Tag: US history

March 27, 1944: Bombing of Biarritz by US Air Force

At 2:30 in the afternoon on Monday, March 27, 1944, toward then end of World War II, the Basque towns of Biarritz and Angelu in Lapurdi was bombed by 44 Consolidated B-24 Liberators in the 458th and 466th Bomb Groups.  In eight minutes they dropped 44 tonnes of bombs on the Nazi-occupied town, resulting in 117 casualties and around 250 injuries.

The official aim of the mission that day–according to the archives–was to destroy the nearby Parma airfield and the Latécoère aircraft company factory, although it is also likely that it included the target of a German base there storing V-1 doodlebugs and V-2 rockets. Moreover, the Nazis had constructed a major command center in bunkers beneath Biarritz. The mission was part of the conclusion of a more general strategy to bomb occupied France on the part of the Allies between June 1940 and May 1945; and served as a prelude to the D-Day landings of June 1944 in Normandy. However, lacking the necessary precision technology, many devices went astray in the carpet bombing and hit the civilian population as well as the Nazi occupiers, with approximately one hundred German soldiers among the dead, and destroying 375 residential homes in the process too.

See “Les mystères du bombardement de Biarritz” in Sud-Ouest, March 26, 2013 (in French) and “70 urte, AEBko hegazkinek Biarritz eta Angelu bonbardatu zituztela” at EITB, March 27, 2014 (in Basque). Check out a video report on the bombing by ETB, the Basque public broadcaster, here (in Basque) and listen to a fascinating piece of oral history in this first-hand account by people who experienced the bombing (in Basque).

The Center’s own Sandra Ott has written extensively on the German occupation of the Basque Country during World War II. Check out her War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945 and Living With the Enemy: German Occupation, Collaboration and Justice in the Western Pyrenees, 1940–1948as well as her edited work, War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946.

Note (from Wikipedia): At the end of World War II in Europe, the U.S. Army’s Information and Educational Branch was ordered to establish an overseas university campus for demobilized American service men and women in Biarritz. Under General Samuel L. McCroskey, the hotels and casinos of Biarritz were converted into quarters, labs, and class spaces for U.S. service personnel. The University opened August 10, 1945 and about 10,000 students attended an eight-week term. This campus was set up to provide a transition between army life and subsequent attendance at a university in the US, so students attended for just one term. After three successful terms, the G.I. University closed in March 1946.

Lafayette, Hero of the American War of Independence, and the Basque Connection

As I’m sure you all know, Lafayette–or to give him his full name, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834)–was the famed French aristocrat who fought in the American War of Independence and was a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.  During the war he served with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine (1777), the Battle of Rhode Island (1778), and, later during a second journey, played a significant role in the Siege of Yorktown (1781). Today, cities, streets,  and squares–even a mountain–across the US are named in his honor. But did you know there is a Basque connection to Lafayette’s exploits?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A firm believer in the cause of American independence, he volunteered to cross the Atlantic to fight for the revolutionaries there while still a young man. Lacking official support, though, he himself raised the necessary funds to acquire a sailing ship, the Victoire, to transport him and his men across the ocean. This initial trip was complicated due to the delicate diplomatic position of France during the war and Lafayette carried out much of the preparations clandestinely. While the Victoire was fitted out and prepared for the journey in Bordeaux, official opposition to Lafayette’s expedition meant that he himself could not depart with the ship when it left Bordeaux and would have to seek another port of departure. Traveling overland, disguised as a courier, he reunited with the ship and his men in the Basque  Port of Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, from where he set sail for America on April 26, 1777, six days after it had left the Port of Pauillac, Bordeaux. It is even rumored that several Basque corsairs were among the crew accompanying him on the voyage.

An additional note of interest: As Douglass and Bilbao observe in Amerikanuak (p. 59n), the last of the great Basque corsairs, Étienne Pellot (1765-1856), a legendary figure we discussed in a previous post, “received his first taste of combat as a cabin-boy on the Marquise de Lafayette, a ship of four hundred tons and thirty cannons, which was outfitted in Bayonne by the ‘ladies of the Court’ to fight against England during the American Revolution.”

Flashback Friday: Safe and Sound

On November 6, 1941, Jose Antonio Jose Antonio Agirre Lekube (1904-1960), lehendakari or president of the Basque Country, arrived in Philadelphia and met his friends Manuel Maria Intxausti and Manuel de la Sota. On May 8, 1940, Agirre had departed from Paris (France) to Brussels (Belgium) along with his wife and children to visit relatives living there. Immediately after their arrival, the Agirre family was caught unaware when, on May 10, Adolf Hitler’s forces invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Thereafter, they struggled to escape from Europe to America. Eventually in August Agirre exiled safe and sound to Brazil. On November 4, after receiving a residence permit from the US Government, he arrived in Miami, before passing through Argentina. After his short visit in Philadelphia on November 6, Agirre went to New York and settled there, where he found a large Basque immigrant community. In the city of New York, then, he headed the reorganization of the Basque government-in-exile.

A short film documentary of 1942 about Jose Antonio Agirre and the Basque government-in-exile delegation in the city of New York:

Source: Basque Film Library.

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Portrait of Jose Antonio Agirre. Source: Jon Bilbao Basque Library, UNR

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Members of the Basque government-in-exile in New York. From left, Antonio de Irala, Telesforo Monzon, Santiago Aznar, Manuel de la Sota, Ramon Aldasoro, Jose Antonio Agirre, and Gonzalo Nardiz.


The remarkable story of Agirre’s escape from Europe is told in his own words in Escape via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler’s Europe.

On related topics, see Expelled from the Motherland: The Government of President Jose Antonio Agirre in Exile, 1937-1960, by Xabier Irujo; A Basque Patriot in New York: Jose Luis de la Lombana y Foncea and the Euskadi Delegation in the United States, by Iñaki Anasagasti and Josu Erkoreka; and War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott.

Every Friday we look into our Basque archives for interesting historic events that happened on the same day.

John Adams, American Democracy, and Bizkaia

In 1787 John Adams (1735-1826), later to become the second president of the United States, published a key treatise in American history, Defense of Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, in which he defended a notion of “federal democracy” that would ultimately resemble the American model of democratic government that persists to this day.

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Statute of John Adams in Bilbao, next to the Provincial Government of Bizkaia building. photo by Javi Guerra Hernando, via Wikimedia Commons

Adams used historical and contemporary examples of other democratic systems of government to sustain his argument, among which he most favored what he termed “democratic republics,” citing the cases of certain Swiss cantons, San Marino, and Bizkaia. Indeed, he had visited Bizkaia as part of a tour of Europe in 1779. In his own words (vol. 1, letter IV):

In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe . . .

Their solicitude for defence has surrounded with walls all the towns in the district. They are one-and-twenty in number; the principal of which are, Orduna, Laredo, Portugalete, Durango, Bilbao, and St. Andero. Biscay is divided into nine merindades, a sort of juridiction like a bailiwick, besides the four cities on the coast. The capital is Bilbao. — The whole is a collection of very high and very steep mountains, rugged and rocky to such a degree, that a company of men posted on one of them might defend itself as long as it could subsist, by rolling rocks on their enemy. This natural formation of the country, which has rendered the march of armies impracticable, and the daring spirit of the inhabitants, have preserved their liberty.

Active, vigilant, generous, brave, hardy, inclined to war and navigation, they have enjoyed, for two thousand years, the reputation of the best soldiers and sailors in Spain, and even of the best courtiers, many of them having, by their wit and manners, raised themselves into offices of consequence under the court of Madrid. Their valuable qualities have recommended them to the esteem of the kings of Spain, who have hitherto left them in possession of those great immunities of which they are so jealous. In 1632, indeed, the court laid a duty upon salt: the inhabitants of Bilbao rose, and massacred all the officers appointed to collect it, and all the officers of the grand admiral. Three thousand troops were sent to punish them for rebellion: these they fought, and totally defeated, driving most of them into the sea, which discouraged the court from pursuing their plan of taxation; and since that time the king has had no officer of any kind in the lordship, except his corregidor.

Many writers ascribe their flourishing commerce to their situation; but, as this is no better than that of Ferrol or Corunna, that advantage is more probably due to their liberty. In riding through this little territory, you would fancy yourself in Connecticut; instead of miserable huts, built of mud, and covered with straw, you see the country full of large and commodious houses and barns of the farmer; the lands well cultivated; and a wealthy, happy yeomanry. The roads, so dangerous and impassable in most other parts of Spain, are here very good, having been made at a vast expence of labour.

Although the government is called a democracy, we cannot here find all authority collected into one center; there are, on the contrary, as many distinct governments as there are cities and merindades. The general government has two orders at least; the lord or governor, and the biennial parliament. Each of the thirteen subordinate divisions has its organized government, with its chief magistrate at the head of it. We may judge of the form of all of them by that of the metropolis, which calls itself, in all its laws, the noble and illustrious republic of Bilbao. This city has its alcalde, who is both governor and chief justice, its twelve regidores or counsellors, attorney-general, &c. and by all these, assembled in the consistorial palace under the titles of consejo, justicia, y regimiento, the laws are made in the name of the lord of Biscay, and confirmed by him.

The influence of the system of government in Bizkaia on Adams is discussed in The Old Law of Bizkaia (1452), by Gregorio Monreal Zia. This book also includes a detailed account of this system and a critical reflection on its implications. In short, it charts, explains, and discusses one particular genealogical strand of the current American governmental system.

See, also, Relational Democracy by Pedro Ibarra Güell, which critically examines the notion that democracy is defined merely by open, free, and popular elections. Instead, Ibarra argues for a new set of day-to-day relations between citizens and leaders that focus more closely on implementing popular demands at the government level, and applies his arguments to the Basque case.

 

 

What’s in a Name? Some Basque Place Names in North America

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Cape Alava and Ozette Island. Photo by Kimon Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that the weternmost point of the contiguous 48 US states is called Cape Alava, and was named after a Basque, José Manuel de Alava, who was born in 1843 in Vitoria-Gasteiz? It’s in Clallam County, Washington, and forms the western terminus of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. It was named after Alava in 1794 for his role as commissioner during discussions leading to the Nootka Sound Conventions, agreements between Great Britain and Spain that averted a war between the two empires over overlapping claims to parts of the Pacific Northwest in the 1790s.

What’s more, Arizona may also be a Basque-derived name, according to the National Park Service’s page, as explained here at Buber’s Basque Page.

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Downtown Durango, CO. Photo by Sascha Bruck, via Wikimedia Commons

What appears less open to question is the Basque connection when it comes to the name Durango, whether in Colorado, Iowa, or Texas, even if it did come via a town of the same name in Mexico, since the Mexican town derives its name from Durango, Bizkaia. Nor is there any doubt as regards Port aux Basques, the oldest of the collection of towns that make up the present-day Channel-Port aux Basques in Newfoundland, Canada. Similarly, Key Biscayne, an island in Miami-Dade County, Florida, owes its name, reputedly, to the fact that a “Biscayan” (which at that time meant a Basque) had lived on the lower east coast of Florida for a while after being shipwrecked. What’s more, a seventeenth-century map shows the place name Cayo de Biscainhos, the probable origin of today’s Key Biscayne.

Other place names with some Basque connections include the following (in a by no means definitive list):

  • Anza, Riverside Co., CA (named after explorer Juan Bautista de Anza)
  • The Les Basques regional county municipality in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec, Canada
  • Navarre, Santa Rosa Co., FL
  • St. Ignace, Mackinac Co., MI (after the Basque Saint Ignatius of Loiola/Loyola)
  • St. Xavier,  Big Horn Co., MT (after the Basque Saint Francis Xabier/Xavier)
  • Uvalde, TX (a corruption of Ugalde, the Basque last name of a Spanish governor at that time).

Moreover, the name of Bayonne, Hudson Co., NJ, seems to be connected to Bayonne (in Basque, Baiona) in Lapurdi, although there is some disagreement as to whether this is actually the case. And Jean Lafitte, in Jefferson Parish, LA, is named after a famous privateer who was possibly born in Biarritz, Lapurdi.

Do you know of any more Basque-related place names in North America?