William James “Bill” Bailey, most notably as, Bill Bailey, was born on January 23, 1910. He grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey and in Jersey City, in a family of 13 children. Unfortunately, seven children died before the age of one, with just six children, including him, to remain. They lived in poverty due to their Irish identity which made it really hard to be employed during the early 1900’s America. His parents eventually split due to his father’s alcohol addiction and inability to earn enough money to support the family. As Bailey recalled, his father never had a paternal love for his family. He was arrested for constantly picking fights drunk and physically abusing his mother. When they finally split, Bailey noted his father’s sense of liberation from the burden of being a father, which was heartbreaking for Bailey to see that his father resented them so much. They never met again until many years later.
To make sure that the family had enough to live by, Bailey’s mother would go out to New York City Wall Street every day in search of a job. She would usually work as a maid and scrubbed floors. His sister, Kate would work at a church for 15 cents an hour, and his brother, John would work at a bakery. They were both eventually fired from their jobs when Kate ran away stealing a ham and when John stole doughnuts from the bakery shop. Because his family lived in such poverty, his brother would steal bottles of milk from other people, leading to his arrest to jail and reform school. Bailey went to Catholic school in St. Peters Church and had an education until he was in the fifth grade when his mother pulled him out of school in order to get a job and to start working. He later started to work for an Irishman that was living upstairs from him at the waterfront. He would work for six days a week for $21.52. After that, his family decided to move to New York near Hell's Kitchen, on West 38th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues for work. He eventually started sailing in 1929-1930 on a ferry boat at Pier 1 and earned $47 a month, which was considered a fortune at the time.
However, he suffered from miserable working conditions, prompting him to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1929 and later, Marine Workers’ Industrial Union (MWIU) in 1930 to help fight for the rights and welfare of seamen. At first, he was hesitant about joining the Union, mainly because there was a fee that he had to pay every month for membership and he was at the time not able to afford it. However, once he joined, he was very invested and passionate about the causes they were fighting for. He became the union organizer. He eventually developed an interest in reading about the Soviet Union as he worked with members of a group of communists called the POC and later decided to become a member of the Communist Party.
His loyalty and enthusiasm as a communist member naturally caused him to be an anti-fascist along with the other members of his party. When word came out that an American seaman, Lawrence Simpson was arrested in Germany for bringing in anti-fascist literature, Bailey along with the other communist seamen decided to gather at the dock of a German ship, S.S. Bremen in New York, which was ready to sail from Pier 46 on 46th Street on July 26th, 1935. This act against fascism attracted the attention of thousands of people as they watched Bailey and a few other men cut the Bremen’s swastika down and into the Hudson River. They were arrested but released and dismissed of any charges due to their courageous act against Nazism.
News about the war in Spain was spreading like wild-fire in New York where Bailey resided. He was very invested in the idea that action was finally being taken against fascism and sprang for the opportunity to volunteer in the war because he believed that if fascism can be defeated in the Spanish Civil War, then it can be defeated anywhere. He joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion seamen’s machine gun company sailing from his home address 191 (198) 11th Avenue, NYC (as stated in his passport) on June 16th, 1937 on the ship Aquitania, and arrived in Spain on June 31st, 1937. He rose to rank as the Company Commissar and was recognized for his bravery and strong will when fighting at Belchite and even managing to obtain a fascist banner which he sent back to the United States. On July 14th, 1937, the Lincoln Battalion merged with the George Washington Battalion after heavy losses from both sides. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, he returned on to the US on December 20, 1938, aboard the Ausonia.
Bailey’s contributions to the fight against fascism do not end after the Spanish Civil War. He later served as a business agent for the Marine Firemen, Oilers, and Watertenders Union (MFOW), before joining and shipping himself out to the invasion of the Philippines as a mariner under MFOW working aboard the U.S flag vessels to prevent the risk of sending more and more men out to their deaths. Later in the Korean War (1950-1953), he was blacklisted from working in the Merchant Marine due to his membership in the Communist Party. In 1953 he began to work as a longshoreman and continued to do so until he retired in 1975.
Bailey, recognized by his many contributions to the war effort continued to have a lasting impact to this day. He was in numerous documentaries including, Seeing Red (1983) and The Good Fight (1984). He also has his own autobiography dedicated to his son called, The Kid from Hoboken. Bill Bailey died on February 27, 1995, with his ashes spread across the sea. From working hard at the sea ever since he was little, joining unions and the Communist Party to help fight for his rights, to joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to help fight against fascism, Bill Bailey was definitely an honorable and strong fighter in support of his beliefs and passions until the very end.
Bailey, Bill. The Kid from Hoboken, www.larkspring.com/Kid/Contents.html.
“Bill Bailey - an American Brigadist.” Spanish Civil War and the Seafarers and Dockers, 23 Mar. 2020, spanishsky.dk/bill-bailey/.
Czitrom, Daniel. “‘Who the Hell Worked out a Plan like That?" New Light on the 1935 Bremen Riot.” The Volunteer, 27 Feb. 2018, albavolunteer.org/2018/02/who-the-hell-worked-out-a-plan-like-that-new-light-on-the-1935-bremen-riot/.
Ink, Social. “Bailey, William James.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 28 Apr. 2020, alba-valb.org/volunteers/william-james-bailey/.Johnson, Timothy V. “Bill Bailey.” Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives Oral History Collection, 3 Nov. 2017, wp.nyu.edu/albaoh/bill-bailey/.
Simkin, John. Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational, spartacus-educational.com/SPbailey.htm.