Delmer Berg, who fought Franco fascism in Spain in 1938, died Feb. 28 at his home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He was 100 years old and was the last known surviving member of the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 2,800 men and women, African American, Latino and white, who volunteered to defend Spain’s elected government when Franco and his fascist legions instigated civil war in 1936.
An estimated 800 of the Lincoln volunteers died and Berg himself was badly wounded when a fascist warplane bombed the monastery near Valencia where he was billeted. He carried the shrapnel in his liver the rest of his life.
Delmer Esley Daniel Berg was born in Anaheim, California, Dec. 20, 1915, of Ukrainian, Dutch and Bavarian ancestry. His father was a tenant farmer. He dropped out of high school in Manteca, California, to help his impoverished family survive during the depths of the Great Depression. They moved to Oregon.
He later moved back to Los Angeles where he joined the National Guard. He was assigned to the 76th Field Artillery in the Presidio of Monterrey. It was here that he learned of the rising menace of fascism in Europe, especially in Spain.
“With the intention of traveling to Spain, Berg bought his discharge for $120,” according to The Volunteer, newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In the meantime, he found work washing dishes at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. He caught sight of a billboard urging volunteers to sign up for combat in defense of the Spanish Republic. He located the Young Communist League and volunteered.
“I was a worker. I was a farmer. I was in support of the Spanish working people and I wanted to go to Spain to help them,” he explained in a recent interview.
He managed to scrape together bus fare to New York City where he boarded the Champlain and sailed for France in the winter of 1938. Like other volunteers, he walked over the snowcapped Pyrenees mountains from France to Spain. He was assigned to a field artillery and anti-aircraft battery. He laid telephone lines from Republican defense headquarters to the front during the momentous Battle of the Ebro, the largest battle of the Civil War. It was during the next battle, near the town of Valencia, that Berg sustained his shrapnel wound. It took him a year of convalescence to recover from that wound.
Ultimately, Franco forces defeated the Republicans, clamping a fascist dictatorship on Spain. This was the era of appeasement of fascism. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact with Hitler, a sell-out that Britain would do nothing to block Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, setting the stage for invasion of France, Poland and other nations, triggering World War II.
The U.S. had remained “neutral,” a capitulation to fascism that reflected the power of pro-fascist forces in the U.S. like the Morgans, DuPonts, Rockefellers, and others in the corporate elite. The Soviet Union, alone, among the main military powers of that day supported the Spanish Republic and ultimately the USSR sacrificed more than 20 million to defeat Hitler and the Axis power.
After recovering from his wounds, Berg returned to the U.S. But when World War II erupted, Berg served again, in combat for three years in the Pacific.
As an obituary in the New York Times reported, Berg went to his grave an “unreconstructed Communist,” a member since 1943 of the Communist Party USA. He was an active opponent of the Vietnam War, a past Vice President of the local chapter of the NAACP and active in solidarity with the United Farm Workers.
Delmer Berg’s passing is the end of a glorious epoch. The veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, aptly described as “premature anti-fascists,” survived the bullets and bombs of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. They came home from combat to face home-grown Cold War repression, redbaiting and the blacklist orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon and other warmongers, racists and unionbusters.
It is a sign of the times that “Trumbo,” a film celebrating the life of Dalton Trumbo, an Abraham Lincoln vet, was nominated for an Oscar about the same time Berg died. Trumbo, who wrote “Men in Battle” describing vividly his own experience of combat in Spain, was savagely blacklisted by Hollywood even though he wrote the screenplay for Oscar winning films like “Spartacus.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Berg and his fellow Lincoln vets threw themselves into the surging civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the resurgent labor movement. They were heroes to younger generations, marching with their jaunty berets in the vanguard of enormous anti-Vietnam war parades in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
Berg was honored on the Lincoln Brigades’s 76th anniversary by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in Berkeley, California, May 27, 2012. A story in the online People’s World quotes Berg. “I’m really happy to be among people who are concerned about what’s happening now and what was happening when we were in Spain,” said Berg who was then 96.
Photo: Yanks in the Dimitrov Battery: standing Sam Slipyan, Conlon Nancarrow, Ed Lending, Charles Simpson (?), Delmer Berg (circled), Norman Schmidt, kneeling two Spanish drivers. The photo is part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) collection at the Tamiment Library (NYU).