An English translation from the Esperanto article on the life and death of the Japanese volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. First published in Sennaciulo 57/2 of February 1986, as part of a series of articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.
Note: I translated Miyamoto Masao's article from Esperanto and in doing so had to cut out his poetic narrative and focus on only the factual parts of the account. The EO original is worth reading if you can, this translation exists for the benefit of English speakers.
This year the whole progressive world remembers the beginning of the Spanish revolution, in which disappeared and died many fighters from around the world. It is probably little known that among the many Spanish fighters was also one Japanese combatant. The information about him comes from our Japanese comrade Miyamoto Masao.
The 26th November 1936
In the afternoon the steamship Normandy left the quay at New York harbour, heading for Le Havre France. There was no one on the Quay to see off the passengers, 96 volunteers from the USA who rushed to volunteer for the Popular Front to help save Spanish workers, peasants and intellectuals. The weather was calm with a strong wind.
One of the 96, a young man aged 36, remained standing on the foredeck watching the New York harbour recede on the horizon. Dressed in simple workmen’s clothes that gave away his migrant labourer past he contemplated the shrinking Statue of Liberty and the grey sea. Thinking of his youth as an orphan in Hakodate, a port in the north of Japan, and his eventual emigration to the United States he remained silent. As an associate of left-wing unionists and political groups he supported himself in the kitchens of New York and was a skilled cook.
He went by the name Jack Sirai, but no one knew what his birth name was or that Sirai was his original family name, but it was the name he went by in the States and in Spain.
To the far horizon he gave a final salute to both the American and Japanese comrades he had made in New York, and in his heart cried !No Pasaran!, the only Spanish words he knew before embarking on his journey. This limited knowledge of Spanish was shared by many of the volunteers from around the world making their way to Spain. Through La Havre, across the Pyrenees, and through Barcelona and Valencia, the volunteers ended their trek on the 6th of January in the city of Albacete, the base of the International Brigade. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade began conducting exercises there and absorbed Jack Sirai and his comrades. Although the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was by that time a very large force most of its recruits were totally inexperienced. They did have some veterans of WWI in their ranks including officers. The more well known Robert Merrimen who had been a member of his universities Reserve Officers Training Corps and the Thälman brigades Ludoviko Renn also became brigade officers.
After training Sirai was given the post of unit cook, a decision he was most displeased with. He had come to Spain to kill Fascists not cook meals. Despite the posting he would soon see combat.
The Battalion's baptism of fire was the battle of Jarama, on the banks of river near Madrid. The battalion did not meet with much success but the fierce fighting meant Sirai spent most of his time as a rifleman and not as a cook.
A large formation of German bombers covered the Romanillos heights with a carpet-bombing of Republican positions. The Republicans would be at an air power disadvantage, one estimate had 5 planes against 20. The bombing was so severe that the stretcher carrying of the wounded was restricted to twilight hours, to provide cover for the removal of the wounded.
Sirai’s unit was based near Mosquito hill an important but exposed position in view of the Romanillos heights and several other Fascist positions, and German planes. As such it was deemed an important position to seize, but also dangerous in the extreme to do so. On the 8th, 9th, and 10th of June, the Lincoln Brigade fought a series of attacks on the position and moved closer to the summit of the hill, and despite the heavy casualties on both sides, the Brigade could not advance further.
In addition the area had dried out under the harsh sun. Even the river Guadarrama had dried and offered only murky run-off to drink. Many fighters suffered from a severe lack of water, and thirst was constant. In desperation Sirai and his comrades took to digging holes to find water underground. They eventually discovered some water and found temporary relief from muddy puddles. The issue of thirst was more serious for the Republicans as much of their transportation was done by Mules; they had a severe shortage of transportation trucks. During another dig for ground water, Sirai’s position was bombed. He survived as did many of his comrades, the bombing was a prelude to an assault by the Fascist army. Infantry and tanks advanced on their position. Fortunately the commander of the attack expected the bombers to overwhelm the defenders, the surprise resistance including anti-tank weapons drove the attack back across the river losing several tanks in the process.
However due to the disruption, the battered defenders received no food or water rations that day. At 6 in the evening, a lorry carrying supplies arrived and a man was tasked with delivering supplies to Sirai’s position. However the only route down to the front was open to enemy fire. The man carrying supplies stalled 25 yards away and refused to go any further. The men were outraged and desperate, Sirai volunteered to retrieve the supplies. He was soon struck in the head by an enemy bullet and died.
Later that night his comrades buried his body by an olive tree. He lays next to the grave of Oliver Law a Black American volunteer who fought and died in the George Washington battalion.
Jack Sirai, born in Japan died 11th of July 1937. With respect to his homeland, his praise and his courage. Stands not on a high tombstone of an olive tree or earth mound !No Pasaran! The Cry that could not beat the Fascists but still echoes in our hearts, in our dearest memories about the perished ideal, with regret and indignation.
(From death in Spain by Isigaki Ayako, his collaborator in the US and The Civil War in Spain by Hugh Thomas.)
The 4th of December 1985