Benjamin Sills or as many called him, Ben Sills, was born on May 19, 1913 in Brooklyn. He lived at 438A Monroe Street in Bed Stuy and was of Jewish ancestry. He went to high school, most likely in his neighborhood, and attended the City College of New York (CCNY). CCNY is a public research university in West Harlem. At the time Sills was enrolled, it was completely free and pretty competitive to attend, with the school often being referred to as “the poor man’s Harvard.” Yet Sills did not graduate; instead in his senior year, he became a seaman and sailed the Gulf Region. It was his time working as a sailor that radicalized Sills. On the high seas, he experienced low pay, long hours, and almost inedible food. He’d watch as his colleagues and companions wrestled to form new unions and often ended up being beaten or fired—or both. Sills joined multiple unions, mainly the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, and the National Maritime Union. Eventually, on May 15, 1935, Sills would also join the Communist Party. It was not unusual for a sailor to be as radical as Sills was and many of his fellow seamen were also Communists, or at least Leftists.
Sills heard about Franco’s initial uprising in 1936, but it wasn’t until July 13, 1937, that Sills sailed to Spain on a ship named the Berengaria. It wasn’t a very difficult decision for Sills to join the war. You see, he knew he had the strength from sailing to be able to succeed in battle, but it wasn’t only that. Once his own unions had succeeded well enough, Sills felt it was his duty to help thwart the fascism he believed to be directly opposed to the formation of worker’s unions. Sills knew he had to go to Spain to protect future workers' rights all over the world. He was not the only sailor who felt this way. After all, the National Maritime Union reports that 500 seamen went to Spain to fight in the war. These sailors were the largest group of workingmen to join the battle in Spain.
Sills arrived in Spain on July 21, 1937. He found himself in Setcases. Sills had never been in Spain before and was dazzled by his new surroundings. Yet, he didn’t have long to appreciate Spain’s beauty before he was pulled into the action that had brought him there in the first place. After a difficult journey in Spain’s July heat, Sills and other members of the XV Brigade arrived at said action: the battles of Quinto and Belchite. In fact, Sills had only been in Spain for a total of only six days before he began fighting at Quinto.
The town of Quinto was located on the edge of the Ebro River Valley and was composed of hundreds of adobe buildings loomed over by a large stone church. The Lincoln Battalion’s objective was to take over the Nationalist-run town. This was necessary because Quinto was one of two last strong points between the Republicans taking control of Zaragoza. The battle of Quinto ended with a final Nationalist stand in the large stone church and by August 27, the Republicans had control of Quinto.
As for Belchite, in order to gain control of the town, the Republicans first had to find a way to get into Belchite from their trenches a couple of hundred yards outside. As fighting ensued, the town was practically destroyed, yet the battalion still found itself unable to fully take the town. Soon the battalion decided to break into groups. Sills’s group was still stuck on the outside of the walls surrounding the town, but they crawled towards a factory next to the town’s church. As they hid by the church's doors, anti-tank guns only a few hundred yards away fired into the factory. The noise was enough to hurt Sills's ears more than they’d ever hurt before and the ground shook beneath him. Yet Sills did not lose his bravery. When the firing ceased, he stood up, throwing a hand grenade into the factory and shoving open the large doors he had just been cowering against. To his surprise, the factory was empty. There were no Nationalists to be found. But Sills did not have time to feel his relief; he was still trembling from the impact of the anti-tank guns. He would not stop trembling for at least two more days. Eventually, the Republicans would win this battle and Sills’s trembling would fade as he went on to fight in Fuentes de Ebro, Teruel, Segura de los Baños, and the Retreats.
Though Sills’s time in Spain was not only battles. There were lulls in which the Battalion would focus on training. In July 1938, a year after Sills had first arrived, his battalion rested in the village of Vilella Alta and continued to train to recross the Ebro. By this point, Sills had become a Company One commissar of the Special Machine Gun Battalion. Sills stayed with a kind host family called the Paramons and shared a room with Len Levenson, a fellow soldier who he had first met when they attended City College of New York together. Even with the intensity of training and the summer heat, Sills’s stay in Vilella Alta turned out to be rather nice. Even through the stress of preparing to fight again, he was able to appreciate the region’s wine, olives, beautiful countryside views, and, of course, the Paramons’ rather funny-looking donkey.
Sills returned home from Spain on December 15, 1938, as hopes of a Republican victory diminished. Sills would’ve stayed for longer if he could have, but all international soldiers on the Republican side were sent home after the Retreats. The Retreats had been difficult for Sills’s battalion, not only did they suffer a military defeat, but it was also greatly demoralizing. Yet, in October 1938, Sills and his men were able to put aside their lowered morale for the farewell parade for international soldiers in Barcelona. All in all, the parade felt like a last hurrah that Sills could get behind as he and his men were regrettably forced to leave Spain.
Even though Sills had been unsuccessful in thwarting fascism in Spain, that would not stop him from rejoining the fight against fascism in the 1940s during World War II. For the rest of Sills's life, until his death of old age on August 5, 1982, he continued to do whatever he believed needed to be done to protect workers' rights against the threats of fascism. Even now, when his former Bed-Stuy home has been torn down and rebuilt as an elementary school and the Pamarons have replaced their donkey with a tractor, Ben Sills’s legacy lives on. He is remembered by those who knew him, but he is most often remembered without a name. Sills was one of the few brave Americans in the late 1930s who was willing to do something. Sills was willing to risk his own life to stand up against fascism. As time goes on, it’s important we continue to remember men like Ben Sills.
Levenson, Len, and Bob Coale. “A Return to Spain.” The Volunteer - Journal of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade XXV, no. 1 (March 2003).
Rosenstone, Robert. Crusade of the left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. Routledge, 2018.
“Sills, Benjamin.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, n.d. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/benjamin-sills/.