PARIS, France — Rafael Gomez Nieto, the last surviving member of a company of Spanish soldiers that fought with French forces in liberating Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944, has died of the new coronavirus, the French presidency said Thursday. He was 99.
The presidency said Gomez Nieto died in Strasbourg, a city in eastern France that he fought to liberate in November 1944. France’s eastern regions have been hit particularly hard by virus infections and deaths. French media said Gomez Nieto died Tuesday.
While growing up in Spain, the soldier’s son was still a teenager when he fought in the Spanish Civil War, joining the Republican forces that battled the Nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco. More than 500,000 people died in the 1936-1939 conflict.
As Franco’s forces advanced, declaring victory on April 1, 1939, Gomez Nieto and his family joined the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees who fled over the Pyrenees to France, hoping to find safety, the French presidency said. But like many others, Gomez Nieto was locked up in one of the harsh and rudimentary internment camps that were hastily thrown together for refugees in the south of France.
Gomez Nieto later managed to join up with Free French troops in North Africa. He enlisted in 1943 and became part of “La Nueve,” a company that reunited veterans of the Spanish war. The company was part of French Gen. Leclerc’s famed 2nd Armored Division that fought in the Allied liberation of France and took Paris on August 25, 1944.
“These stubborn freedom fighters were determined to root out oppression everywhere, from their cradle in Spain and under the sun of Africa and the skies of Paris. After taking up arms against Franco, they fought against Hitler,” the presidency said in a statement. “Everywhere, they sowed liberty.”
La Nueve gave Spanish names to its armored vehicles and was at the forefront of the thrust into Paris. In an interview published by the French newspaper l’Humanite in 2014, Gomez Nieto said the half-track he drove was nicknamed “Guernica,” after the Spanish town bombed by Nazi planes in 1937.
The soldiers took City Hall as ordered, and Gomez Nieto parked the vehicle in front of the building, he recalled.
“When you enter an oppressed city, the girls jump on the liberator!” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
The presidency said France will be “eternally gratefully” to Gomez Nieto and his comrades.