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A Bell Tolls at Jarama

A Bell Tolls at Jarama

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 7 th , 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 often 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 killed in the Spanish Civil War.

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