The Bell Tolls at JaramaPosted: October 19, 2011
Walter Fairbanks Grant was an idealistic young man. Born in Michigan to the family of Congregational minister Martin Grant, he grew up in Marion, Indiana. He was an exceedingly bright young man, concerned about others and musical. All in all, the epitome of what parents wanted in a son. Marion, one of the gas boom towns, was a quiet Hoosier town in Grant County of no great notoriety until August 1930. But on August 7th, Walter was among those who saw 3 young Black men dragged from the jail by a mob. Two of them were lynched. Two more strange fruit dangling from a Hoosier tree. The Dantean scene may have thrilled some as photos show, but to young Walter, who pleaded with the mob and prayed to god, it was a dark epiphany.
His sister later recalled to a friend that Walter “did not talk for two days.” It shook his faith. Walter carried his doubts and questions to Indiana University. Meanwhile his father took up the post as minister at the Congregational church in West Terre Haute. Walter visited his family in West Terre Haute on weekends and vacations. He prospered at IU, becoming an editor of various student publications and seems to have been honored and respected. Still he brooded on what he had witnessed and pondered thoughts of injustice and violence.
After attaining his masters in English, he taught at IU until budget cuts ended his job. He worked briefly for Anaconda, but that did not last long as he appears to have been fired due to union organizing. Walter then left for New York where he stayed in cheap hotels. Eventually, he got a job with the WPA Writers Project. There again he saw what he was beginning to view as fascist violence, as when he witnessed mounted police mercilessly dispersing the jobless demonstrating in a park.
The son of a minister became a secular activist, joining the Communist party. As author Peter Carroll noted, for Walter it was “a short step from evangelical Christianity to the Communist party.
Walter, stirred by what he had seen, and like many other like-minded Americans, saw the Spanish Civil War as the first major battleground to confront Fascism. There, forces eventually led By Franco (and supported by Hitler’s Germany) fought a civil war with loyalist republican government forces (supported by Stalinist USSR). Around the world (but especially in the US and Britain), the Left looked for some way to aid the republican army. For some it meant taking up arms
Walter Fairbanks Grant, late of West Terre Haute and New York, was one of those. He joined what became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and sailed for Spain via France. In Spain they offered there services to the republican cause. The volunteers were under-trained and oftten ill-equipped. Few had military training. Sources disagree whether Walter had ROTC training at IU or not. In any case, in February, 1937 Walter Fairfield Grant was one of those huddled in the lead truck of a convoy to reinforce republican lines along the Jarama River.
It was just a wrong turn. The lead driver of the convoy turned left along a road instead of right. Another truck followed. A third driver, realizing the mistake turned right. Walter and his colleagues were lost, unknowingly stumbling their way into an enemy stronghold.
Little was known of their fate until later. Were they captured or killed? In the months afterward there was hope that Walter and his group were taken prisoner. The US State Department thought they might be alive. Indiana Congresswoman Virginia Jencks called on Spain to release Walter. The Grant family anxiously awaited word.
Later it was learned that Walter’s truck was driven off the road by gunfire. The other truck rammed it. The troops scurried into a gully. Soon they were overwhelmed by nationalist forces. Twenty of them were killed. Walter Fairbanks Grant was among them, becoming one of the first Americans klilled in the Spanish Civil War.