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Fighters against fascist forces

by Tom Dillard | August 12, 2018 at 1:57 a.m.

Today, when blind nationalism if not outright fascism is again rearing its ugly head in America and much of the world, it is good to recall that two natives of Arkansas were volunteers in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s--a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful fight by the elected government against the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Franco welcomed help from Hitler's resurgent German Luftwaffe, which used the conveniently nearby conflict as a testing ground for its ever-expanding military machine. The fascist government of Italian leader Benito Mussolini also sent help to Franco.

Arkansans Frank Tinker and Marion Noble joined the fight against fascism for quite different reasons, which is not surprising since they had almost nothing in common. Tinker was well trained, but he faced multiple demons--not the least being a penchant for brawling. Noble, an airplane mechanic, was a man of ideals--one of which was an abhorrence of fascism.

Frank Glasgow Tinker was born in 1909 in Louisiana; his family moved to DeWitt in Arkansas County in the summer of 1924. After graduating from DeWitt High School in 1926, Tinker joined the U.S. Navy. After three years' service, he received an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., graduating in 1933.

"Salty" Tinker did not do well as a naval air officer despite his flying abilities. While stationed at Long Beach, Calif., Tinker got into a brawl and was court-martialed. Only a few weeks later Tinker got into another altercation, and this time the Navy revoked his commission. Tinker got a job as a third mate on a Standard Oil tanker, but he dreamed of glory in the skies.

Marion M. Noble was born in 1911, the son of a railroad worker from Garner in White County. Like many railroad men of the time, Marion's father, Isom, was a strong labor man, and ultimately lost his job during a strike. Isom then opened an auto repair garage, and his son became a proficient mechanic. Saving his money, Marion was able to attend the University of Arkansas for three semesters. He later studied for one semester at Illinois State Normal University and ultimately ended up at Commonwealth College near Mena in Polk County.

Commonwealth was the perfect place for idealistic and egalitarian Marion Noble. Established in Mena in 1925, Commonwealth was intended to train a leadership class for the downtrodden industrial workers of America. The college was a hotbed of contention during the time Noble was in attendance, with socialists and communists locked in a power struggle at the 55-student school deep in the Ouachita Mountains.

Noble consumed the Daily Worker and other leftist magazines and newspapers found in the Commonwealth library. In late 1933, he joined the Communist Party, a commitment that would last throughout his long life.

As a loyal communist, Noble was drawn to join the fight against the fascist rebels who, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, were mounting a serious challenge to the elected and reformist government of Spain. Indeed, the Communist Party recruited Noble and many other Commonwealth alumni to enlist in what became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

A total of 43 Commonwealth students served in the Spanish Civil War, with six dying for the cause. The Communist Party arranged for Noble's passage to Spain, where he was assigned to an air force maintenance unit.

Tinker first tried to join the Ethiopian air force when Italy invaded that country in 1935, but that was not much of a possibility since the Ethiopians had only 13 antiquated planes. He then offered his services to the Spanish government, ultimately negotiating a huge monthly salary of $1,500 and a $1,000 bonus for every fascist plane shot down.

Tinker and Noble were very different, with completely different motivations. Clark Donat, a University of Arkansas student, wrote in his 2007 honors thesis that "Tinker and Noble were now on their way to fight for a cause, which one saw as his chance for fame and glory and the other one saw as a fight for the proletariat."

During his seven-month stay in Spain, Tinker flew a variety of planes, most of Russian manufacture. The Russian government supported the Spanish republicans during the civil war; Tinker was assigned to fly with a squadron of Russian pilots. He flew the Russian Polikarpov I-16, a biplane fighter introduced in 1935 and considered by many as the first truly modern fighter plane. He later served as a squadron commander.

He had eight confirmed kills against both German and Italian pilots, though he claimed more than twice that number. He was the first pilot to shoot down a modern German Messerschmitt fighter.

While Noble never took time off, Tinker enjoyed visiting Madrid's luxury hotels. During one hotel stay he developed a relationship with Ernest Hemingway, who modeled a character after Tinker in the short story "Night Before Battle."

During another week of leave Tinker managed to get shot by a local militiaman following a bicycle wreck. Though he recovered quickly and returned to duty, this incident prompted Clark Donat to write that "relaxation time served to be the most dangerous part of the war for Tinker."

As the tide of the war tilted toward the fascists, Tinker and Noble returned to the United States along with most members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Tinker's life after Spain was a series of disappointments, and he killed himself while staying at the Ben McGehee Hotel in Little Rock on June 13, 1939. At the time of his death, Tinker was negotiating a commission in the Chinese Air Force, which was battling Japan.

Noble settled in Detroit, where he was active in the United Auto Workers as well as the Communist Party. He was constantly under FBI surveillance, and died unrepentant at the age of 91 in 2002.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at An earlier version of this column appeared Feb. 19, 2012.

Editorial on 08/12/2018

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