James Neugass was born in 1905 to a well-to-do Jewish family of industrialists and bankers in New Orleans. Neugass began writing poetry early on in his life and left at a young age to become a writer in New York City. "I have been writing poetry since I was seventeen," he said in 1933, "lots of it and nothing but it." Since then, Neugass has attended prestigious universities like Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, where he learned everything from mining engineering to fine arts to history. In the 1920s, he spent most of his time traveling around Europe until he returned to the United States in 1932, where he pursued writing while working in different professions such as book reviewer, janitor, social worker, and fencing coach.
Neugass was also closely connected with the Communist Party for most of the 1930s and 1940s. He worked as an editor of a union paper published by the Office Workers Union, an organization led by communists and was even arrested for participating in events supporting Ohrbach workers’ strike. Neugass then helped to establish the State, County and Municipal Workers of America, which was an American labor union representing state, county, and local government employees.
In mid-November 1937, the then 32-year-old James Neugass left his home in Queens, New York and boarded the Queen Mary to join the nearly 3000 American volunteers that formed the two American battalions (the Lincoln Battalion and the Washington Battalion) that later became known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Many of the volunteers in the Brigades had passports that were marked “not valid for travel in Spain” so to participate in the fight in Spain, they had to trek over the Pyrenees mountains in France. James, however, had volunteered as a medical worker and had direct entry into Spain. He was assigned to be an ambulance driver in the American Medical Bureau, founded by Edward Barsky. Under the leadership of Barsky, the American Medical Bureau established hospitals in churches and monasteries, and formed a mobile medical unit.
When questioned by the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the Communist Party in the United States, pertaining to the reasons why he went to Spain to join the Lincoln Brigade, Neugass answered humorously, “First of all, I was spending too much money each day buying newspapers to read about the Spanish situation. Secondly, I went there to get some sleep…New York City is such a noisy place” (Wald). Neugass no doubt felt the need to respond to the call for the defense of the Spanish Republic as the rise of fascism in Europe demanded immediate action from socialist activists across the globe. “The entire country is organized to strengthen the thin thousand mile dam of dugouts, men and munitions which separate not only the Republic but every democratic nation on earth, from fascism,” he wrote (Kaufman). Neugass feared that if the Spanish Republic were to fall, then the rest of the world would also fall to fascism.
A month after Neugass arrived in Spain, he was present at the Battle of Teruel, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Spanish Civil War, with over 100,000 atrocities. Neugass drove an ambulance back and forth in dangerous fighting zones, personally assisted in setting up hospital units, and endured a number of shrapnel wounds throughout the terrible attacks and counter-attacks. James had to drive the ambulance without lights on out of fear of being bombarded by Mussolini or Hitler’s armies. During The Aragon Offensive (the “Great Retreats”), which was shortly after the Battle of Teruel, when Republican defenses began to crumble, Neugass was forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat for survival. After a tough escape in which he brought Dr. Edward Barsky and other persons to safety, Neugass was instructed to return home with a letter of particular recognition.
Upon returning to the US on April 14, 1938, aboard the Ile de France, Neugass typed up War is Beautiful, a memoir that accounts Neugass’s experiences in the war including the atrocities of the war and the days spent darting onto battlefields to carry the injured and the dead away He married Myra Chavelle, with whom he had two sons, on September 30, 1940 in NYC, while working on a long poem about Spain and a couple of shorter ones. In the 1940s, he worked as a cabinet maker and foreman in a machine shop while concluding Rain of Ashes, a novel based on a wealthy New Orleans family that closely resembled his own and the novel was published in 1949. This was the same year Neugass died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in Greenwich Village on September 7. Half a century later in 2000, a bookdealer found Neugass’s manuscript in a Vermont bookstore that was believed to have come from the collection of Max Eastman, once a famous revolutionary writer who died in 1969. The five hundred pages long manuscript ended up in the hands of Neugass’s son Paul and then to Peter Carroll and Peter Glazer, historians of American involvement in the Spanish Civil War. The two edited the unfinished manuscript and War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War was published in 2008.
Breedlove, Nick. “Neugass Learns about Father through Wartime Manuscript.” The Sylva
Herald, September 10, 2014. http://www.thesylvaherald.com/news/article_d7c24dd4-
Kaufman, Dan. “La Despedida .” Powell’s Books, August 25, 2009.
“Neugass, Isidore James Newman.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/james-neugass/.
Neugass, Jim. “Following in My Father’s Footsteps: A Journey into the Spanish Civil War.”
The Volunteer, September 14, 2013. https://albavolunteer.org/2013/09/following-in-my-
Wald, Alan. “The Journey of James Neugass.” Against the Current, 2009.