The first U.S. combat casualty of World War II wasn’t someone you might expect—like a pilot or a seaman at Pearl Harbor. Instead, Joseph Selligman was an introspective Swarthmore College senior who stepped up to fight European fascism five years before the rest of the country.
In December 1936, Selligman disappeared from the Swarthmore campus without telling friends or family that he was going to fight for the Spanish against the fascist uprising of Francisco Franco. By March, he was dead and buried in a mass grave, the first of 681 Americans to die fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
“Joe Selligman will not be back,” Harold E.B. Speight, Swarthmore’s dean of men, later announced to the student body. “We feared as much when he went, but we honored the sincerity of conviction which led him to throw in his lot with the Loyalist forces in Spain. He felt that life would not be worth living in any civilization that might survive the defeat of the Popular Front and he went to play his part.”
Born in Louisville, Ky., Selligman was the son of Joseph and Esther (Rosenberg) Selligman. Joseph Sr. was senior partner in a Jewish law firm and active in Jewish causes. Like others in the extended Selligman clan, Joseph Sr. was active in Republican politics at a time when Republicans were a liberal force in the South. A brother, Alfred, ran unsuccessfully on the party ticket for commonwealth attorney in 1903. Joseph Sr. had been chair of the Kentucky Republican Party in the 1920s. His wife voted with the socialists.
The family, which also had two daughters, Augusta and Lucy, lived in Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle, a neighborhood of large single-family homes. Selligman went north for university, landing at Swarthmore in 1933, pursuing his interest in literature, though he majored in psychology. He was editor of The Manuscript, a literary magazine; a contributor to the Little Theater Club, a campus organization that presented one-act plays; and a member of the debating team.
For The Manuscript, Selligman largely contributed poetry, revealing a wry and irreverent sense of humor. His “Thus Musca Spake,” published in January 1935, seems a puzzling spin on Genesis, unless one understands that musca is “fly” in Latin: “Let us buzz a song unto our Lord, creator of all … He has said, ‘Let there be flies,’ and there were flies …”
In January 1936, a philosophic implications seminar inspired Selligman’s “To a Materialistic Sweetheart.” He used “materialistic” as a noun, rather than the more likely adjective: I know the atoms that I call your face / Were never fair, and yet why should a man shun / You, though you’re limited to form and space / I love your co-efficient of expansion.
In the Swarthmore Phoenix student newspaper, Selligman periodically reviewed plays, both on campus and off. He could be tough. In October 1934, at the beginning of his sophomore year, Selligman attended Settled Out of Court, a murder mystery, at the Stage Door Studio in Philadelphia. “Unfortunately, we could see nothing either original or experimental in Friday night’s production, a hackneyed tale of murder among the upper crust,” wrote Selligman. “There were the fresh reporters, the dumb cops, the hard-boiled sergeants and all the usual trappings, except the dinner party at which all the suspects are conventionally assembled.”
The production, he added, had “a marked tendency toward the melodramatic,” while its attempts at humor were “weak and inappropriate.”
As a debater, Selligman took whatever side of an argument he was assigned. In January 1935, he argued that “co-education is an undesirable feature of college life.”
“Selligman stated that the greatest disadvantage of co-education is its failure to provide an opportunity for women to develop initiative and leadership,” reported the Phoenix. “Men dominate the co-educational college, both outwardly, through athletics and office-holding, and in shaping the trend of thought generally. This is actually a backward instead of a forward step in the emancipation of women.”
Selligman’s opponent argued that competition between the sexes improved intellectual standards, and that co-education gave students a chance “to find the mate best suited to themselves.” Based on their arguments, the audience voted for co-education.
Meanwhile, the world’s eyes were on Spain where, in 1930, a coalition that ranged from conservatives and liberals to socialists and communists, had overthrown a military dictatorship to establish a republic. Among its reforms, the republic established freedom of speech, gave women the vote, legalized divorce and stripped the nobility of its special legal status. A new constitution established a legal process by which public services, land, banks and railways could be seized by the government, and disestablished the Catholic Church. Particularly controversial was the confiscation of church property and rules forbidding priests and nuns to teach school. Pope Pius XI condemned the new Spanish government for infringing upon “the Divine rights of God.”
After losing the 1933 elections to a right-wing coalition, which promptly reversed some of the republic’s reforms, leftists became more radical, particularly in regard to land reform. When they regained control in 1936, rightists—supported by the military, large landowners and the Catholic clergy—revolted. Franco brought troops from Spanish Morocco. His Nationalists, as they called themselves, soon controlled southern and western parts of the country.
Both sides received help from abroad—the Republic from the Soviet Union, the Nationalists from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The latter sent tanks and warplanes, plus pilots. Fear of communism also attracted the support of industrialists such as Torkild Rieber, chairman of Texaco, who sold oil to the Nationalists on credit. Franco’s fascist-supplied machinery ran mainly on American oil.
Western powers declared neutrality, forbidding the shipment of supplies to either side. Rieber evaded prohibition by giving his tanker captains sealed orders, directing them to sail for Spanish ports rather than their official destinations. Most Western aid came from as many as 35,000 volunteers. Americans dubbed their first-formed unit the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”
In December 1936, a few months after the Spanish uprising began, Esther Selligman called her son at Swarthmore and was shocked when she learned that he had disappeared. Selligman left a letter with a friend, whom he directed to wait a week before mailing it.
“By the time you get this letter, I will be in Europe,” he wrote. “I am going to Spain … I am really too excited and angry … to do anything else. Besides, a lot of good a diploma would do in a fascist era—and Spain seems to me to be the crucial test.” Among Selligman’s papers, his parents later found a doodled map of Europe on which Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain were colored black. The caption: “Europe again victim of the black plague.”
“Please don’t try to follow or catch me or anything,” he begged.
But Joseph Sr., a prominent attorney who’d argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, had sources. He hired a New Jersey detective with international contacts, and the man sent out a hail of messages to steamship lines, passport offices and American consulates. When Selligman was located in Paris, Joseph Sr. sent a young law partner across the Atlantic to persuade him to come home. The Selligmans even enlisted the U.S. ambassador to France, whose cousin was a Louisville attorney. Somehow, the ambassador lured Selligman to the Paris embassy to take a phone call from his parents. Still, he refused to return.
Born in December, Selligman was only 19 when he first approached the recruiting desk in Paris, despite a minimum age of 21. Undeterred, he paid $15 for the forged papers of Irishman Frank Neary. An alias, he wrote in one letter, “rather adds to the adventure-feeling, romance, etc.”
In letters home, Selligman told his parents that he had grown a beard and sent a photograph of himself wearing a beret. He insisted that he’d work as a driver or interpreter—he knew French, German and a little Spanish—and so was in no danger.
But soldiers go where they are sent.
By late 1936, Nationalist forces had closed on Madrid. Having failed to take the city by direct assault in November, Franco’s new strategy was to seize the Madrid-Valencia Road.
As one of the first Americans to arrive, Selligman was assigned to a hastily trained battalion of British volunteers. When they were ordered to the summit of what would later be called “Suicide Hill,” the Swarthmore senior would be the first American to go into combat.
With no common language among the international brigades, reports often couldn’t be understood. The odds were already against them, thanks to a motley collection of machine guns and ammunition that often didn’t fit. As well, their exposed position left them vulnerable to German bombers and artillery.
“Enemy shelling cut the battalion’s telephone lines, so Joe Selligman was assigned to be a message runner,” wrote historian Adam Hochschild. “By the evening of the first day, only 125 of the battalion’s 400 men remained unwounded. Selligman was not among them. Shot in the head on the first day, he was taken to a Madrid hospital.
“I will bear all expense,” Selligman’s father wired Cordell Hull, begging the U.S. secretary of state’s help in getting his wounded son out of the war zone. But Selligman never regained consciousness, and Hull passed the message that return of his remains was “impracticable” because he’d been buried with seven or eight other soldiers.
Sadly, all that came home of America’s first casualty in the war against European fascism was two billfolds containing a Kentucky driver license and an identification card from the Swarthmore College gym.