Griffith Bowen Washburn was born on 18 July 1913 in New York City to white Christian parents. His parents were both born in America— his father, Phillip Carter Washburn, worked at a hospital and was born in Ohio; his mother, Doris Washburn, was born in New Jersey. Washburn grew up in a post-WWI society, living through the 1920s. He was part of the generation that saw the homogenization of American culture through the rapid commercialization. The culture at the time was thriving, with the Great Migration creating a rich identity in New York City in the form of the Harlem Renaissance. Thus, Washburn grew up in the center of jazz and literature, all the while organized crime was rampant during prohibition. To the outside world, America seemed to have it all, and Europeans continued immigrating to escape the post-war Europe that was heavily in debt.
Washburn lived in Greystone Park, Morris, NJ, where his father worked in the New Jersey State Hospital. At age 16, as the result of Americans having trusted the economy so vehemently, Washburn experienced the Great Depression following the Stock Market Crash on 29 October 1929. Not only that, but there was also the Great Dust Bowl that affected the agricultural industries in the US. Other countries began taking their currency off the gold standard, and with depletion of gold, the US dollar experienced inflation as its value remained tied to a fixed rate. These instances further made it difficult for Washburn’s family to survive in late 1920s America. Washburn saw the decline of the American youth culture, one that had become difficult to sustain. In times of economic hardships, people are drawn to socialism and other welfare benefits. In spite of the First Red Scare after WWI, socialism and communism appealed to Americans affected by the Depression, including Washburn.
In 1931, Washburn left New Jersey for Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard University for his undergraduate studies. In 1933, at the worst of the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and enacted a series of reforms and recovery programs under the New Deal to decrease unemployment.
Washburn graduated from Harvard in 1935, impressive especially given the time. When he returned to New York, he attended Columbia University for his graduate studies. He lived at 531 W124 Street in Harlem, right by the Columbia campus. Washburn was there when he learned of the Spanish Civil War, which had begun in 1936. Despite President Roosevelt issuing that the US would remain neutral, the American public closely followed the conflict. Not only did the Depression waver Washburn’s faith in capitalism, but as an intellectual, he also wanted to fight for democracy and against the fascist takeover of Spain. As a result, he aligned himself with the socialists. Inspired by the selfless Americans that had gone to Spain regardless of the president’s neutrality, in June 1937, Washburn boarded the Lancastria by pretending to be a cruise passenger to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (XV Brigade). To Washburn, fighting the Spanish Civil War was symbolic of a larger cause as an American protecting other people’s right to democracy.
When Washburn arrived in Setcases, Spain, by the Pyrenees in mid-July, he joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (named after the two leaders of the Canadian Rebellions of 1837–1838), which consisted of Canadian, American, and British volunteers. While the British and American volunteers were mostly college students and intellectuals like Washburn, the Canadian volunteers were wholly of the working class that had been inspired by the failure of capitalism in the Great Depression.
With the Mac-Pap Battalion, Washburn fought in the Zaragoza Offensive, which was largely a failure because the Republican front was only able to advance a few kilometers. He also fought in the Battle of Teruel from December 1937 to February 1938. The Nationalists had taken Teruel at the start of the Spanish Civil War, but by January, the Francoists surrendered the city. However, the victory was only short-lived, as Franco led a counter-offensive starting in mid-January, taking back Teruel. By then, the Republican army was exhausted of resources, and started the Great Retreats, known as the Aragon Offensive to the Nationalists. Lastly, Washburn participated in the Battle of the Ebro from July to September 1938, which was a decisive Nationalist victory. By the end 1938, Washburn was still valiantly fighting along the frontier until Prime Minister Negrin announced on 21 September 1938 the forced withdrawal of the International Brigades.
After fighting in Spain for 18 months (around 1 year and a half), Washburn reluctantly returned to New York from Le Havre, France, on the ship Ausonia on 20 December 1938. He was only 25 years old. He returned to live with his parents and occasionally helped out at the hospital. When WWII broke out, Washburn joined the US Army on 29 November 1940 and became a Technical Sergeant in 712 Military Police Battalion. Although some veterans of the Spanish Civil War were prevented from serving in WWII, Washburn was able to bypass that through his dedication to fighting for democracy. As a member of the military police, Washburn was responsible for policing and ensuring law enforcement within the military itself.
When WWII ended, Washburn was honorably discharged at age 32 on 13 December 1945 and worked a variety of jobs throughout New York and New Jersey. He met Bertha Doris Kelsall, a white American woman from Pennsylvania. It is debated whether the two were officially married or not. In 1946, Washburn moved upstate to Lee Drive in Niagara Falls, NY, and worked as a sales clerk. He lived with Kelsall and their son, Phillip Carter Washburn Jr. (named after Washburn’s father), was born in 1946. Two years later, Phillip Washburn Sr. passed away in 1948.
In 1954, Washburn passed away in his residence in Niagara Falls at the young age of 41 to unknown causes. He currently rests at Riverdale Cemetery in Lewiston, New York, with a Christian Latin cross symbolizing his faith. At such a young age, Washburn accomplished a great deal; from graduating Harvard, attending Columbia, then fighting in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII, his efforts for freedom and democracy should not be forgotten.
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Howard, Victor, and Tabitha de Bruin. “Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006. Accessed May 2, 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mackenzie-papineau-battalion.
Sheldrick, Michael. “The Sinking of the Lancastria.” U.S. Naval Institute, February 21, 2023. Accessed May 2, 2023. https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2023/february/sinking-lancastria.
Simkin, John. “International Brigades.” Spartacus Educational. Accessed June 3, 2023. https://spartacus-educational.com/SPinternational.htm.
“Teruel.” Teruel | Virtual Spanish Civil War. Accessed June 9, 2023. https://www.vscw.ca/en/node/82.
“Washburn, Griffith Bowen.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, December 28, 2022. Accessed May 5, 2023. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/griffith-bowen-washburn/.