American marines in Barcelona

March 6th, 2012 | by nick |
My latest article for Barcelona Metropolitan

In January 1951, the American Sixth Fleet sailed into an almost Third World Barcelona and stayed for 37 years. La Sisena Flota a Barcelona by Xavier Theros, one of the most interesting books published about the city in recent years, tells the story of how Barcelona developed a love-hate relationship with the marines whose arrival represented the birth of mass tourism in the city. They brought with them fresh ideas, new products, a whiff of democracy and pockets stuffed with dollars, which the men and women of Barcelona were only too pleased to relieve them of.

The Franco regime, tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, had reached an agreement in 1950 with the US to allow the Sixth Fleet to use seven Spanish ports, including Barcelona. While the Yankee dollar undoubtedly saved the regime, and condemned Spain to 25 more years of Franco, a desperately poor, grey city welcomed these boys in their crisp uniforms as a source of revenue and a breath of fresh air. Barcelona was still recovering from the ravages of war and living under a stifling dictatorship. Bombed-out buildings were everywhere. As they disembarked, the marines would have immediately come upon the bottom half of El Raval, still in virtual ruins and left so until the early Sixties as a punishment and warning to the local population of what happened when they voted for the ‘Reds’.
The arrival of the fleet represented a veritable shower of money on some of the poorest parts of Barcelona, at a time when many still went hungry. It is estimated that some one to two million pesetas fell on the city, mostly in the Raval and Barri Gòtic, every time a ship came in, a huge sum for the Fifties. Unsurprisingly, the sex industry was one of the first to benefit. Prostitutes quickly hiked their prices from 15 pesetas a job to five dollars (115 pesetas). As also happened in Tokyo, many were eventually able to move off the game through their rapid rise in income. Bars, tailors and souvenir shops also boomed, and within two years, the first Coca-Cola bottling factory since before the war had opened.
Initially, very few Barcelona residents spoke English and, of course, the handful of Latinos aside, the marines didn’t speak Castilian let alone Catalan. On these early visits, some got by in the Latin that was still taught in American schools, perhaps the first time the language had been used as means of purchasing pleasure in Barcelona for more than 1,500 years. But dollars were a powerful incentive and very soon the city saw the birth of the English teaching business. Theros claims the first professional group to learn English en masse were prostitutes. Many did classes with a teacher installed in Bar Cosmos (Rambla/Escudellers), also the first port of call for marines arriving in the city.

Although the marines generally behaved impeccably towards the local population, they were all too often involved in brawls among themselves and jeeps constantly patrolled the Rambla picking up offenders. But initially, at least, their public image was a positive one. They were generous and could often be seen giving out chewing gum and sweets to children and, of course, they were big spenders, but they also represented freedom and a cultural counterpoint to the repressive and staggeringly boring Francoist city, soon setting off a craze for all things American: jeans, Zippo lighters, Lucky Strike cigarettes, stockings, nylon, American men’s underwear—a manufacturer from Igualada, the epicentre of Catalan lingerie, paid a Barcelona prostitute to pinch a pair of underpants from a marine, a picaresque example of industrial espionage.
The marines also brought the first jazz recordings and rock ‘n’ roll to be heard in the city, pumping out of the bars down Carrer Escudellers. Interesting clubs were also opened, such as the Jamboree Jazz Cava (today simply Jamboree) in Plaça Reial, set up to attract black sailors, and since becoming a classic venue of the Barcelona night. Basketball also received a massive boost with the first appearance of the Harlem Globetrotters in July 1951.
Perhaps most importantly, the Fleet also kick-started another of Barcelona’s essential modern-day traits, mass tourism, as a commercial and leisure industry developed around the marines. As they still do today, the US Navy treated port stays something akin to those of cruise liners, laying on a host of tourist trips and cultural events to keep the young men occupied. So there were guided tours around the Gothic Quarter, visits to the cava cellars of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia and outings to the Tibidado funfair. The Rambles became the kitsch centre of this business, selling postcards and souvenirs including the Mexican hat: for, in some ways, weren’t the marines trying to project the atmosphere south of the US border which they associated with unrestrained pleasure? Similarly, bars opened with Tex-Mex names such as El Alamo, El Paso and Tequila. The seeds of the tourist city of today—open to the outside, cosmopolitan, a destination of masses, the tacky Rambles—lie in the arrival of the Sixth Fleet in Barcelona.
As the Fifties turned into the Sixties, a resurgent anti-Francoist movement increasingly rejected the American presence in the form of protests and even violent attacks, though most were little more than vandalism. By the Seventies, the marines, now seen as waging an imperialist war in Vietnam and occupying Spain, were no longer welcome in many areas of Barcelona. Finally, on December 26th, 1987, at 6pm, a young man walked up to No. 3 Plaça Medinaceli, home to Barcelona’s USO Center, an American officer’s social club, found in every town where the fleet moors, providing a place where officers can stop by, change some money, meet colleagues and have a beer. He slid a grenade-like device through the door, shouting “Long live free Lebanon!” in Catalan. Three marines were injured and one man, seaman Ronald Strong from Pennsylvania, died in hospital. Early police investigations led to elements connected with Terra Lliure, the Catalan terrorist outfit, but it did not seem to match their methods. Not long after, a similar grenade attack in Naples by Arab nationalists led the trail in this direction; it was the time of the US invasion of Lebanon. Today, we are no clearer as to the perpetrators, and their identity may never be known. Whatever the case, and despite declarations to the contrary, the incident spelled the end of the Navy’s presence in the city. Barcelona was no longer seen as a safe port, and within a few months the fleet had abandoned its waters.

Theros’s book takes a sympathetic look at both the Barcelona and American participants in this chapter of the city’s history. But behind his wonderful array of picaresque anecdotes, he superbly charts its social history at a time when there was very little to celebrate. It is a story that a politically-correct, belle gauche, posa’t guapa Barcelona has tried to forget, perhaps embarrassed by how the Yankee dollar helped to make it the vibrant, cosmopolitan place of today.

Tragic accident
In a discrete corner of the Moll de la Fusta, in front of the World Trade Centre is the only monument in Barcelona entirely in English. It commemorates the death of 49 marines who perished in the waters of the harbour there. On the freezing cold night of January 17th, 1977, more than one hundred marines, many of who were worse for drink, clambered aboard a small launch. Some of them may have been brawling. Minutes later, the launch crashed into a Basque merchant ship, the Urlea—probably because of a navigational error on the part of the launch’s skipper—and capsized, throwing the marines overboard. Many died in the cold January waters of shock, hyperthermia or heart attack. Some managed to swim to the shore. A number survived for two hours in the air pocket formed under the boat, until they were rescued by the combined efforts of the Navy and the Barcelona salvage crews. There is not a great deal about this incident on the Internet. The Navy likes to keep information on its fatal accidents under wraps.

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