Biographies/William "Bill" McCarthy

Tags: Belchite Union Organizer National Maritime Union Albacete Aragon Offensive

Researcher: Anagha Purohit, Stuyvesant '22

William “Bill” McCarthy was born on June 22, 1912 in NYC. When Bill was six years old, his father died from a diabetic coma. With few resources, Bill was forced to move from the Upper West Side to the slums of Brooklyn. Following his father’s death, Bill’s family worked with a social worker who helped manage finances and provide care; his mother did not work until Bill was an adult and she worked at telephone answering service.


After the death of his father, Bill quickly became the head of the family. He first attended a parochial school, St. John's College Jesuit High School, where the Jesuit fathers singled him out for future priesthood. The Jesuits offered Bill a scholarship to Brooklyn Prep; during his time there, Bill was trained by the National Guard - he learnt to ride a horse and load weapons - and his experience made him valuable later on in Spain. Bill was supposed to attend Holy Cross, but the Great Depression hit and he could not afford to attend. He then began working on Wall Street after graduating from St. Johns. During the Depression, Bill worked 18-hour days as a bellboy for a meager $30 a month. What discouraged Bill most was working long, cumbersome hours and later being robbed. After losing his job as a bellboy in 1936, he became a sailor. Unfortunately, the union Bill now belonged to- the Marine Industrial Union - was full of philanderers; Bill grew so frustrated that he helped create a new union of which he became the first business agent for in 1937.  


Bill decided to go to Spain once he found out he would be paid for being a business agent for his union and could send back money to his family. He travelled to Spain in 1937 and entered through France, first landing in Paris and from there traveling through the Pyrenees. He was guided by Spanish guards and smugglers who took them along smuggler routes. Once in Spain, he was among over 40,000 other international volunteers; they first travelled to Figueras in Catalonia and stayed in the Sant Ferran Castle, an old Spanish fortress while on their way to serve. They finally arrived in Barcelona, where the anarchists rejected the internationals. From Barcelona, Bill alongside the rest of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, travelled to Albacete where the group received extremely rudimentary training - such as how to load a gun and its different parts. Because of his training in his school years, Bill was considered valuable in Spain. The first battle in which he fought was in Aragon in late September of 1937 when the Republic went on the offensive. During this battle, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade successfully captured Belchite and while in resting position, Bill met Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, who were married at the time. The couple offered food, resources, and their hotel room to the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which many in the brigade took advantage of. 


During his time in Belchite, following the capture of the town, Bill was hit by a concussion grenade, dropping him in a crash of shrapnel and ruble and severely injuring him and five of his fellow soldiers. As per his brigade commissar’s orders, Bill and the five others injured were sent to a hospital which Bill described was for “cracked out” people (mentally ill). After a year in the hospital, Bill sought to volunteer once again after hearing of Mussolini’s continued success in Spain. In 1939, while serving in Genoa and contacting Italian anti-fascists, Bill was captured for drunkenly slandering Il Duce - Mussolini. Once captured, he was abused and tortured by fascist forces, including being forced to drink castor oil. Though his sentence was supposed to be only two weeks, Bill was only released after three months once his wife Shirley, along with other seamen from Bill’s crew, pushed Roosevelt’s state department to pressure Mussolini for Bill’s release. 


Twelve years later, Bill remained committed to his fight against anti-fascism and freedom. In 1951, during a protest against the Korean War in Union Square, NY, Bill was arrested and beaten by New York City police for climbing a lamppost and spewing anti-war rhetoric. The policemen repeatedly stomped on Bill and kicked him, causing permanent damage to his left eye. Bill’s physical health continued to deteriorate and towards the end of his life, he became an alcoholic. Though Bill suffered greatly in his final days, he supported the anti-fascist cause till the end. Throughout his life, he was awarded several honors and even became an Executive Committee member in the National Maritime Union (NMU). Bill McCarthy was also closely acquainted with Bill Bailey, whom McCarthy requested, “if I pass on before you, would you promise me, now, that you will get my ashes to Spain and bury them at Belchite so I can rest at peace among my brave comrades and friends who died in the war?” Bill Bailey honored this request when Bill McCarthy passed away in 1987.  


Bill McCarthy Interview, ALBA V 48-119, August 25, 1985, Manny Harriman Video Oral History Collection; ALBA VIDEO 048; box number 10; folder number 24; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.


Carl Geiser Papers, ALBA.004, box number 3; folder number 2; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.


Carroll, Peter. "Psychology & Ideology in the Spanish Civil War: The Case of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade." The Antioch Review 52, no. 2 (1994): 219-30. Accessed April 30, 2021.


Chris Brooks, 6-24-2015, "Keeping Promises," The Volunteer, 


Crowdus, Gary. Cinéaste 13, no. 4 (1984): 26-28. Accessed April 30, 2021.


Scope of Soviet Activity; Cadre; Figueres List; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 940.