Del Berg nearly died around 10 a.m. one sunny day in August 1939.
The 23-year-old American was staying at a monastery outside Valencia, Spain, when Italian bombers flew over and dropped their payload. The bombs were aimed for a nearby rail depot, but they hit the monastery instead. Berg, who was on the second floor, and the men he was with frantically climbed downstairs on a pipe. Berg was last, and it was only when he’d gotten down he realized his shirt was soaked in blood. Shrapnel had struck his liver.
That piece of shrapnel was still in Berg’s liver when he died—more than 76 years later, on Sunday at his home in California. He was 100.
Although the bombardment was not intended for Berg and his compatriots, the Italians wouldn’t have shed any tears. Mussolini’s air force was flying sorties in Iberia on behalf of General Francisco Franco, the Fascist fighting for control in the Spanish Civil War. Berg was there as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of idealistic, often far-leftist Americans who took up arms on behalf of the doomed Spanish Republic. He was believed to be the last surviving member of the brigades.
Around 3,000 young men volunteered for the fight, slipping surreptitiously into Spain. About 800 of them were killed. The war ended in 1939, with Franco victorious. He would go on to lead a repressive dictatorship until his death in 1975. Some of the brigadiers who returned led fairly straightforward mid-century American lives, but not Berg. After returning to the United States in 1939, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to New Guinea. Discharged in 1942 because of his wounds from Spain, Berg promptly joined the Communist Party USA, and led a life of activism throughout his life.