Philip Lugiano Sciarra was born on May 22, 1915, in Philadelphia. He was of Italian descent, and it is likely that his parents were part of the four million Italians who immigrated to the U.S between 1880 and 1910. The mass surge of Italian immigrants, known as the Great Arrival, was due to decades of internal strife that had left inhabitants of the country with widespread poverty. More than likely, Sciarra’s parents were peasants in the primarily poor, rural south of Italy who had found the call of “L`America'' irresistible.
Sometime before 1937, Sciarra moved from his childhood home (2541 South 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA) to New York, where he settled down in Lower/Midtown Manhattan. The passport he received on January 7, 1937 listed his address as 27 West 15th Street, New York City. The then 23-year old, who had already served four years in the military as a seaman and deck engineer, decided to board the Lafayette — under the guise of a traveling student, as President Roosevelt’s administration had banned visitors to Spain — on January 9, 1937 to fight in the Spanish Civil War. As a young man living in the capital city of American Communism at the time, it is probable that Sciarra was heavily influenced by the various communist groups that dominated the city’s political scene. He was one of the first American contingents to arrive in Spain.
Sciarra was enrolled in the XV Brigade, Lincoln, under which he experienced his first taste of combat. He was ranked solado, the lowest ranked insignia of non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel. With only a month and a half of training (much of which consisted of listening to speeches in languages other than his own), Sciarra was thrown into the Battle of Jarama, ill-equipped and unprepared.
On February 26, 1937, Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Copic, the commander of Sciarria’s own XVth Brigade, gathered his battalion commanders together to brief them on the plan to take the Nationalist stronghold at Pinigarron. The attack was to commence at 7 A.M with aerial bombardment, followed by strafing of the enemy trenches and an artillery bombardment designed to pin down the enemy. Tanks would lead the frontal assault, providing covering fire for the 24th Spanish Brigade to advance and consolidate with the Lincoln Brigade. Once together, the Spanish were to provide flank support for the Americans who would move forward and capture the enemy trenches.
The plan would go wrong from the very beginning. Bad weather pushed the starting time three hours behind, and miscommunication on the Republican end resulted in a crucial absence of aerial support. Lacking artillery support from tanks in addition to the missing aircrafts, the 24th Brigade took heavy casualties and fell back to their trenches. The Lincoln Brigade, too inexperienced in combat to realize that the battle was lost, clambered out of their trenches and took heavy fire from Nationalist machine guns. Many more, including Sciarra, would have lost their lives had not a rain shower in mid-afternoon clouded the vision of Nationalist snipers. In the midst of battle, Sciarra suffered a leg wound from machine gun fire and was forced to climb back into the trenches under the cover of the rain. He was hospitalized but would return to the field two months later in April. He was wounded and hospitalized again on May 11, 1937. This would be the last time he saw Jarama Valley.
Sciarra’s time spent at the hospital amidst fighting inspired him to work in the Elche Hospital in June. Once he was deemed physically fit, he was transferred to the Auto Park Brigade, which consisted of dispatchers, drivers, and mechanics. This was likely due to his experience working as an engineer during his earlier military tenure. In June, Sciarra was stationed to participate in the Brunete offensive. To the dismay of him and his fellow comrades, it was learned that the same general who was responsible for the catastrophe in Jarama would be commanding the attack. Despite this feeling of anxiety among the troops, the International Brigades started their advance into enemy territory and were halted in their hastily dug fortifications by hill-top Nationalist fire. The Republican forces suffered big losses, not only from the bullet fire but also the extreme heat and lack of water that had incapacitated many soldiers. The Nationalist counterattack would drive the International Brigades back north towards Brunete, and it was likely here that Sciarra was captured by enemy forces. Sciarra was sent to Albacete, where he was imprisoned in the Guardia Nationale for months. In imprisonment, Sciarra suffered from multiple health ailments and was even diagnosed with dementia.
Somehow, under unrecorded conditions, Sciarra found himself back to the front in late February, 1937. On March 7, 1938, General Franciso Franco from the Nationalists’ side launched a massive attack on the Republican forces gathered in Aragon. The Republican lines swifty collapsed under this assault, and Sciarra was struck down by bullet fire three days into the conflict. He died fighting in Belchite, on March 10, 1938.
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