Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1909. He became a sailor and the bad conditions he endured encouraged him to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1930 he joined the Marine Workers' Industrial Union and the American Communist Party.

In 1934 Bailey became an organizer of the longshoreman for the party but became bored and in 1935 returned to work as a sailor. While in Italy he observed the reality of fascism and returned to the United States with a desire to become more actively involved in the struggle against what he believed was an evil philosophy.

In July 1935 Bailey was arrested and beaten up after he got onboard the German ship Bremen and attempted to destroy the swastika flag that it was flying. With the support of the radical congressmen, Vito Marcantonio, Bailey was acquitted of all charges.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Bailey joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to defend the Popular Front government against the Nationalist Army.

Bailey fought at Belchite where he managed to capture a red and yellow fascist banner that he sent to the Maritime Federation of the Pacific in San Francisco.

By the end of the Spanish Civil War there were only 150 American soldiers left in the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Over the course of the war over one-third of the volunteers from the United States had been killed. Bailey survived and returned to work as a seaman.

After the outbreak of the Korean War Bailey, as a member of the American Communist Party, was blacklisted and unable to work as a seaman. In 1953 he began work as a longshoreman, retiring in 1975.

Bailey featured in several documentary films including Seeing Red, The Good Fight, Growing Up in the Depression, Between the Wars, The Spanish Civil War and The UnAmericans. He eventually became disillusioned with the policies of Joseph Stalin and left the party. He remained a socialist and accused the communist governments of eastern Europe of "pissing on Karl Marx's grave."

Bailey's excellent autobiography, The Kid From Hoboken was published in 1993.

Bill Bailey died in San Francisco on 22nd February 1995.

Primary Sources

(1) Studs Terkel interviewed Bill Bailey for his book, The Good War (1985)

My family came from Ireland and I was born in the slums of Jersey. Went to school up to fourth grade. When I was making my communion, the nuns sent my mother a letter: "This boy is not going to make it unless he has a pair of shoes and a little suit of clothes" My mother said, "If you want him to wear shoes and a little suit of clothes, buy it for him. We haven't enough food to feed him, let alone shoes. He's going to make his communion if I have to bring him up to the altar naked. The Good Lord ran around with a potato sack wrapped around his ass, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for anyone else." Two days before communion, they bought the shoes and suit.

I'd go for days and days eating bread with salt on it or lard. The greatest thing I remember about wintertime, you'd reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream. When you come from that type of setup, you start questioning every goddamn thing.

(2) Bill Bailey wrote to his mother explaining why he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1937)

You see Mom, there are things that one must do in this life that are a little more than just living. In Spain there are thousands of mothers like yourself who never had a fair shake in life. They got together and elected a government that really gave meaning to their life. But a bunch of bullies decided to crush this wonderful thing. That's why I went to Spain, Mom, to help these poor people win this battle, then one day it would be easier for you and the mothers of the future. Don't let anyone mislead you by telling you that all this had something to do with Communism. The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing Spanish people who don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. And it's not to set up some Communist government either. The only thing the Communists did here was show the people how to fight and try to win what is rightfully theirs.

You should be proud that you have a son whose heart, soul and energy were directed toward helping the poor people of the world get back what was taken from them. When the horrible conditions of this world are eventually made right, you can look with pride at those who will be here to enjoy it and say, "My son gave his life to help make things better, and for that I am grateful."

If it will make my departure from the world of the living a little easier for you, just remember this, Mom: I love you dearly and warmly, and there was never a moment when I didn't feel that way. I was always grateful and proud that you were my mom.

(3) Bill Bailey, describing fighting in the town of Belchite in the book David Mitchell's book, The Spanish Civil War (1982)

We would knock a hole through a wall with a pickaxe, throw in a few hand-grenades, make the hole bigger, climb through into the next house, and clear it from cellar to attic. And by God we did this, hour after hour. The dead were piled in the street, almost a storey high, and burnt. The engineers kept pouring on gasoline until the remains sank down. Then they came with big trucks and swept up the ashes. The whole town stank of burning flesh.

(4) Bill Bailey was a member of the International Brigades parade in Barcelona on 15th November 1938.

Everyone who was able to walk was in the parade and the street was lined with people, throwing flowers, running out to hug and kiss us, tears in their eyes. It was sad to leave all these wonderful Spaniards at Franco's mercy. The last words spoken to us were that we should continue the anti-fascist struggle wherever we might be. And we did that to the best of our ability.

(5) Bill Bailey worked for the National Maritime Union (NMU) when the United States entered the Second World War. He was interviewed about this by Studs Terkel for his book, The Good War (1985)

I was at the NUM office, putting young kids aboard these ships by the dozens. Kids who'd never seen a ship. I'd see these ships go out and get torpedoed, some kids come back, a lot don't. Guys with frozen feet, toes off. These same kids going out again.

So I begin to say. How dare I sit behind a desk and ask these kids to go out? Out there is where I belong. I could never survive hereafter if the war ended and I didn't do some part. So I resign, go to engineering school, get my certificate. From then on, I sailed through the whole war as an engineer. My field was mostly the whole Pacific. Okinawa, the Solomons, Leyte, the whole Philippines.

We were the first ship in Subic Bay. Bullets were hitting us all over the place. We were never torpedoed. We seen submarines there where we were panicky. All we talked about on board was the war. You'd go completely bananas. What's gonna happen when it's finally over? What's the world gonna be like?

We were at sea when the chief engineer said, "I just heard over the radio that Roosevelt died." I said, "Jesus Christ! We grew up with that man practically." We called a ship's meeting and signed a document: We're behind the new President. Carry on till victory. We're on our way to Okinawa, when we got word that the atom bomb dropped. What kinda bomb is that? They said it wiped out a city. At that particular moment I said,."Gee, that's great." But secretly you had these feelings that something was wrong. You couldn't place your hand on it, but you had a feeling.

And then bad things happened. That great camaraderie of saving tinfoil, toothpaste tubes, or tin cans, all that stuff that made people part of something, that disappeared. Everybody was out for what they could get from then on. Everything changed.