Leader of U.S. unit in Spanish Civil War
Milton Wolff, the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, died of heart failure Jan. 14 in Berkeley. He was 92.
A child of the Great Depression, Wolff dropped out of high school at 15 and started coming into his own politically.
He worked in a millinery factory in Manhattan and joined the Young Communist League, which provided an international lens through which to view the world, including the problems in Spain.
The situation there was dire. Beginning in 1936 the elected government of Spain, considered liberal and reformist, faced a military revolt led by the conservative Francisco Franco. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler supported Franco’s forces, while the Spanish government had the support of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government, like that of other Western nations, abided by a non-intervention agreement.
When a Young Communist League organizer asked for volunteers to join Americans and other foreigners who supported the Spanish government, Wolff raised his hand. About 2,800 Americans fought in the war and some 900 were killed.
“Struggle is the elixir of life, the tonic of life. I mean if you’re not struggling you are dead,” Wolff said in Peter N. Carroll’s 1994 book “Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War.”
Wolff traveled to France on an ocean liner, hiked across the Pyrenees Mountains and began his work on the battlefield carrying water for a machine gun company. Initially, his plan was to be a medic; he was a pacifist and did not want to kill. But he was inspired by the African American commander of a machine gun unit, and soon Wolff found that others were inspired by his own leadership.
“Something latent in his character in the United States took shape in Spain, and the men and brigade leaders took note of it. He had a capacity to lead men in battle,” wrote Cary Nelson in the introduction to “Another Hill,” Wolff’s 1994 “autobiographical novel,” about his war experiences.
In Spain, Wolff met Ernest Hemingway, who famously compared the tall, gaunt Wolff to Abraham Lincoln in a 1938 piece that appears in “Spanish Portraits.” Hemingway also detailed Wolff’s battles and ascent to commander.
By the time Wolff became commander, four other commanders had been killed and four wounded.
“In the defense of Teruel fighting in the cold and the snow [Wolff] was captain and adjutant. When Dave Reiss was killed at Belchite he took over the battalion and through the March  retreat led it wisely and heroically. . . . When what was left of the Fifteenth Brigade held at Mora de Ebro Wolff trained and reorganized his battalion and led it in the great offensive across the Ebro that changed the course of the war and saved Valencia,” Hemingway wrote.
In 1938 the Spanish government ordered the withdrawal of foreign troops, and by 1939, the war was over and Franco was in power.
Back in the United States, Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans were alternately labeled communists and utilized for their expertise. Before the United States entered World War II, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who founded the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, enlisted Wolff’s services. At Donovan’s urging, Wolff helped recruit for the British Special Services.
Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans, with their language skills and entree to anti-fascist groups in Europe, were well suited for intelligence work. After the United States entered the war, Wolff also recruited Lincoln veterans for the OSS.
But when Wolff enlisted in the Army in 1942, his advancement at officer’s training school was blocked, he said, and he was labeled a “premature anti-fascist.” He was given noncombat roles but eventually served in Burma and with the OSS in Europe.
After the war, during the anti-communism campaign in the United States, Wolff defended himself and other veterans accused of being communists.
Wolff married Anne Gondos, whom he later divorced, and had two children. He is survived by daughter Susan Wallis of Bristol, Vt., and son Peter Wolff of Connecticut. The elder Wolff later married Frieda Irene Salzman, who is deceased.
Born Oct. 7, 1915, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Wolff always saw himself as a man of action, Carroll said.
Wolff spent much of his life engaged in the struggles of the world. He supported civil rights in the United States, offered to help Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam, provided ambulances to El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s and sent medical aid to a children’s hospital in Cuba.
Like his decision to fight in Spain, Wolff’s later stances sometimes conflicted with those of the U.S. government -- a fact that did not trouble him as much as noninvolvement.
“I went to Spain sincerely believing that in fighting for Spanish democracy I was helping preserve American democracy,” Wolff once wrote.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.