José Epita Mbomo was Guinean, Spanish and French. Aircraft mechanic in the years when the skies were truly stormed. The first black man who, in 1936, married a white woman in Cartagena (who knows if in Spain).
A defeated Republican who took advantage of his job as an electrician in France to sabotage Wehrmacht networks and facilities. A deportee to the Neuengamme concentration camp who helped save, that the family knows, three lives.
A survivor of the Cap Arcona massacre, the German ship that the British bombed on May 3, 1945 as if it were Hitler himself instead of 4,500 dying prisoners evacuated from Third Reich camps. A modest man who barely shared his two wars with his five children, who questioned him about the origin of the scars on his back without too many answers.
A militant of communism when it was lived as a religion and who broke his license during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Since he left the Guinean island of Corisco in 1927, he has witnessed the best and worst of the 20th century in a privileged row. Victim and hero in a spooky Europe. An ordinary worker who concealed an epic life from his own family.
José Epita Mbomo was born on August 15, 1911 in Ibanamai, on the island of Corisco, then part of the Spanish colony of Guinea . There he goes to the school run by Claretian religious who punished their students for kneeling on chickpeas, years later he would tell his son Andrés.
He lives with his aunt Esperanza. On January 6, 1927, three seaplanes of the Atlantis Patrol landed on the island, a military and scientific mission that sought to breastfeed in the race for the skies and gather information to map the west coast of Africa. The successful expedition returns with two Guinean teenagers aboard the support ships: José Epita Mbomo and José Friman Mata.
Page of the newspaper ‘The defender of Granada’In the same hydro Dornier came as a passenger the sixteen-year-old black Pepito Pita, who on the island of Santa Isabel was found by Commander Llorente and his patrol companions, who, with the authorization of an aunt of the one with whom he lived, they managed to bring it to Spain. Said little black will remain in Granada with his godmother, Lieutenant Salgado’s widow.
Both will be used at the Los Alcázares (Murcia) base and will have biographies in parallel until 1939. Friman will return to the Murcian military workshop. Epita Mbomo takes refuge in France and another war will start. Years later, in 1956, Friman was questioned about his former compatriot in a process launched by the dictatorship to scrutinize his background. He lost track of him in exile, he said.
A parenthesis on the Atlantis Patrol. The twentieth century opened with the fever of heaven. Airplanes became the weapon of the future. The wars developed them at full throttle: the first Spanish bombardment (German artifacts of 10 kilos dropped on the town of Ben-Karrik in North Africa) was in 1913, a decade after the first motor flight. Countries competed to fly longer hours and farther.
One of the Spanish adventures that will have more echo abroad is the raidof three Dornier Wal seaplanes from Melilla to Guinea (more than 15,000 kilometers round trip in 121 hours and 25 minutes). Its boss, Commander Rafael Llorente Sola, received the Harmon Trophy from the International Aviators League, the same year that Charles Lindberg was also awarded for his lonely air journey from the USA to France.
The trip of three seaplanes from Melilla to Guinea was one of the greatest Spanish adventures of the 20th century. 15,000 kilometers were covered in 121 hours and 25 minutes.
In the Historical Archive of the Air Force , consulted by EL PAÍS, there are some 800 photos taken by the Atlántida Patrol and the report written by Llorente in 1944: “Most of the territories to be covered had not been blown up by anyone, for Consequently, it was not necessary to have aerodromes or supply bases or repair workshops and it was necessary to place drums with the necessary gasoline and spare engines in the Canaries, Monrovia and Fernando Poo at the stage points ”.
Sponsored by Commander Llorente, the Guineans join the Los Alcázares air base workshop. Epita, since April 4, 1927, according to the Official Gazette of the Ministry of National Defense of October 28, 1938, where his promotion as assimilated to lieutenant appears. In that old fishing village transformed with the arrival of the aviators, Epita and Friman became forwards of the Club Deportivo Alcázares.
There are references to both in newspaper reports such as La Verdad or El Liberal in 1932 and 1933, located by Javier Castillo, director of the General Archive of the Region of Murcia.
Before the war dynamited happiness, Epita released 1936 in a big way. On January 1, he married, as he had always dreamed of, a white woman: Cristina Sáez, a brave Cartagena woman who defies environmental hostility because of her relationship with a black man.
The expectation for the link was such that the Madrid press sent journalists to interview the couple. Estampa published a report by Javier Sánchez-Ocaña that deserves to be read from beginning to end. Here, a couple of paragraphs:
“-Was your family opposed to the courtship?
-No, my family never got mixed up in anything. From the first moment my mother told me: ‘You will see what you do, daughter. You are the one who has to live with him. If you get married, think about it… ´ My brother never objected either. He was a good friend of Pepe and was very fond of him. But, on the other hand, friends and distant relatives would not let me live. All the time he was hearing the same thing: “Oh my God, marry a black man! But if you have enough white suitors, girl! And won’t you be scared at night when you’re in the dark?
In that article, José Epita wears the base’s work uniform and Cristina Sáez a kimono that gives her a touch of modernity more typical of Los Angeles than Los Alcázares. Or maybe that modernity was the atmosphere of the time before it was destroyed by the bombs.
The couple had met in 1934 during a Carnival dance at the casino in the San Antón neighborhood, where Epita’s entrance shocked. “A black, a black! A black man has entered the dance! The orchestra stopped playing and the good mothers of the family energetically called the girls to their side, who ran wildly around the room ”, Cristina Sáez revived two years later.
“It seemed that they were going to eat it and I was outraged when I saw those fuss. ‘What savage people!’ I told my friends. ‘What is special about a black man?’ ‘Wow, I wouldn’t dance with him,’ said one of them. ‘Not me,’ added another. ‘And you, would you dance with him?’ My brother asked me. ‘I do,’ I replied. Then my brother, who already knew him, called him to introduce me: ‘Look, Pepito, this is my sister Cristina. You can dance with her… ”.
And they danced and became boyfriends and the young people of the neighborhood attacked Epita for dating a white woman and the friends made Sáez ugly for dating a black man and they broke up and she went to Madrid and he went to look for her and decided to get married.
A love story, wow. When they get married in Cartagena, a crowd awaits them outside the Sagrado Corazón church. Commander Rafael Llorente and his wife María Teresa Flores sign the invitations for the wedding of their “godson” José Epita.
There was little left for the coup. “The Los Alcázares aerodrome remained faithful to the Republic, which had created a pilot training school there. It was a base with a very progressive atmosphere, unlike the one in San Javier, which belonged to the Navy and where almost all the officers rose up.
On July 19, 1936, the commands and troops of Los Alcázares took the base of San Javier ”, explains Javier Castillo, co-author of the work Los Alcázares en blanco y negro (2006) together with Juan Francisco Benedicto Martínez, and who is preparing an exhibition in the General Archive of the Region on the 400 Murcian deportees to Nazi camps.
In January 1939 Cristina Sáez, her two children and her mother, María Contreras, traveled from Los Alcázares to Catalonia in her brother’s taxi. They have lost the war and the family organizes the evacuation to France.
They stay for a few days at the house of Elvira Sagrera, a supportive woman from Banyoles (Girona), who will regret by letter in May the family disagreement: “On January 29 Pepe came, who was very upset because they had left. The nationals had to be very close. During his stay, he made inquiries to find out their whereabouts and they told him they were in a hospital or an asylum in France ”.
Epita crossed to France on February 6, 1939. His daughter Esperanza discovered the date in a notebook where her father wrote down labor matters. A week ago he decided to examine it again and found what had always been there and had not seen: the comings and goings of his father through French internment camps (Saint-Cyprien, Argelès-sur-Mer, Gurs, Septfonds …) for ten months of 1939.
On December 6, he joined a company in Bordeaux. Another war was breaking out and the specialization of the Spanish had to be appreciated. At some point the family regroups. “We don’t know when he will meet my mother again,” says Esperanza Mbomo. It should not have been easy despite the fact that they both go through the same fields and sleep on the sand of Argelès-sur-Mer.
The family settled in Mérignac, in the Gironde department. Epita works as an electrician for a company hired by the local air base. In 1942 he joined a mixed group of the Resistance known as Snipers and French Southern Partisans / Spanish Guerrillas.
That year they blew up a garage of the German motorized troops in Bordeaux and destroyed the underground cable that linked the Mérignac airport with the Wehrmacht units.from the Atlantic coast. “I cannot be sure, but it is likely that he participated in all that,” says his grandson, Yván Mbomo, who in this review of his grandfather’s legacy is discovering a communist with such firm convictions that he puts the fight for his ideas before the protection of your life and that of your family.
On April 1, 1942, the Spanish electrician became the head of the local Resistance group, under the command of Julian Comme, who years later certified that Epita participated in acts of sabotage and propaganda with “discipline and love to liberate France.” .
They deported him with 200 other Spaniards to the Neuengamme concentration camp, south of Hamburg, where he entered on May 24, 1944.
He is the prisoner 31,635. “He was deported for political reasons, not racial”, highlights Alicia Pérez Comesaña, the researcher at the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) of Tarragona who discovered his passage through the countryside thanks to the agreement with the Arolsen Archives of Germany, which allows him to access to a large database of victims of Nazism. “Until now, seven black prisoners were known in Neuengamme, all members of the Resistance against the Germans. Now we know that there were at least eight ”.
Despite the fact that the SS destroyed most of the documentation on the 100,000 interned at the compound, new information is emerging. “More than 500 Spaniards passed through Neuengamme. In addition to José Epita,Spanish deportees hitherto unknown ”, he says.
Both Alicia Pérez Comesaña and the historian Antonio Muñoz Sánchez, who investigates the Spanish forced laborers of the Third Reich, consider that their trade could have contributed to their survival.
“While many of his Spanish colleagues were assigned to commandos spread throughout northern Germany to carry out extremely hard and exhausting tasks, Epita stayed in Neuengamme and most likely worked in one of the arms companies that settled there, and where specialized workers were highly appreciated and treated less harshly ”, points out the researcher.
“The fact of being black,” Antonio Muñoz points out, “could even play in his favor. In their crazy racism, the Nazis saw the very few deportees of African origin as exotic beings, and for example put them to work as waiters. ”
And that happened with Epita, who worked as a mechanic (or electrician) by day and waiter by night. “There he could take food scraps, rotten bread, potatoes and things like that for his companions,” says Esperanza Mbomo. His brother Andrés received corroborating testimonies: “I have met three of his friends from the countryside who, separately, told me the same thing.
‘You have an extraordinary father, if he had not given us food every day, now we would be dead. Sometimes the survival menu included rats, recalls Rafael Mbomo, another of his sons. The meticulous worker saves his life on one occasion because he shows that he is not the author of defective parts, since he signed the ones he produced with his initials. One of the few stories about Neuengamme that he told the family himself.
José Epita may have walked on a death march or traveled in an overcrowded freight car from Neuengamme to Lübeck (about 70 kilometers) when the Nazis emptied the countryside at the end of April 1945. He is interned at Cap Arcona , a cruise ship German luxury converted into a floating prison that in 1942 housed the filming of a film in a National Socialist version about the Titanic . Seen the end of the cruise, a historical sarcasm.
“For the prisoners, crowded into the warehouses, there was no kind of food, no toilets, no water. When the SS opened the hatches, large pots of soup were lowered, but there were no bowls or spoons and much of the food fell to the floor of the cellar, mixing with the rapidly increasing excrement ”, relates historian Richard J. Evans in The Third Reich at war (Peninsula).
On May 3, 1945, the RAF 263 Squadron bombarded it along with other ships anchored in the Baltic Bay and caused one of the greatest maritime tragedies in history . The ship catches fire. The SS had removed the life-saving equipment and cut the fire hoses.
“In the water, the castaways fought to the death (literally) for something to hold on to, ending up equally perishing from injuries, hypothermia or simply from exhaustion, ”wrote Air Force Captain Rafael Morales in an article dedicated to the event. in the General Magazine of the Navy .
“It has been said that the RAF hid from its pilots for decades the truth about the real nature of the sunk targets and the identity of the victims, and it must be true, because in official British history these extremes are not mentioned,” he added in the article.
Nor in canonical works such as The Second World War (Past & Present), by Antony Beevor, or more specialized essays such as Moral Combat(Taurus), by Michael Burleigh, reflects the fatal error of the RAF, who have scrutinized more the German and French historiographies.
Of the 4,500 prisoners at Cap Arcona, only 350 survive . One of them was José Epita Mbomo.
He told his family that he was saved because he could swim. And he barely counted more, neither about the ship, nor the field, nor the Resistance nor the Civil War because he was always a moderate man. He followed the lead of other survivors of historical catastrophes, who silently wrapped up their traumas.
“My father was a quiet man who did not say anything about those things that we can see in documents today,” says Andrés Mbomo.
Epita did what he had to do, including sabotaging the Germans or saving the lives of his friends in the concentration camp, without boasting about the good things or enjoying the bad.
After the war, he returned to Mérignac with Cristina Sáez and her children. He worked until his death at the Forclum electricity company. In 1956, the General Directorate of Security of the dictatorship requested reports on his antecedents.
“Because of the interest of the Directorate General of Morocco and Colonies, I beg the VI order to provide me with all the antecedents and data contained in that section referring to JOSÉ MBOMO, son of José and Catalina Buambuha, Benga tribe ”, reads the file that is kept in the Historical Archive of the Air Force consulted by EL PAÍS.
The date, according to his grandson Yván Mbomo, coincides with the moment when the change of nationality and family name (from Epita to Mbomo) is processed before the French administration. “At that time my grandparents want to prevent their older children, who were born in Spain,
In 1968 he tore up his communist card while watching Soviet tanks crushing the Prague Spring on television . The following year he returned to Spain for the first time. He spent August with his wife in Cartagena. He was reunited with friends, he was moved. On his return to France, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He died on December 19, 1969 in a hospital in Bordeaux. The French Republic awarded him posthumous honors as a resistant in 1975. When his daughter Esperanza asked him about the scars on his back, Epita did not clarify his origin. Although he said something:
“We must never forget, but forgive, yes. I have forgiven ”.