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Berkeley’s Bravest: The Cal Scholar Who Inspired Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War Hero

March 29, 2016
by Adam Hochschild
AL_ALBA PHOTO 011_B1_122rotator

Six feet, two-and-a-half inches tall, rangy and handsome, Robert H. Merriman was 23 years old when in the fall of 1932 he began studying at UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. in economics. A fellow student in his department, John Kenneth Galbraith, called him “the most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley. … Later he was to show himself the bravest.”

Born in Santa Cruz, Merriman had spent several years in a paper mill and as a lumberjack—his father’s trade—after high school, then worked his way through the University of Nevada at Reno, where he played end on the football team. On graduation day he had married his college girlfriend, Marion Stone. One of his Nevada professors who had spotted his talent suggested graduate school at Berkeley.

Funds were tight for the newlyweds. For his first several months at Berkeley, Marion could not afford to leave a job she had in Nevada, and a stream of letters and an occasional love poem from Bob to his “Dearest girl of all” told her how much he missed her: “I’m tired of living alone and need you and you alone.” He shared with her his excitement about the campus: “One room in the library is like a handsome club room of some sort. Soft armchairs and all.” It was thrilling to become an instructor of undergraduates; eventually he would be head teaching fellow in his department. He soon found an apartment on the north side of campus, near Virginia and Euclid, that, at $20 a month, was cheap enough for the couple to afford. Marion joined him and they slept in a Murphy bed that folded out from the wall.

Then, as now, Berkeley leaned to the left, but with millions of homeless Americans living in “Hooverville” shacks of corrugated iron, tarpaper, or old packing cases, and with fascism on the rise in Europe, you didn’t have to be a leftist to feel the world was in big trouble. Merriman, like many at Berkeley in those years, was deeply influenced by the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1934. Two people were killed and well over a hundred injured; the governor mobilized the National Guard; on the Embarcadero, helmeted soldiers manned sandbag barricades and a machine gun nest. The UC football coach—William Ingram, an Annapolis graduate known as “Navy Bill”—organized players to work as strikebreakers. But most Berkeley students sympathized with the strikers, and, as a volunteer in the strike publicity office, Bob Merriman had a ringside seat at what turned out to be a historic labor victory.

Like tens of thousands of Americans in those years, both Merrimans would eventually join the Communist Party. In 1936 the couple was living in Moscow, where Bob had gone to gather material for his Ph.D. thesis on Soviet agriculture, when a bloody civil war broke out in Spain. A large group of right-wing army officers, from whom a tough-talking young general, Francisco Franco, soon emerged as leader, tried to seize power from the country’s democratically elected government. Hitler and Mussolini immediately rushed aircraft, tanks and their crews to Franco’s Nationalists, as they called themselves, while the beleaguered government of the Spanish Republic appealed to the United States, Britain and France to sell it arms. The pleas were in vain: the democracies did not want to get drawn into a new European war. The only major nation finally willing to sell weapons to the Republic was Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. It demanded much in return: high positions for Soviet and Spanish Communists in the Republic’s military and security police. But the Nationalists were at the gates of Madrid, and the Republic was in no position to refuse.

She found him in a Spanish military hospital, his upper body encased in plaster, recovering from the effects of a bullet that had shattered his shoulder. He was determined to return to the front when he had healed. Unwilling to leave him, Marion decided to enlist herself.

Over the next three years, more than 40,000 men from 53 countries, most but far from all of them Communists, volunteered to fight for the Republic. From Russia, Bob Merriman traveled to Spain, arriving there just as the first contingent of recruits came from the United States. The authorities of the International Brigades, as this multinational force of volunteers was known, quickly discovered that Merriman had gone through ROTC training at Nevada and was a reserve lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Few of the other Americans had had any military experience. In short order he found himself appointed commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, as the ill-equipped and hastily trained American unit was called, and in February 1937, he led it into action in defense of Madrid.

Back in Moscow, Marion later wrote, “I was in something of a trance. I was unable to concentrate on anything. … I read every word I could find on the war in Spain. I prayed for some word from Bob that he was all right.” She supported herself doing secretarial work for an American journalist, hoping the war would end soon. “Then the shattering news arrived.”

It was a four-word telegram: Wounded. Come at once.

She found him in a Spanish military hospital, his upper body encased in plaster, recovering from the effects of a bullet that had shattered his shoulder. He was determined to return to the front when he had healed. Unwilling to leave him, Marion decided to enlist herself. Unlike almost all other foreign volunteers, she spoke some Spanish, and was soon in uniform, doing clerical work at the International Brigades headquarters, the sole American woman there.

After several months of recuperation, Bob Merriman went back to work, first supervising the training of newly arriving American volunteers, and then leading them in a fierce, weeklong, house-to-house battle to capture the town of Belchite. “Broke into houses, cleaned out houses—snipers and threw grenades. … Grenade thrown from window into us. … Worked too much as a soldier,” he wrote self-critically in his diary, “and directed too little.” By this point, the tall, personable former Berkeley instructor had begun to attract attention from the many correspondents covering the war, among them Ernest Hemingway, who was reporting for the North American Newspaper Alliance, and his lover Martha Gellhorn, later to become his third wife.

Merriman, she wrote in the weekly, Collier’s, “explained the offensive to us, drawing the plan of it on the dirt of the floor, going over every point carefully as if we were his freshmen class in economics back in California. … ‘The boys did well,’ Merriman said. There was dust on his glasses and he had very white teeth. He was a big man, but shy and stiff, and his voice made you want to call him ‘Professor.’”

Hemingway described how Bob “was a leader in the final assault. Unshaven, his face smoke-blackened, his men tell how he bombed his way forwards, wounded six times slightly by hand-grenade splinters in the hands and face, but refusing to have his wounds dressed until the cathedral was taken.”

Bob was now a major, chief of staff of the XV International Brigade, which included almost all the American, British and Canadian volunteers, and some Spanish troops as well. Among those he impressed was the American embassy’s military attaché, Colonel Stephen Fuqua, who reported to Washington, “Major Merriman … is the backbone and moving spirit of the XV Brigade. … He is a fine manly type, over six feet in height, physically sound with the endurance of an ox, pleasing personality, filled with initiative, overflowing with energy, he moves about everywhere in the command honored and respected by all, he is unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade.”

The Spanish Republic, however, was losing territory to the Nationalists, who now controlled more than half of Spain. The Soviet supply of arms was slowly drying up, while Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were sending Franco more weapons and men than ever. The German Luftwaffe was delighted to try out its new Stuka dive bombers and Messerschmitt bf109 fighters in combat for the first time.

The International Brigades dispatched Marion back to the United States, to raise funds for medical aid and other relief. She crossed the country on a speaking tour, then made San Francisco her base for more fundraising. Where she and Bob five years earlier had ridden ferries across the Bay to go dancing on Nob Hill, the water was now crossed by the new Bay Bridge which, with its sister span across the Golden Gate, had changed the look of the city forever. She followed the news from Spain anxiously. A letter from Bob said, “I wait every day for your handwriting.”

A few days later, a United Press dispatch appeared in Bay Area newspapers. The American unit had been “cut to pieces,” it said. “Among those missing was Maj. Robert Merriman of Berkeley, Calif. … Captured officers of the International Brigade are shot at once.”

In March 1938, the Nationalists began the heaviest offensive of the war: a drive from the western part of the country, which they controlled, towards the Mediterranean, to split the Spanish Republic in two. The International Brigades bore the brunt of the attack, reeling in retreat under skies dark with Nazi aircraft. Advancing Nationalist troops overran a XV Brigade command post abandoned in such a rush that Bob had left personal effects behind. Triumphant Nationalist officers displayed to correspondents his diary and a photograph of Marion. For a few days she feared that he had been captured or killed. But then word came that he was safe.

Franco’s well-equipped soldiers continued their relentless advance, however, and by April 2 they had leapfrogged ahead of some of the retreating Americans and other International Brigades volunteers. Bob was seen on a hilltop, rallying soldiers to try to slip through the Nationalist positions ahead of them. But he never reached Republican territory. A survivor reported that Merriman had led a column of men through the night, only to find himself and part of the group cornered by Nationalist troops, who shouted “¡Manos arriba!” [“Hands up!”] in the darkness.

A few days later, a United Press dispatch appeared in Bay Area newspapers. The American unit had been “cut to pieces,” it said. “Among those missing was Maj. Robert Merriman of Berkeley, Calif. … Captured officers of the International Brigade are shot at once.”

Rumors nonetheless circulated that Bob was being held in a Nationalist prison camp near Bilbao. More than 100 UC professors signed a letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull asking for his help. Bob’s mother wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. A group of scholars in Britain sent a telegram to Franco appealing for Bob’s life. In June, a headline in a Nevada newspaper read, “Merriman is believed safe.” But it was only the same Bilbao rumor again. “After months of searching in every possible way,” Marion wrote, “I finally had to accept that Bob was not in a prison camp in Bilbao nor was he anywhere else.”

In 1939 Franco’s forces won the war, establishing him as Spain’s dictator for the rest of his life. The following year, Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, which remains the best-known novel of the Spanish Civil War in any language. The hero, Robert Jordan, is an American volunteer, a teacher of Spanish literature at the University of Montana who is killed after blowing up a railway bridge behind enemy lines. In this tall, athletic, fearless university instructor from the American West who loses his life in Spain, there was an unmistakable suggestion of Robert Merriman.

Bob had urged Marion to marry again if he were killed, and she did so. Decades after the war, she three times visited Spain, trying to pinpoint the spot where Bob disappeared. But records of the desperate, chaotic retreat in the spring of 1938 were fragmentary, and she was frustrated to be able to find out nothing certain.

In 1987, however, 49 years after Bob’s death, a letter from Spain arrived on the Berkeley campus, addressed only to “Rectorship.” It can be found in Marion’s papers in the Bancroft Library.

“I call out to Merriman once, twice, thrice, I don’t know how many times, but there is no response…‘Please, Merriman! Please!’”

“Dear Sirs,” it began. “I am an ancient spanish man that in other time, when I was young … was a member of Lincoln-Washington Battalion….

“On that time, I was made prisoner by the FRANCO horse-troops, same day that ROBERT MERRIMAN was dead in front of his Battalion, on April 2, 1,938 at my side. …

“I want ask for that you send to me, the Postal Address of Mrs. Marión MERRIMAN.”

It was signed “Fausto Villar” and there was a P.S.: “I beg your pardon for my bad english, but I have not another one.”

There followed a flurry of letters back and forth, between Villar, Marion, and a widening circle of Lincoln survivors. Villar listed many names of Americans he had served with and provided more information about how “MERRIMAN fall dead at my side.”

A furniture maker from Valencia, Villar had started learning English during the war, trading language lessons with an American volunteer who had been a forest ranger in Washington State. He described how at the beginning of their last day together, “with a voice trembling with emotion,” Bob had told a group of soldiers that they were surrounded, and that he would lead them as they tried to “break out of the noose.”

As they fled across a leafless vineyard that morning, Nationalist machine-gunners opened fire, and several of the group fell, including Merriman, a few paces away from Villar. “I call out to Merriman once, twice, thrice, I don’t know how many times, but there is no response. … ‘Please, Merriman! Please!’”

Villar himself was captured that evening. He spent two years in concentration camps and labor battalions, and afterwards kept silent through the 36 years of Franco’s dictatorship. Like so many people he felt Merriman’s personal magnetism, calling him “the man I so admired.”

After half a century, anyone’s memory can be shaky, and others’ recollections of that day differ from Villar’s. Whatever the truth may be, hearing from Villar seemed to bring Marion peace. “I have written to so many people, so many times, about Bob’s death, over the years,” she said in a letter to a Lincoln veteran. “I knew, very soon, that he was dead. And yet, in the middle of the night, I could hear his voice. For many years, in San Francisco, I would catch a glimpse of him and would run to catch up with him. But he always disappeared in the crowd. …

But as the men scanned this view that day at sunrise, it was alive with menace. Enemy troops were not only on their heels but were coming into sight in the valley they had to cross.

“But no one found his body, no one was with him when he died. This I finally acknowledged—but did not accept. This has happened to so many widows in so many wars.” Of Villar, she said, “This is the first time anyone has said that he saw Bob killed. … It all checks out. Incredible! My friend Pat just looked up all the names Fausto mentions, and they’re all there. And the dates are accurate!”

Four years after Fausto Villar’s first letter, Marion died in her sleep at the age of 82.

The long stretch of rising ground is known in Catalan simply as Els Tossals—The Hills. Amid evergreen trees and an almond orchard, a high point commands a spectacular view. It was this spot that Bob Merriman and at least 50 International Brigades soldiers with him reached at dawn on April 2, 1938. The men had just made an exhausting night-long march over rough ground, with no moon, carrying all their equipment. From the pine-scented hilltop the land rolls gently downward, carpeted with green fields and terraced vineyards, to a wide, bucolic valley. On the valley floor, as if spread out in a Cézanne landscape, are two towns of stone houses with red tile roofs and a church tower. Behind them rises a darkly forested mountain range streaked with cliffs. Several miles beyond it, Merriman knew, was Republican-held territory where they would be safe.

But as the men scanned this view that day at sunrise, it was alive with menace. Enemy troops were not only on their heels but were coming into sight in the valley they had to cross. Nationalist tanks and artillery were visible as well. Observation planes circled overhead.

Seeing that they were surrounded, the soldiers broke into smaller bands to try to escape. Some waited on the hill until the cover of night, while Merriman led a group that set off to cross the valley in daylight. “Life has been full because I made it so,” he had written in his diary some months earlier, just before being wounded. “May others live the life I have begun and may they carry it still further as I plan to do myself.”

If he died in a vineyard, as Villar claims, it was on the downward slopes of this hill. If, as others say, he was taken prisoner after dark and later shot, he was captured near or beyond the road through the two red-roofed towns that now lie so peacefully and beautifully in the summer sunlight. 

This is excerpted from Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, which will be published in March. He is a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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