A Snippet of History: Basque sheepherders protested for their rights

A blurb from the Arizona Daily Sun from 100 years ago, in 1920:

The Basque sheepherders whose rights to graze their herds of sheep have been recently denied are protesting that they are not “aliens” but that some of them are already citizens of the United States and others have taken out their “First Papers.”

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 32

Kepa and Maite stood in line to board the ferry to Liberty Island. In front of them, beyond the throng of people also waiting in line, they could see the Statue of Liberty. Whenever Kepa turned around, he saw the massive skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. He couldn’t wait until tonight, when they would hit Times Square and then the show. 

Edurne, who had taken the afternoon off to guide them through the city, stood next to them, staring across the water at the Statue of Liberty. “It always takes my breath away, you know,” she said, to neither of them in particular. “I always wonder what it would have been like, to be one of those young Basque boys or girls that were coming across the ocean to find a better life. Not knowing English, not having any family to greet you.” She shook her head. “It’s almost overwhelming to think about.”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“I imagine it must have been exciting and frightening at the same time,” replied Maite. “Seeing that statue rise out of the water as your ship got close must have been inspiring.”

“Your parents didn’t pass through here?” asked Kepa.

“Inola ere ez, no way,” replied Edurne. “By the time they came over, they just flew to where they needed to go. I think you have to go pretty far back when people passed through here when they arrived in the United States.”

As the gates to the ferry opened, they made their way onto the deck, Edurne taking them to a prime spot against the rail to see both the Statue of Liberty as they approached but also the Manhattan skyline behind them. After the last passengers got on the ferry, it slowly turned, plowing through the water toward Liberty Island. The Statue of Liberty loomed above them as they got closer. 

“It’s not as big as I expected,” remarked Kepa. 

Edurne laughed. “No, I guess not. But, I imagine if you were a young Basque crossing the ocean for the first time, it must have looked pretty impressive.”

“I think these days,” added Maite, “we are so bombarded with ‘spectacular’ things that we lose a sense of scale.”

Edurne nodded as the ferry docked at the island. “Time to get off,” she said as she led the three of them toward the exit. “We’ll take a look at the Statue and the museum and then take the ferry to see Ellis Island.” 

They strolled along the pathway encircling the Statue, it’s large patina form towering above them. 

“It’s still pretty damn impressive,” said Maite as they stopped in front of the statue, its benevolent face gazing across the waters behind them. 

All Kepa could do was nod in agreement.

Basque Fact of the Week: Gabonzuzi, The Basque Yule Log

A lot of our Christmas traditions grew out of pre-Christian practices and beliefs, often arising from celebrations of the Winter Solstice. The idea of Christmas carols – of going from house-to-house singing songs – stems from Yule Singing or Wassailing. Mistletoe came from Celtic beliefs that associated it with male fertility. In fact, the whole association of Yuletide with Christmas comes from Germanic and Nordic winder Yule celebrations. A big part of those celebrations is the Yule log, a tradition that is also found in the Basque Country.

A burning Yule log. Photo by Wayne Camlin.
  • In the Basque Country, the Yule log goes by many names, including Gabonzuzi, Gabon-subil, Gabon-mukur, Olentzero-enbor, Onontzoro-mokor, Subilaro-egur, Suklaro-egur, Sukubela, and Porrondoko. And the customs associated with it are just as varied. One common element is the burning of a large log that is especially selected for the occasion. This log can be very large – in Trespuentes, where it is burned all year long, a pair of oxen was required to drag the log into the kitchen. In other places, it is only burned on Christmas Eve or until the last night of the year.
  • In some places, more than one log is burnt. In Esquiroz and Elcano, they burned three logs, one dedicated to God, one to Our Lady, and one to the family of the house. In Eraso and Araquil, extra logs are thrown in the fire, one for each member of the family and an extra for the beggar.
  • Because the log was burned on such special days, it has special powers and virtues. The Christmas Eve meal is often prepared on this fire, with special dishes, varying regionally, marking the occasion – things like zurruputun “soup with bits of cod” and azoliyo “cabbage seasoned with oil”, or intxur-salsa “pie with nuts” and oriyoasa “cabbage salad.”
  • In some places, they make a roaring fire to prevent Olentzero from coming down the chimney and killing everyone with his sickle.
  • The log has powers to protect animals from harm. In places like Esquiroz, Oyarzun and Araquil, on the first day of the new year, they placed the burnt log, after being concentrated to God, at the threshold of the house and forced all of their animals to cross over it, believing this would protect them from accidental death. In Aezcoa, they would save the ash, and if a cow got a hardened udder, they would warm the ash in the fire and use it as a salve to heal the diseased animal. In Olaeta, they placed the burnt log in the stable where it would protect the animals from disease.
  • The ashes can also protect fields. In Ibárruri, they would save the ash and, on the say of Saint Steven, they would take the ash to the fields and scatter it in the shape of a cross. This was thought to kill the vermin that might harm the crops.
  • On the other hand, in Salvatierra, they thought the log could help deter storms, and whenever one approached, they threw the log on the fire.
  • The log can also protect the family. In Amorebieta, they made sure the log burned all through the night on Christmas Eve as this prevented anyone in the family from dying in the coming year.

Primary sources: Barandiaran Ayerbe, José Miguel de. GABONZUZI. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/gabonzuzi/ar-55341/; Auñamendi Entziklopedia. Navidad. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/navidad/ar-98099/

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 31

The next morning, Maite and Kepa slept like rocks. Edurne tried to let them sleep in while she spent the morning working from her home office. However, it was still pretty early when Kepa could hear voices outside his door.

“Sweety, they just flew thousands of miles across the ocean. They are very tired, they need some sleep.”

“But, I want to play cards!”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Kepa rolled over. He watched Maite’s peaceful face as she slept in the other bed. While no one else in the house was particularly preoccupied with Maite and Kepa sharing a bed, they themselves weren’t quite ready for that next step in their relationship and had opted to pull the two twin beds apart. Kepa sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to fall back asleep. He pulled the covers off and got out of bed. He threw on a robe that Edurne had left for him and slipped as quietly as he could out of the room.

George and Amaia were in the hallway. They looked up as Kepa closed the door behind him. 

“I’m so sorry, Kepa,” said George. “We didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It is no problem,” replied Kepa. “I was awake anyways.” He looked down at Amaia. “Besides, I heard someone wants to play cards?”

Amaia squealed as she grabbed Kepa’s hand and pulled him toward the living room. 

“Can I at least get you some coffee?” asked George as Kepa plopped down in a chair. 

“That would be great,” replied Kepa with a smile as Amaia began dealing out the cards. “What are we playing?”

“Go Fish!” 

Kepa laughed. “I don’t know that one, you will have to teach me.”

Amaia’s face filled with disbelief. “You don’t know how to play Go Fish?”

Kepa shook his head as he accepted the cup of steaming coffee from George. “Mil esker,” he said to George. Turning back to Amaia, he replied “No, my parents never taught me that one.” 

After the third game of Go Fish, Kepa was beginning to think he understood the rules, even if he kept losing every game. He heard the floorboards creak and looked up to find Maite standing over him, a cup of coffee in her hand. She sat down next to him, wrapping her arm around his back. “Egun on,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“Egun on!” said Amaia enthusiastically. “Do you want to play?”

“Oh, no!” replied Maite. “I’m not a card player. Besides, I need to talk to your mom and dad about our plans for the day.”

“What are our plans for the day?” asked Kepa, as curious as Amaia.

“We were thinking of seeing the Statue of Liberty before going to that show with Unai and Eric. How does that sound?”

“Sounds perfect,” said Kepa. He turned to Amaia. “Do you have any sevens?”

“Go fish!” squealed Amaia as Maite chuckled and headed toward the kitchen.

Basque Fact of the Week: José Antonio Aguirre y Lecube, the First Basque President

Today, the three Basque provinces of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa form the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), a political entity within Spain that is led by the Lehendakari, or President, of the BAC. However, if we look back in time, the first Lehendakari presided over a very different government. The first Basque government was formed from the Statute of Autonomy and was almost immediately forced to flee once Bilbao fell in the Spanish Civil War, becoming a government in exile until after Franco’s death. The head of that first Basque government was José Antonio Aguirre y Lecube.

Jose Antonio Aguirre Lecube. Image from Euskal Etxeak 63, 2004.
  • Aguirre was born in Bilbao in 1904. He essentially became head of the family when his father died in 1920. He attended the University of Deusto where he studied law. Before entering politics, Aguirre was both a soccer player for Athletic Bilbao (he was part of the team that won the Copa del Rey in 1932) and the head of his family’s chocolate business. His first foray into public life was as president of the Catholic Youth of Bizkaia. In 1931, when he was 27 years old, he was elected mayor of Getxo and then as a deputy to the Constituent Cortes.
  • In 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Cortes passed the Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country, effectively creating an independent Basque Country. On October 7, a convocation of mayors was held in Gernika and they elected Aguirre Lehendakari, or president, of the new government.
  • It wasn’t long, however, before Bilbao fell to Franco’s forces; on June 19, 1937 to be exact. Aguirre escaped first to Paris, then to Barcelona, and finally to Belgium where he found himself when World War II broke out. Ironically, hunted by the Nazis, he hid under their noses in Berlin until he was ultimately able to make his way to New York via a circuitous route that took him to Sweden, Brazil, and Uruguay. He traveled to the Americas as the Panamanian Dr. José Álvarez Lastra, accompanied by his Venezuelan wife, María de Arrigorriaga (who was his real wife María Zabala), and their two children. He later recounted this adventure and his pursuit by Franco’s agents in his book Escape via Berlin. In New York, he became a professor of history at Columbia University.
  • He resigned from Columbia in 1946, writing (as quoted by Gloria Totoricagüena in EuskoNews): “My duty lies with my Basque people’s cause of freedom and with the cause of Iberian freedom. … Only those of us who come to these lands of freedom exiled by tyranny can appreciate the deep human understanding to be found in America and the hope it symbolizes for all…. Someday, perhaps soon, we Basque shall return again to our freed country and once again open the Basque University which General Franco closed in his systematic persecution of our culture.”
  • He returned to Paris in 1945 from where he led the Basque government in exile until his death in 1960. He collaborated with the allied governments, particularly the United States, placing the network of exiles he had at hand in the service of the CIA. However, as fears of the spread of communism rose, the support the Basque government in exile had from the United States eroded as they instead shifted support to the anti-communist Franco regime.

Primary sources: Estornés Lasa, Mariano [et al.]. Aguirre Lecube, José Antonio. Auñamendi Encyclopedia, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/en/aguirre-lecube-jose-antonio/ar-7038/; Wikipedia; Euskal Etxeak 63, 2004.

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 30

Kepa hadn’t seen a feast like this since, well, the last time his cousin had visited the Basque Country and his mom had invited everyone to the baserri. Edurne’s parents had laid out the table with salads, beans, steak, roasted vegetables, and freshly made bread. In addition to Kepa and Maite, Edurne and her family, and Edurne’s parents, Edurne’s brother and his partner had also joined them. Kepa wondered when the last time so many people had been forced into this room, but then he remembered he was with fellow Basques and assumed it was likely last week.

Kepa poked at one of the brussel sprouts on his plate. “Zer da hori?” he asked for the sixth time.

Maite just laughed. “I guess we don’t eat many of these back at home, eh?” 

Edurne also laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. She nodded toward her four-year-old daughter who sat across the table with her husband. “Amaia doesn’t like them either.”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

A twinkle lit up in Kepa’s eyes as he looked at Amaia. “Nahi duzu?” he asked, pointing to the brussel sprouts. “Do you want?” He chuckled as Amaia shook her head vehemently. 

Maite stabbed one of the brussel sprouts off of his plate and put it in her mouth. “But they are so good. Goxoak dira!”

Amaia held up her plate. “Do you want?” she asked Maite. 

Edurne’s husband, George, nearly choked on his wine as he tried to hold back his laughter. “She’s too smart, this one. It’s hard to fool her, believe me, I’ve tried.” George was maybe a few years older than Edurne, with thick hair and a beard that were starting to show just hints of grey. Maite thought he must have been quite dashing when Edurne first met him.

“Maybe she’ll grow up to be a physicist like her cousin, eh?” asked Edurne’s brother, Unai. Maite knew Unai, now in his late twenties, from his visits to the Basque Country, but during those visits, they had never clicked. Even though Edurne was so much older than her, Maite had always gravitated more to her, maybe because she was like the older sister she never had. But, Unai had grown into a strong young man, not quite the mountain that his dad was, but still powerfully built. He looked like he had just come from the stylist, his hair immaculate. Maite couldn’t help but be thankful he didn’t sport the mullet that was still so popular back at home. Unai’s partner, Eric, who sat next to him, was more slender, sporting a ginger goatee that was neatly trimmed. He seemed rather quiet. 

“If she’s that clever, I expect she’ll find a different path,” replied Maite with a chuckle. 

“So, how are your parents?” asked Anton, Edurne’s father. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen Fulgencio and Rosario.”

It had been a while since Maite had seen Anton and Feliciana, her mother’s second cousins. They looked much the same as before, though a bit greyer. Anton was always a mountain of a man, and had seemed like a giant to Maite when she was young and first met him. He still seemed built like an ox, though most of his hair had disappeared. Feliciana was still the same striking woman she remembered. She had always thought she must be some American movie star, the way she lit up the room and drew attention wherever she went. Edurne was almost the spitting image of that young, glamorous woman Maite remembered from her youth.

“They are well,” replied Maite after a sip of her wine. “A bit sad that I might go to graduate school in the United States, but otherwise enjoying their retirement.”

“We had so many good times in their bar,” sighed Feliciana. “Remember that time, after Jose’s wedding…”

“Ah, dear, let’s not get into our long stories now,” interrupted Anton. “I expect Kepa and Maite are tired after such a long flight. Tomorrow, however, we’ll regale them with stories of old.” He turned toward the pair. “A night cap before seeing you off?”

Kepa and Maite nodded as they all retired to the living room. Despite Anton’s previous protestations, he sucked Maite, Edurne and Unai into stories of his childhood, growing up in the Basque Country, coming to America to work in the big city, meeting Felciana, and staying forever. “Maybe we’ll move back when we retire,” he said.

Feliciana elbowed him in the ribs. “We’ve been retired for years now,” she said. “And you say that every year.”

Kepa, meanwhile, sat around the coffee table with George and Eric sipping his glass of cognac. He chuckled. “I usually don’t get the good stuff back at home,” he said. 

“These guys never spare any expense,” replied George. “You should see how they spoil Amaia.”

“I can imagine. If I had a kid, I know my ama would go crazy.”

“What are your plans for your time in New York?” asked Eric.

Kepa shrugged. “I don’t know, to be honest.” He nodded at Maite. “This is her show. I’m just here for moral support.”

“Well,” replied Eric. “My company often has tickets for shows, not always Broadway, but usually still pretty good. I could probably swing some tickets if you are all interested.”

“That would be nice,” said George. “I’m sure Anton and Feliciana wouldn’t mind spoiling Amaia for a night. And Edurne just finished a big project at work, I think she can get away.”

“Sounds good to me, but I can’t promise I will stay awake the whole time,” added Kepa.

“Great! Let’s check with everyone, but I’ll try to get tickets in the morning.”

Amaia approached the three men, her hands hidden behind her back. She then placed a deck of cards on the table. “Will you play cards with me?” she asked.

The three of them chuckled. “Sure,” replied Kepa. “But, you’ll have to teach me these American rules first.”

Basque Fact of the Week: Relatives of Flesh and Bone

Because of their mysterious origins, the Basques fascinate historians and linguists. Linguists try to reconstruct the prehistory of the Basque language in the hope of understanding where it came from. Geneticists examine the DNA of populations all over Europe to try to establish a link. While these efforts shed greater light on the origins of the Basques and their language, there is still much that is opaque. Perhaps analyzing the origins of Basque kinship terms can reveal new insight. This is precisely the approach taken by Juan Inazio Hartsuaga Uranga.

Basque kinship terms.
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, in the course of developing his theories of kinship and alliance, compiled evidence from Asian cultures, including China and Tibet, that they distinguished between relatives of the bone and relatives of the flesh; that is, relatives of the father and of the mother, respectively. This concept seems to be rooted in the idea that “considering a new born baby, its bones have been put in by the father, and that those bones have been covered with flesh by the mother.” This concept isn’t found in Indo-European cultures.
  • In his analysis of Basque kinship terms, Hartsuaga Uranga notes how odd the Basque word for in-laws is. That word, ginarreba, offers a number of apparent contradictions. It ends in the traditional -ba, a root that Basque etymologists have connected to kinship — think alaba (daughter), seme from semebe (son), arreba (sister of a brother), ahizpa (sister of a sister), neba (brother of a sister), osaba (uncle), izeba (aunt), (i)loba (nephew/niece), aitaginarreba (father-in-law), amaginarreba (mother-in-law), and asaba (ancestor).
  • However, it seems to have, buried in there, the word arreba — sister of a brother. Etymologists have struggled to figure out how ginarreba — in-laws — could be connected to arreba — sister. Hartsuaga Uranga suggests a different origin for the word. He breaks it down as giharre-ba, or related to the word gihar, meaning flesh or muscle. That is, he suggests that the Basque word for in-law, ginarreba, originally meant “relative of the flesh,” a concept similar to what Lévi-Strauss described for Asian cultures. This would suggest that ginarreba originally meant something like “relatives on the mother’s side.”
  • Hartsuaga Uranga uses this etymology to make a Paleolithic link to the Basques. He argues that, if the pre-historic Basques believed in this theory of bone and flesh, that links them to these Asian cultures and must mean that they had the belief when they first came to the Bay of Biscay. They wouldn’t have borrowed it from any of the Indo-European cultures that later surrounded them as those cultures didn’t have this concept of relationships.
  • One gap in this theory is that there is seemingly no word for “relative of the bone” in Basque. Maybe it got lost. Or maybe it changed so much that it is now unrecognizable. But, Hartsuaga Uranga recalls the expression hezur berriak izan — literally meaning “to have new bones” — used to say someone is pregnant, possibly related to this old idea of relatives of bone.

Primary sources: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio [et al.]. Paleolithic Ancestry of the Basques. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/paleolithic-ancestry-of-the-basques/ar-157138/; Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Parentesco Vasco. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/en/parentesco-vasco/ar-154036/

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 29

Kepa and Maite walked down the passenger boarding bridge, hand in hand, as they debarked in New York City. The last week had been a blur. After their encounter with Marina, they had almost completely forgotten about the zatiak as they had been in a frenzy to finalize their preparations for their trip. The flight across the Atlantic had been uneventful but tiring. Neither Maite nor Kepa had traveled so far from home nor been forced to sit for so long at one go. As they stepped into the terminal, they paused to stretch and look out the windows at the city in the distance.

Customs took so much longer than they had ever expected. After sitting for hours on the plane, the last thing that either had wanted to do was stand in line for hours, but they had little choice in the matter. Exhausted when they finally collected their bags, they stumbled through the exit.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“What does Edurne look like?” asked Kepa. Maite’s cousin was supposed to pick them up.

“Well, it’s been a while since I saw her in person, but we chatted a few times via video as we planned our trip. She’s about thirty-five, has dark curly hair that falls past her shoulders. But, I think she’ll be holding a sign or something letting us know who she is.”

Indeed, as soon as they made their way through the exit into the throng of family and friends awaiting other passengers, they could hear one voice in particular, yelling “Maite! Maite!” Searching for the origin of the sound, they saw a woman who Kepa could only presume was Edurne jumping up and down, holding a sign above her head with “Maite!” in big bright letters. 

Maite smiled as she weaved her way through the crowd toward her cousin. “Edurne!!” she exclaimed as she reached him, letting her suitcase drop as she gave Edurne a big hug. “It is so good to see you!”

Kepa was immediately struck by how gorgeous Edurne was. Her long dark curls framed a face that seemed taken from the movies. She wore a sleek jacket and slacks that flattered her slender figure. Her brown eyes sparkled when they saw Maite.

“And you, cuz! It’s been too long. I never thought that the next time we would see each other would be in the US.”

“Nik ere ez! I kept hoping to see you back at the baserri!”

Edurne shrugged. “You know how it goes. Work and family. There isn’t much time to take big vacations to the home country.”

Kepa let out a small cough.

Maite smiled. “Barkatu,” she said with exaggeration. “Edurne, let me introduce you Kepa.”

Edurne engulfed Kepa in a big bear hug. “Nice to meet you, Kepa! I hope you both had a good flight.”

Kepa exaggerated a large yawn. “It was fine, but so long. Nekatuta naiz.”

“I completely understand. I’ve done that flight so many times. But, don’t worry, we’ll take things easy tonight. We’ll get you to the house and let you shower and refresh before we meet aita and ama and the rest of the family for dinner.”

“Zer…?” asked Kepa. “Dinner, tonight?”

Maite just smiled as she took her suitcase from him. “No different than what we do for them when they come to visit.”

Fighting Basques: Objective Burma: Julio Eiguren, the Basque Spy Who Did Not Exist

This article originally appeared in Spanish at El Diario. You can find all of the English versions of the Fighting Basques series here.

Family photograph of Julio Eiguren, with his brothers and sisters, parents and uncle, after the end of the war. Standing, from left to right: Pedro “Pete”, Julio, Fernando Eiguren (uncle), Luis “Louie” and John. Seated from left to right: Victoria “Bessie”, Bonifacio Eiguren and Lucia Bermeasolo (parents) and Connie (Courtesy of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, Idaho).

The invasion of Burma (now Myanmar) – in the hands of the British Empire since 1886 – by the Empire of the Rising Sun at the end of December 1941 was another strategic military coup of great importance against the power of the allied powers in the Southeast Asia. The British would capitulate in April 1942, with Burma becoming a key player on the military board of the Japanese in a final attempt to subjugate China and gain prominence in the region. While the Basque-Nevadans of the US Air Force – Joseph Malaxechevarria Plaza, Santy Arriola Onandia, John Montero Bidegaray, and Domingo Arangüena Bengoa – heroically flew over the skies of Burma, on the extremely dangerous route between India and China, at the end of 1944 in the south of the country, a secret agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the first centralized intelligence agency abroad in the history of the United States (USA) – was deployed: Julio Eiguren Bermeasolo, born in 1919 in Jordan Valley, Oregon, to Biscayan parents. Two years before the creation of the OSS, on April 13, 1942, Eiguren had enlisted in the army in the city of Boise, Idaho. For two months he attended the Military Police Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, which was established in April 1942 to train soldiers and military police for replacement of losses abroad. On June 8 he would be transferred to the South Post, Fort Myer, Virginia. His military occupational specialty was “messenger.”

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

Despite being a very young organization, established only in June 1942, the OSS expanded rapidly, albeit with difficulties and to different degrees of penetration, through the different theaters of operations, with the exception of the Pacific which had been sharply vetoed by General Douglas MacArthur. (Later in 1944 and 1945, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz would make use of the pioneering OSS maritime unit in the invasion of the Philippines.) After the liberation of France and the stabilization of that theater of operations, the priority of the OSS immediately shifted to Germany, and after the end of the war in Europe to the Asian front. Excluded from the army and navy controlled sectors of the Pacific, the OSS devoted all its efforts to the distant China-Burma-India Theater, largely unknown to the public and regarded as the “forgotten war” of World War II (WWII). While the OSS staff assigned to that region did not reach 14% in October 1944, between June and September 1945 the region held 36% (about 4,000 people) of the total agency staff. It was the “ideal” terrain – sparsely populated with dense jungles, and a devastating monsoon climate plagued with tropical diseases – for the kind of unconventional warfare behind enemy lines that the OSS had perfected in Nazi-occupied Europe. In this way, for the first time, the OSS sent abroad a first detachment of special forces, formed by sections of special operations and secret intelligence, called “Detachment 101,” which operated in the north of Japan-occupied Burma between April 1942 and 1945. The OSS had about 800 Americans and a guerrilla force of about 10,000 indigenous natives (about 9,000 Kachin who formed the “Kachin Rangers”) instructed by the American agency to deal with the Japanese imperial troops.

OSS misssions and bases in southeast Asia, September 1945 (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/intelligence-history/oss/pg_36.jpg/image.jpg).

Similarly, the OSS formed “Detachment 404” whose operational area primarily covered southern Burma, the Arakan coast (with a strong presence of the Muslim Rohingya minority, armed and trained by the British); the south of French Indochina (Cambodia and southern Vietnam), Siam (now Thailand); Malaysia; and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The “404,” officially identified by the nickname of the “US Experimental Division”, was active for 21 months. It was formed by about 200 agents selected from the commandos of the operative groups, the intelligence section and the maritime unit, which acted between 1944 and 1945, with the help of Malaysian agents trained by the OSS in the United States. The headquarters of the “404” was located in Kandy (then British Ceylon, today Sri Lanka), where the Headquarters of the Allied South East Asia Command was located between 1943 and 1946, led by British Admiral Louis Mountbatten and US Lieutenant General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who jointly coordinated their actions (unlike the “101” which retained its tactical autonomy). On February 14, 1944, Eiguren was transferred from the army to the OSS, receiving highly specialized training to serve abroad. On November 23, 1944 he was assigned to the “404”.

John enlisted in the US Army in 1942 in Boise (Courtesy of Eiguren Family / Basque Museum and Cultural Center, Bosie)

Despite the close relations between the OSS and the Basque Government in exile, and particularly between its director, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Lehendakari José Antonio Aguirre, the incorporation of Eiguren, and other Basque-Americans, occurred outside of this collaboration. The potential of an entire generation of young Americans of Basque origin who would join all the different branches of the US Army and on all military fronts during the course of WWII went incomprehensibly unnoticed by the Basque Government itself and its intelligence service. How many military units, exclusively Basque, could have been formed had they had hundreds of Basque-American recruits? It is particularly in the context of the 75th anniversary of the constitution of the Gernika battalion, the only Basque combatant unit in WWII, where the inquiry into the reasons behind the non-use of the Basque-American contingent by the Aguirre government becomes unavoidable.

One of the sections of the OSS that stood out, along with that of secret intelligence and special operations, was the Task Force Command (comparable to the special forces unit of the British Army, the Special Air Service (SAS) founded in July of 1941), responsible for the selection, training, equipping and activation of resistance groups in guerrilla warfare (a kind of “secret army”); for select discretionary attacks; and for surprise combat operations, limited in scope, by small special forces units. These commando units – uniformed unlike their companions in special operations – were made up of immigrants with command of foreign languages resident in the United States or by second-generation Americans who had retained their mother tongue. Most of its members were recruited from the armed forces. Native populations, ethnic or religious minorities were extolled and empowered in an effort to mobilize different populations in favor of the Allies, whether they were the “Kachin Rangers” or the failed Basque commandos of Rothschild (or Airedales) [1].

For example, among the operational groups, OGs, that served in France, those made up of French, Norwegian Americans or Italian-Americans stood out. By 1944, the OG had 2,000 men, including Germans, Greeks, and Yugoslavs (the OSS trained both partisans of the Communist Party under the leadership of Josip Broz “Tito” and the Chetniks, nationalist and anti-communist guerrillas loyal to the monarchy, of General Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović), and Thai or Chinese anti-colonialists (the latter in 1945). As can be seen, the formation of exclusively Basque operational groups would not have been strange at all since it followed the OSS’s own idiosyncrasy.

Eigure on a Harley Davidson WLA (Courtesy of the Eiguren Family / Basque Museum and Cultural Center).

According to the military file requested from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Eiguren worked for the “404” Services Section as a “courier” or “dispatcher,” although his “special ability” was that of an “aircraft worker” without mention of the missions in which he took part. The messaging service (“courier”) consisted of handling the transmission of highly classified documents, for which very high caliber personnel were hired, their work being vital for communication between the various components of the detachment. In a very few months Eiguren rose very quickly, from private to sergeant.

Confidential transfer order of Eiguren to the OSS (NARA).

Among other activities, the “404” mapped the Arakan coast (full of mangroves), compiled thousands of intelligence reports, reported on Japanese submarines, helped rescue downed Allied pilots, infiltrated enemy territory, carried out dozens of sabotage missions, and organized numerous and successful operations in Thailand, including the formation of a Thai guerrilla force (some of them, students in American universities, were trained by the OSS in the USA) that did not go to war due to its immediate end. The “404” also collaborated with agents and guerrillas of the Ho Chi Minh Viet Minh in Vietnam, provided them with weapons, medicine and training, and carried out their own missions in Vietnamese territory. With the capture of Rangoon on May 2, 1945, Burma was largely liberated from Japanese occupation. The actions taken by the OSS made it easier for Thailand to maintain its sovereignty after the war, under the orbit of American foreign policy, and away from the old colonial pretensions of the United Kingdom.

Eiguren died aged 58 without revealing his real identity and work done during WWII (Basque Museum and Cultural Center).

After nine and a half months of service in Burma, Eiguren ended his work with the OSS on November 6, 1945, as part of the general demobilization program for American troops. Upon his return to the United States, he was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland, on November 14, where he was discharged from the army. He died of a heart attack on his ranch in Emmett, Idaho, on August 7, 1976 at the age of 58. For the general public, Eiguren was another soldier in the army who served his country with honor abroad. But in reality he was a secret agent whose work in the OSS “Detachment 404” is unknown, and whose contribution to the end of the war on the Southeast Asian front was completely unknown. According to his superiors, “Sergeant Eiguren was one of the most exceptional soldiers in this Detachment” with excellent physical abilities, leadership skills and motivation, among other qualities. For the rest of the world, Eiguren was never in Burma.

[1] Oiarzabal, Pedro J. and Tabernilla, Guillermo. “The enigma of myth and history: ‘Basque code talkers’ in World War II. The OSS and the Basque Information Service — the Airedale Organization.” Saibigain Magazine, No. 3 (2017). “The enigma of myth and history:‘ Basque code talkers ’in World War II. The OSS and the Basque Information Service — the Airedale Organization “

Basque Fact of the Week: The Massacre of La Hoya

For over 1000 years, the village of La Hoya grew and evolved, becoming a flourishing trade center. Then, suddenly, about 2200 years ago, it ceased to exist, completely obliterated. Thanks to the efforts of scientists from the University of Oxford, the National Center for Scientific Research in France, Arkikus, and the Alava Institute of Archeology in Vitoria-Gasteiz, in work published in the journal Antiquity, we now have a better understanding of what happened to the people of La Hoya, if not why.

Left: plan of La Hoya sector III, including the location of the human skeletons and skeletal elements studied, some of which are photographed in situ on the right. Figure and caption from Antiquity 94, 1245 (2020).

  • The site of La Hoya is located near Laguardia, Araba, some 40 kilometers south of the capital of Araba, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Laguardia has a rich history, with a wall ordered built by Sancho the Strong and several important churches. It was also the birthplace of Blanche of Nafarroa, one-time Queen of Castile. However, perhaps the most fascinating bit of history relates to the Iron Age site of La Hoya.
  • First discovered in 1935, it wasn’t until the 1970s that excavations began in La Hoya. The village existed over three distinct ages: the Middle/Late Bronze Age, when the buildings were built of wood; the Early and Middle Iron Ages, when new mixes of stone, wood and adobe were used in construction; and the Late Iron Age, which saw the introduction of Celtiberian elements and the paving of streets. The people who lived in La Hoya were probably Berones, a Celtic people.
  • La Hoya sat in the valley of the Ebro River, making it a key spot for the flow of people and goods. At its peak, it had numerous shops, communal spaces, and a population of about 1500 people. It seemed to have facilities for pottery and metal production while cremation remains suggest it was ruled by a “warrior aristocracy.” However, it was situated in the low valley, with only its wall to protect it.
  • Some time around 200-300 BCE, the village was destroyed. At least thirteen bodies have been discovered and studied, ranging from both men and women as well as children and even an infant. It seems that their bodies were left where they fell, with no funerary rituals or burials. Their bones are charred, suggesting that, after they were killed, the village was burned to the ground.
  • The remains reveal a violent end to the lives of these people. At least one man was decapitated, his head missing from the remains. One man and one teenage girl had their right arms amputated — the girl’s arm was found with bracelets still adorning it. No weapons were found, suggesting that the populace was either defenseless or the attack was a surprise. Most items of potential value were left untouched, suggesting that plunder was not the motivation. This massacre effectively ended La Hoya as a human settlement.
  • This new understanding of the fate of La Hoya rewrites some previous assumptions. In particular, this massacre occurred before Roman contact. It had been thought that large-scale warfare came to the Iberian peninsula with the Romans, but this site reveals that it existed before.

Primary sources: Euskonews; T. Fernández-Crespo, J. Ordoño, A. Llanos, R. J. Schulting, “Make a desert and call it peace: massacre at the Iberian Iron Age village of La Hoya,” Antiquity 94, 1245 (2020).

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