More than half a century ago, Bill Wheeler went out of his way to fight in a war, crossing an ocean to plunge into a conflict his own country had no part in.
Today, however, Wheeler says, war is obsolete as a means of solving problems. “Times have changed,” the Los Angeles resident said in a recent interview in Westwood. The Gulf War made it ever more clear, he said, that “the technology is too advanced, too destructive.”
Wheeler, 82, fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade--the American section of the International Brigades, which drew youthful idealists from around the world to fight on the republican side.
Wheeler grew up on a farm in Kansas, the descendant of Irish immigrants. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, he discovered one thing very early: He didn’t want to be a farmer. He left home at 18 and went to New York during the Depression.
“I alternated between starving, washing dishes and driving a moving van,” he said. “I joined Teamsters Local 607. They didn’t have an election in 18 years, so a group of us forced an election. It was while I was involved in the union that I heard about Hitler’s atrocities and the formation of the . . . Lincoln Brigade.”
“People came from all over,” he recalled. “We believed in the dangers of Hitler, especially what was happening to the Jews.
“But at the bottom of my joining up was the fact that I was 8 years old when World War I was over and I thought I would never have a chance to fight for my country--and then I had this opportunity.”
The fight against Hitler’s ally, Francisco Franco, was a losing one, of course. But one thing Wheeler is sure of more than five decades later is that his war was a necessary one.
“Hitler was warming up for world domination, and we felt he should be stopped in Spain.”
Wheeler was in Barcelona when bombs fell. “The bombs were supposed to demoralize the people, but the opposite happened. People were infuriated. I saw 80 children get killed. You never forget a sight like that.”
After he recovered from the first of four wounds, he did another tour of duty.
“Our friends were suffering, so we went back,” he said. “I still believe we were the conscience of America.”
But that was another time. Now, Wheeler says, “There is no place for the Lincoln Brigade with guns--only politically. . . . I support my country to the hilt. When (something is) wrong I fight like hell to make it right--but not with guns. No more.”
Wheeler is one of 300 surviving members of the original 3,000-member Lincoln Brigade. These days, he spends his time volunteering for the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a unique institution in South-Central Los Angeles that documents the history of social movements, particularly in the West. He also can be seen in the film “Forever Activists,” which will be up for Academy Award consideration Monday night in the feature documentary category.
Memory Enhancement--A speaker from the Medicine Education Program will discuss memory loss and will share techniques to cope with it; Culver City Senior Center; 1 p.m. Monday; information: (213) 202-5856.
Gray Panthers--Doris Dawson, president of the Gray Panthers of Southern California, will report on “The Current Washington, D.C., Scene With the Gray Panthers"; community room, Santa Monica Place, 3rd Street and Broadway, Santa Monica; 7:30 p.m. Monday; information: (213) 472-9365 (free).
War Nerves--The Senior Health and Peer Counseling Center will offer a six-session rap group on “Coping With Postwar Nerves"; 2125 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica; begins 3:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday; registration and information: (213) 576-2492 (fee).
Garden Group--Bruno Bell will discuss the plant of the week, Euryops; Culver City Senior Center; 12:30 p.m. Wednesday; information: (213) 202-5856.
Holiday Dance--Westchester Senior Center will hold an “Easter Hop"; 8740 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles; 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday; information: (213) 649-3317 ($1.50).
Skin Doctor--The West Side Chapter of the National Council of Senior Citizens will present dermatologist Jared B. Morris; Claude Pepper Senior Center, 1762 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday; information: (213) 939-7615 (free).
Life Stories--Assistance League of Southern California’s Hollywood Senior Multipurpose Center has openings in its Life Story Writing Class; 6501 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; 2:30 to 4 p.m. Thursdays; information: (213) 465-2158 (free).
Seniors column appears biweekly. Items for the Bulletin Board should be addressed to Linda Feldman in care of The Times, 1717 4th St., Suite 200, Santa Monica, 90401.