Joseph Anthony Santalucia (also spelled Santa Lucia) was born on September 11, 1910 in New York City to an Italian family. A Park Slope, Brooklyn resident (7023 13th Street) he lived among other Italian and Irish immigrants and their descendants. He also lived in Manhattan Beach (35 Norfolk Street), which also had a significant Italian and Jewish population. He attended grade school for eight years and was fluent in English, Italian, and Spanish. He did not complete high school and instead entered the workforce. Like many other Italians, he worked as a seaman and stevedore, responsible for maintaining ships and unloading cargo. His time at the docks and having experience with ships would later shape his experiences beyond the Spanish Civil War. More immediate however was the Great Depression, which affected Santalucia like most it did for other Americans. 19 years old at the time, Santalucia found himself, as many other Americans did, struggling to make a living. His last job before traveling to Spain was as a dock worker employed by the United Fruit Company on Pier 9 in Brooklyn, near his Park Slope residence. He earned only 30 dollars per week, which is around 1,500 dollars per year, or about 27,000 dollars in 2023.
After years of struggle, Santalucia joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1935 while in California. He was also a member of the International Longshoreman Association (ILA), which was part of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Santalucia was an active member of his union; he helped lead a New York strike of about 500 longshoremen in November of 1935 and was a representative of the ILA to their employers for three months. He had been arrested three times in demonstrations, riots, and strikes, but all were minor and he was not prosecuted, though this did lead to his expulsion from the ILA. He then applied for a passport soon after hearing of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936. There wasn’t much for him in the US: his job at the docks was seasonal, and his parents had already passed away. Thus, the decision to go likely came without much hesitation or resistance from those around him. He changed his name to the English-sounding Sands, possibly to obscure his Italian background to prevent association with Fascist Italy. Around six months later, on February 17th, 1937, he received his passport. Three days later, he boarded the SS Ile de France, one of the most luxurious ocean liners of the time. It was a fleeting comfort given his destination: the battlefields and bullet-ridden cities of Spain.
On March 2nd, 1937, Santalucia arrived in Figueres, Spain, just below the French border, after crossing the mountains. He soon after joined the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). His prior experience working with boats was of no use in a land-based army, thus like most other American volunteers, he was inexperienced and faced the same inadequate training. At first, he was a plana mayor, or staff member, working as a cook for the XV International Brigade. By June, he was placed into the 1st Company of the Washington Brigade as a soldado, or private, to help take the Jarama Valley. He also fought in the Brunete offensive and Battle of Teruel. Though he was later moved to the 3rd Company, he remained a soldado throughout the war. During the retreats, on April 9th, 1938, he deserted the Brigade, taking a train up north back to the mountains. Santalucia was arrested in the town of Portbou, right on the border of France. He was arrested on April 14th and brought back to Figueres, where he claimed he had gotten drunk and did not intend to desert. His membership in the PCE was nonetheless revoked, but he returned for the fateful Ebro Offensive where he fought with dedication and was cited for exemplary conduct, but later wounded by shrapnel in August 1938. He was hospitalized at Hospital de Vic in the city of Vic, about 40 miles north of Barcelona. He may have visited the farewell parade in Barcelona in October. In November, he reapplied to the PCE. In a letter, Santalucia revealed that he deserted because he was being accused of sabotage and holding secret meetings during the retreats. Instead of reporting to the Brigade authorities as he was ordered to, he fled for the French border in fear, intending to cross the mountains and return to the United States. He was sent back to the United States the following month, and the PCE was thus unable to reapprove his membership. Leaving from Le Havre, France, he arrived in New York City on December 20th, 1938, on the RMS Ausonia, with 50 other Spanish Civil War veterans.
Back in New York City, Santalucia likely took up dock and ship work to sustain himself. It was during this time he joined the National Maritime Union (NMU). He spent only a few years in the city before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was once again drawn to the fight against fascism. This time, benefitting from his experience working on the docks of Brooklyn, he joined the US Navy. He sailed on the USS Catclaw, a net laying ship, in 1943, before moving to the Ford County, a tank landing ship. Afterwards, he served on the Kearny, a destroyer part of an Atlantic convoy whose destinations included Spain. Towards the end of the war, he sailed on the Stockton, which fought its way through the Pacific against the Japanese Empire, supporting the US Army in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Santalucia was discharged from the military in May of 1946 and was done fighting wars for good.
Now a veteran of two wars, Santalucia returned home to New York City once more. His communist fervor had cooled down by now, and he was settling into the relatively peaceful post-war years of the 1950s. At some point, he married a wife from a foreign country and had a son named Victor, and later moved to California for some time. He also ran for 1st Alternate within the NMU, but he did not win. In 1953 he testified against Kwong Hai Chew, a Chinese American permanent resident and seaman who was a union officer of the NMU. Chew, who was seeking to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, was detained in Ellis Island, NYC. In his immigration hearing, he was accused of being a communist and thus dangerous to be granted citizenship. Santalucia and two other NMU members provided testimony that Chew was a communist, which led to a ruling to deport Chew on the grounds that he was a dangerous foreign communist that presented an active threat to the country. (Chew challenged the ruling, which was later reversed by the District of Appeals). Proceedings against Chew continued in 1958 and 1964, and Santalucia was present at all three hearings. Ultimately, Chew was naturalized in 1967, but Santalucia’s role remains controversial. It is unclear if his claims about Chew were true, and his decision to cooperate with the FBI led his fellow Spanish Civil War veterans to shun him. Many of his fellow veterans were targeted by the FBI for being communist as well. Santalucia may have been trying to clear himself of any affiliations with communism, or there may have been other reasons.
Santalucia died in June of 1982, in Lake Placid, NY. He was 71 years old.
Sands, Joseph. “Biografía de Militantes.” Документы Советской Эпохи: Просмотр Единицы Хранения, 2015, sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/sections/organizations//cards/233262/images.
Sands, Joseph. Received by Hy, 32 East 37th Street, New York City, New York.
“Sands, Joseph.” SIDBRINT, Universitat De Barcelona, 2014, https://sidbrint.ub.edu/en/content/sands-joseph.
“Sands, Joseph.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 1 Dec. 2022, https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/joseph-sands/.
Torok, John Hayakawa. “Ideological Deportation: The Case of Kwong Hai Chew.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 9 Jan. 2004, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.462500.