite a ways up. Seeing that it was the Canadian National Railway, it was taking the northern route. Northern Canada. I forget how long but I think I spent another half day on the train there. I think I was just trying to prove that I could be tough or tougher than Jack London, you know, there was no real necessity for that!

From Halifax to Montreal is 996 miles and then from Montreal to roughly about 1000 miles. And with the other two or three sections that I hung on to that would be about 400 miles or something.

And then I stopped. I finished with this particular Overland Express. Then I probably needed a rest and rested up a day or half a day, and then caught a freight still on the same line.