Winnipeg Spanish Civil War veteran dies

An era ended Tuesday with the death of Marvin Penn, the last surviving Winnipeg member of the MacKenzie-Papineau Batallion, the Canadian soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Marvin Penn was 23 years old in 1936. He left Winnipeg to go to Spain where he joined the International Brigade with the purpose of fighting Franco's fascists.

The Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II, so the volunteers who went to fight came up against planes and tanks supplied to Franco's Nationalist forces by Europe's most powerful dictators Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini.

The forces of the legitimate Spanish government of the day, the Republicans, were supplied weapons by yet another dictator Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union.

At that time, the Canadian government was unsupportive. "I was in Paris already when the news came over that Canada passed a law that nobody's to go to Spain," said Penn in a 1996 interview.

Penn eventually joined the MacKenzie-Papineau Batallion, "The Mac Paps" as they were called. He fought in four battles, was wounded by shrapnel, and then set up several infirmaries.

By 1939 Franco had won the war and the members of the Mac Paps, those who hadn't been killed, all returned home.

It took until 1996, but the Canadian government finally recognized the valour of its citizens who went to fight fascism in 1936. Memorial plaques were unveiled in Winnipeg and Toronto. "Anything you wait for 60 years for, it feels pretty good," quipped Penn.

In 1996, Penn returned to Spain with other veterans of the Spanish Civil War where he was made an honourary citizen. Of the 10 young men from Winnipeg who fought, he was the only one well enough to travel. "It makes you sad because we should have had more," he said.

Marvin Penn died Tuesday at the age of 87.