Joseph Francis Rehill (also known as Joe and later as Francis Patrick Reel) was born on March 14, 1913 in New Brunswick, New Jersey to John Howard Rehill and Christina Clancy. His family also included his older sister Elizabeth Rehill Kerrigan, younger sister Margaret Rehill, and younger brother John Rehill. Rehill graduated from St. Barnard’s Parochial School in New York City before attending Mechanical Institute. After his education, Rehill went on to become a clerk. He joined the Book Keepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union, a union with a substantial group of left-wing activists and sympathizers, including Rehill himself who joined Communist Party in May of 1935. Rehill received a passport on February 2, 1937 which listed his address both as New Brunswick, New Jersey as well as 381 Nye Avenue, Irvington, New York.
Through his association with the Communist Party, Rehill learned that the party was organizing volunteers to join the fight in Spain. As a passionate anti-fascist, he signed up to volunteer as soon as he heard the news. Rehill sailed to Spain aboard the Paris, setting sail on February 6, 1937 where he disguised himself as a tourist in order to not alert law enforcement and get his new passport taken away as then President Theodore’s administration threatened. He arrived in Spain on February 15, 1937 after making the difficult trek across the dangerous Pyrenees Mountains after nightfall. This was the only way for an American to get into Spain at the time. Upon arriving, he did very little training for battle; instead his days were filled with instruction in different languages, mostly French, and lengthy communist speeches. Rehill served with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, specifically the Lincoln Battalion in Company 2, Section 2, Group 1.
Just ten days after his arrival, Rehill was sent into the ongoing battle at Jarama, where he would fight until June. Like many others, Rehill’s first experience seeing and firing a rifle was on the battlefield. In a diary entry, Rehill wrote that he “never knew there were so many bullets in the world, and all of them seem to shoot around me.” Heavy losses occurred at the battle of Jarama but the Republican forces were able to successfully hold the Madrid-Valencia road. Rehill was wounded in action and sent south to a hospital in Colmenar, a municipality in Andalusia, for an operation on June 26, 1937. However, the hospital lacked surgical knowledge and Rehill suffered surgical complications so he was sent to the city Murcia for further medical treatment. Rehill was later repatriated to get another operation, arriving back in the United States on October 12, 1937 on the Veendam. He was deeply disappointed about coming home to America, “disgusted” at his “unimpressive homecoming” on Columbus Day at Hoboken. He longed to quickly recover and rejoin the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in their fight.
Rehill applied to return to Spain in November of 1937 but was turned away after he was told recruiting was closed and even if it wasn’t, there were orders to send no veterans back to Spain. While he was greatly disheartened by the news, he still longed to go back to the battlefield and contribute his manpower.
After hearing of improved policy in the army, including better enforcement of discipline, Rehill once again applied to rejoin his old battalion. He had previously disliked the rigid discipline he experienced in the brigade. In April of 1937, during his participation in the fight at Jarama, Rehill was arrested for refusing an inoculation. He thought that this course of action was unjust so these new changes in policy assured Rehill that he would receive better treatment from higher ups if he returned.
Him and friend Joe Gordon returned to Spain once more, Rehill on May 27, 1938 on the Massanet, and Gordon on May 29, 1938 on the Massaneton. What Rehill found in Spain was no longer just a ragtag group of volunteer anti-fascists. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was composed of survivors, trained men capable of leading and fighting, whether it was on the battlefield in Spain or as workers back home.
He was now assigned to the Lincoln-Washington Battalion as Transmissions in Company 1. He served at the Ebro Offensive, a key battle in the Spanish Civil War as the Republicans fought to take control of Catalonia which could have turned the tide in the war by providing valuable infrastructure as well as reconnecting the Republicans in a contiguous landmass. While the Republicans seemed to be winning at the beginning of the battle, the Nationalists eventually overwhelmed the Republicans in a counteroffensive, defeating the Republicans in the end. About a month after the devastating loss, Rehill returned to the United States once more on December 20, 1938 aboard the Ausonia.
Rehill’s hatred for fascism was reignited with the beginning of World War II but it took until March 27, 1941 for Rehill to enlist to join the WWII US Army. He hoped the skills he learned during the time he served under the Abraham Lincoln Brigade would bring down fascism regardless of the unfortunate outcome in Spain.
In 1944, Rehill married Anne Rudin in New Jersey. He also changed his name to Francis Patrick Reel in the early 1950s, likely to avoid persecution during the era of McCarthyism.
“American Federation of Labor. Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union.” American Federation of Labor. Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union. - Social Networks and Archival Context. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://snaccooperative.org/view/37127180.
“Rehill, Joseph Francis.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, November 15, 2022. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/joseph-francis-rehil/?searchterm=Rehill.
Rehill, Joseph. “One Who Came Back by Joseph Rehill.” The Volunteer, December 23, 2018. https://albavolunteer.org/2018/12/one-who-came-back-by-joseph-rehill/.
“RGASPI. F. 545. Op. 6. D. 969 IMG0026-IMG0032.” Документы советской эпохи: просмотр единицы хранения. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/sections/organizations/cards/232860/images.