Paul White was born in 1909. He worked on the East Coast waterfront with Joe Bianca and became an official in the Seaman's Union. A member of the American Communist Party, he joined the International Brigades on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
On arriving in Spain White worked under Robert Merriman organizing trucks and supplies to transport the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to the Aragón front. Merriman discovered that 197 Americans were in Madrid when they were needed on the front-line. On 18th August 1937, Merriman sent Edwin Rolfe and White to round up the missing men. According to Cecil D. Eby, the author of Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007): "Within six hours White and Rolfe achieved the near-impossible: they had collected full rations (sardines and bread) along with all but five of the absentees."
After the fall of Belchite, a group of twenty-five members, of the XVth Brigade left Aragón without permission. White and his fellow soldiers claimed that their six-month contracts had expired and warrented repatriation. They were arrested and escorted back to the front-line. White escaped and stole an ambulance and drove off towards the French border. White was eventually arrested in Catalonia and David Doran, the brigade commissar, demanded that he should be shot for desertion. However, he was overruled and White was sent back to the front-line.
In March 1938 the Abraham Lincoln Battalion lost two of its most senior officers, Robert Merriman and David Doran, when they were killed at Gandesa on the Aragón front. Milton Wolff now assumed command of the battalion and John Gates became battalion commissar.
In March 1938 White was sent to get further supplies of ammunition. Instead, he deserted and drove to the French border. However, on hearing that his wife had given birth to a son, he began to feel remorse for what he had done. White wanted his son to be proud of his father and he returned to the front where he made a full confession of his actions.
White was unlucky that John Gates was now the battalion commissar. Gates was a strict disciplinarian and had ordered that all deserters should be court-martialed and some of them should be executed as an example to the rest of the soldiers. Milton Wolff agreed with Gates and White was charged with desertion.
At his court-martial White confessed: "After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France." White was found guilty of desertion and the following day he was executed by a six-man firing squad. Joe Bianca complained bitterly about the way White was treated, but as Cecil D. Eby pointed out: "Having just been publicized as the best soldier in the Battalion, Bianca had passed beyond the range of commissariat retaliation."
The news of the execution caused a great deal of dissent in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and it was quickly announced that no further executions would take place.
After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France. As I ran towards the Ebro and met more deserters and routed troops, my fear grew. If I succeeded in getting to France, I still would have to face everyone at home but I had lost all control.
I kept going and debating whether or not to turn back. I spoke to the mayor at the border town in which I was arrested and asked where the command post was located. He told me and I decided to eat and make a final decision. I was arrested before I had done this. Once I was in custody I decided that I had been saved from wrecking my life completely.
I realize that "safety" of the kind I was seeking would never compensate me for the loss of everything and everyone I value. I ask for one chance and that is to serve in the lines and wipe out this stain on my military and Party record.
I am 29 years old and am certain that I can serve in the ranks for many years as a class conscious worker. I have had plenty of time to think before making this statement and sincerely believe I will be stronger in my work and devotion if given the opportunity to redeem myself. I regard my position now as the most serious crisis in my life and am ready to meet it.
Just after the stragglers of the Lincoln Battalion set up their camp at Marsa in April 1938, an order came down to Commissar John Gates from Division: court-martial all deserters and execute some as examples. Massive desertion must never be allowed again. Accordingly, Gates improvised a tribunal consisting only of brigade commissars and Party cadres. Three deserters received death sentences: an Algerian, a Spaniard, and an American named Paul White. White, a seaman with a splendid record in the Party, had deserted at least once before. (Merriman had complimented him for "doing a good job" in rounding up and provisioning the men scattered all over Madrid at the time of the Aragon offensive.) Executions followed that night. According to the later testimony of Major Umberto Galleani, the firing squad was commanded by a "very excitable" New Yorker known as "Ivan."
Some Lincolns bivouacked at Marsa heard isolated shots fired that night. Then four men were shaken out of their blanket rolls by one of Tony DeMaio's henchmen, who handed them shovels and said, "Follow me, and don't ask questions." They dug a trench in the hillside and dumped in a body. By morning everyone in the battalion knew that someone had been shot without being told the details. Later in the day they were told that Paul White had been executed as a deserter "by the unanimous [sic] decision of the battalion." They, the men of the battalion, had decided nothing - certainly not unanimously. Joe Bianca, a friend from the New York waterfront, who knew that White's wife had just had a baby, vented his anger by shouting over and over, for all to hear, "Those sons of bitches!" Having just been publicized as "the best soldier in the Battalion," Bianca had passed beyond the range of commissariat retaliation. (According to John Gates, many years later, on the next day an order come down from Division countermanding the executions. It arrived too late for Paul White.) At this time Gates and Wolff conducted the trial of Bernard Abramofsky, accused of multiple desertions and black marketeering. This was held in a darkened room with a single light shining on his face. Like White, he was executed by a nocturnal firing squad.