Bill Bailey (1909-1995) was a longshoreman and sailor, a trade unionist and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. He is, however, best known by Americans, perhaps even achieving celebrity status, for tearing down the Nazi flag from the S.S. Bremen while in port in New York City. Here is a very abbreviated version of his remarkable life


Bill Bailey – an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Spain, 1937

Bill Bailey – an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Spain, 1937

Bill Bailey (born William James Bailey)

Bill was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1909. He grew up in extreme poverty and went to sea at age 15. In 1930, he joined the Marine Workers Industrial Union and  the Communist Party of the United States of America. He became an organiser of longshoremen for the Party and then returned to work as a sailor.

S.S. Bremen and the Nazi flag

In response to the arrest in Germany in 1935 of Lawrence Simpson, an American seaman, for bringing anti-fascist literature into the country, a demonstration was organised by communist seamen in New York City that called for all anti-fascists to gather at the dock of the German luxury ship S.S. Bremen. As the demonstration grew to thousands, Bill, with the help of other seamen, managed to cut the Bremen’s swastika down and send it sailing into Hudson River. The men were arrested and beaten, and a diplomatic firestorm followed.

Front page of the Daily New: coverage of the strike of the swastika on S/S Bremen in New York harbour.

Front page of the Daily News: coverage of the strike of the swastika on S/S Bremen in New York harbour.

Mayor LaGuardia refused to issue an apology to the German Government. President Franklin Roosevelt declined to comment directly on the affair, but he made it known that he sympathised with protests by American Jews against Germany’s religious repression. The radical congressman Vito Marcantonio joined the defense team, and then Judge Louis Brodsky, himself a Jew, dismissed the charges against Bailey and the seamen, in a courageous decision denouncing Nazism.

(Lawrence Simpson was kept prisoner for over ten months in a concentration camp just outside of Hamburg (Neuengamme), and then transferred to Moabit Prison. He was sentenced to an additional three years and then, because of escalating public outcry, was unexpectedly pardoned by Hitler in December 1936.)

A life at war

Several months later, Bill joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion seamen’s machine gun company and rose to the rank of Company Commissar. During World War II, he served as business agent for the Marine Firemen, Oilers and Watertenders Union until he couldn’t stand sending out any more men risking death. Bill shipped out himself, taking part in the invasion of the Philippines. At the outbreak of the Korean War, he was blacklisted  because of his membership in the Communist Party and was unable to work as a seamen. In 1953 he began to work as a longshoreman. Bill retired in 1975.

Seeing Red and The Good Fight

Bill became a celebrity again in his ’70s, thanks to the documentaries, Seeing Red (1983) and The Good Fight (1984). In his retirement, he was extremely generous with his time supporting activists, young and old, seeking to make a better world. He summed up his philosophy as follows: “I have tried to lead my life by following a belief that has guided my passage….to witness an injustice and do nothing—that is the biggest crime”.

Bill died in San Francisco in 1995, and his ashes were spread at sea.