Biographies/William Oliver "Bill" Alto

Tags: Battle For Teruel Raid at Carchuna, Motril LGBT Finnish Demolition Expert For Whom The Bell Tolls Member Of Communist Party Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade WWII Veteran

Researcher: Lian Kai Lin, Stuyvesant '20

"A soldier who is politically conscious that he is right and who has a feeling of community with his society...will do his job well" -Bill Aalto

William Oliver Aalto (preferred to be called Bill) was born in the Bronx on July 30th, 1915. His mother, Elsa Johanna Akkola, was a militant member of the Finnish Communist Party who fled to the United States due to her political beliefs and enrolled in the local communist party. Bright and well-educated from a once prominent landowning family, Elsa had immigrated to New York. Throughout her hard years of domestic service as a single mother in the stratified social hierarchy of America, she retained her staunch beliefs, gravitating towards local communist groups.

In 1927, Elsa married fellow Finnish immigrant Otto Aalto, the latter becoming the stepfather of 12-year old Bill. While he went through school, Bill took after his mother's social conscience; running with the Harlem Proletarians (a Finnish youth club) and joining the Bronx Young Communist League. Searching for his moment to make a difference in the world, Bill was struck by a personal tragedy- the death of his half-brother, Henry. In 1935, Bill, aged 18, left home and school, working as a truck driver before deciding to go to Spain and join the International Brigades(IB).

Bill (aged 21) arrived in Spain in February 1937, a son of immigrants determined to make his mark upon an unforgiving world. At the time, Soviet military advisors in Spain were putting together their own guerrilla units within the IBs due to a lack of Spanish manpower. Being 6'2 and having studied Spanish before, Bill was immediately recruited as a guerrilla soldier at Albacete, fighting in the Republican irregular forces. He repeatedly volunteered for dangerous operations, often spending weeks behind enemy lines. "I became a guerrilla and stalked," said Bill in a 1942 interview, "saw no bayonets, met very little machine gun fire, cut the barbed wire." Trained by Soviet instructors in the use of pressure-sensitive explosives, Bill, along with fellow comrades-in-arms Alex Kunstlich and Irving Goff, Bill worked with a detachment of Spanish guerrillas destroying railroad tracks, bridges, and power lines in preparation of the Republican offensive that began the Battle of Teruel. Their objective to destroy the main supply bridge over the Albarracin River may have been the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (though Bill himself was not present during that operation). By late 1937, both Spanish and International irregular forces were brought together as the Fourteenth Corps of the Republican army.

As the battle for Teruel raged onward with no end in sight, guerrilla operations on the Southern front were greatly amplified. Alex Kunstlich came to command his own unit, with Bill as his second in command. Bill was responsible for all the logistics, supply, and strategic planning of Kunstlich's operations, in addition to driving the truck taking groups to their rendezvous points. The vast majority of their work remained that of demolitions - as very few guerrilla groups had the supplies to engage in partisan operations. This reflected the Republic's military weakness as a whole: so crippled by non-intervention it could barely equip its own troops - let alone distribute arms to the peasantry.

During the great retreats of 1938, Kunstlich was captured and executed near Granada. Nationalist armies had charged through Aragon to the sea, splitting the Republic in two. To restore morale in the face of this catastrophe, authorities planned a daring action in which both Bill and Irving Goff would undertake. On May 20th, Bill, now a lieutenant, alongside Goff, led a team of 25 guerrillas in a successful amphibious raid at Carchuna, Motril on the Southern coast of Spain, rescuing 300 Republican prisoners. They reportedly cut communication lines, killed the prison guards, and armed the prisoners with hand grenades. "We weren't a raiding party," Goff boasted, "We were a battalion". While the prisoners raced towards Republican lines, the rear guard, consisting of Goff, Bill, and two Spaniards, leaped from the cliff into the Mediterranean. Though both Spaniards drowned, Goff and Aalto used the cover of darkness to reach the shore at the edge of the cliffside, under the enemy camp. Trapped by the presence of enemy scouts, they reportedly huddled in the shallow waters for 48 hours, starving, thirsty, cold, and exhausted. In desperation, they swam to a nearby cave and rested for a day. Finally, they moved to a farmhouse, where they received the hospitality of Spanish peasants before returning to their base. This was the only commando raid ever undertaken in Spanish history.
In June 1938, Bill was promoted to captain after 17 months of service, later spending three long periods hospitalized with fever, colitis, and chronic malaria. With the war essentially lost, Bill repeatedly wrote to his superiors that they'd all be better off returning to the states and supporting the Republic on the publicity front. He was also concerned his passport might expire - he was still financially responsible towards his mother and half-brother John. It was November when he arrived in a demobilization unit in Valencia, January 1939 when he arrived in Barcelona, and February when he sailed to New York. He had been in Spain for nearly two years.
Though Bill came out of the war with the highest commendations, he did not tell his war stories. He was torn between the justice of the cause and the inhumane violence war demanded. "The war is breaking us," he wrote, "but also remaking us". Nevertheless he remained an active member of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), speaking on behalf of the Republican cause.

On January 20, 1939, Bill's stepfather, Otto Aalto, who had recently separated from his mother, denounced Bill to the FBI, reporting that as a partisan leader of the returning Lincolns, his stepson constituted a danger to the United States. As the Lincolns were already under FBI scrutiny, Bill was recommended for custodial detention. The detention was canceled a few months later when Bill volunteered for the army, as the authorities had decided military service was an alternative mode of surveillance for the Lincoln vets. However, Bill found himself assigned only to most menial tasks. "I'm on the FBI shit list," he said to a fellow Lincoln, "or else the army's blacklist".

In 1941, Bill's former comrade-in-arms, Irving Goff, recommended him for recruitment to the Office of Strategic Services - a force that could utilize the Lincolns' guerrilla experience in conjunction with resistance movements in the partisan war within Europe. However, he was not able to join.

Shortly after returning from Spain, Bill had confided his homosexuality to Goff, who revealed it to the other Lincolns, many of which felt Bill's sexual orientation could be pose risk to them all. It made them an easy target - not for the clutches of the FBI, but rather for slander by the public and within the army. At the collective request of the veterans', Bill was transferred to a training camp in Maryland in 1942, where he trained officer recruits in sabotage and demolition. In September 1943, Bill saw an officer drop a live hand grenade and lunged for it. Before he could throw it away, the grenade exploded, blowing off his right hand and part of his forearm. Bill was invalided out of service with a disability pension.

With the help of his pension and the G.I. Bill, he returned to further his education, studying poetry at Columbia University. At this time, he published several pieces of his writings in the New Masses. After the OSS incident, Bill drifted away from contact with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Bill later traveled to Europe, where he met the poet W.H. Auden. Though sharing the company of other poets, Bill wrote little and gravitated towards alcoholism, frequently entering violent periods. Toward the end of his life, he became the lover of poet James Schuyler's, and features in Schuyler's poem, Dining Out with Doug and Frank.