For the eight Americans it was a nostalgic journey. Four decades ago they fled Spain before the victorious onslaught of Francisco Franco's fascist army. They came back to a different Spain to honor their American colleagues in the Abraham Lincoln brigade who were killed during the 1936-39 civil war.

They toured the sites of major battles - Jarama, Belchite, Gandesa, Guadelajara, Hill 666 - names that are now all but forgotten. Four decades ago, however, they were names that aroused passions and divisions throughout America and Europe as the Vietnam war did in the late 1960s.

The seven men and one woman, were survivors of the brigade's gallant effort to help the second Spanish Republic against Franco's professionals and regular German and Italian troops shipped to Spain by Hitler and Mussolini. They flew back Sunday to their homes in Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

They spent three emotional weeks in Spain, visiting battlefields, holding symbolic memorials for the brigade's dead who were buried in unmarked graves, and exchanging war stories with Spaniards who fought alongside them for the Republic and Spaniards who fought against them with Franco.

"Many forgotten memories came back," said Milton Cohen, 62, a Chicago social worker who was the leader and organizer of the trip. He recalled that at Gandesa they met a Spaniard who had fought with Franco's forces and had been wounded by the brigade. They hired his car to ride to the top of Hill 666, where many Americans fell.

As the Americans prepared to board the flight home, a small crowd of leftists bid them farewell with loud shouts of "Viva la Lincoln."

The departure, amid throngs of tourists, was far different from the last time they left Spain. It was in 1938 and they marched through besieged Barcelona before going home. Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, told them at the time:

"You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend."

Back in the United States, it was a different story. The brigade - actually a batallion of 3,200 Americans, nearly half of whom were killed in action - became immediately suspect because it was organized by the Communist Party and because the Soviet Union supported the Republic. They were part of the Communist-led 15th International Brigade, but not all were Communists.

John Rossen, 67, of Chicago, a brigade communications officer, was called to testify before Congress during the McCarthy era. "I was a Communist when I came over," he said. But he left the party later on learning the "excesses of Joseph Stalin."

Cohen, who saved a bottle of Spanish brandy to drink until Spain became a republic again, was cited for contempt of Congress because he refused to answer questions. His troubles lasted until 1972.

The brigade itself was on the U.S. attorney general's list of subversive organizations from 1952 to 1965 even though 600 veterans of the Spanish civil war went on to fight in World War II.

Their participation in the civil war still haunts many survivors. Manny Harriman, 58, the youngest of the group, said, "The cold war started almost as soon as we got back to the states." The FBI began to ask questions and found he had been a member of the Young Communist League in New York.

"Many of us lost jobs because we had fought in Spain," said the Los Angeles tool and die maker. A Jew of Sephardic origin, he changed his name to Harriman.Now he is taking back his name of Sam Nahman. "I saw the name in a Spanish synagogue," he said. He was not the only veteran to change his name to avoid "adverse publicity,"

Not all brigade volunteers were Communists or, in the jargon of the time, "fellow-travellers," said Nicholas Pappas, 62, a tall and muscular Los Angeles furrier. There were many anti-fascists, like himself, and some were "adventurers." But like the rest of the veterans, he still believes strongly that if the late President Roosevelt and England and France had allowed the Republic to have the "material to help that Franco's side had, we would have beaten the hell out of them. As it was, we were slaughtered."

Pappas lost a younger brother, 19 at the time, in the battle of Jarama near Madrid. "We never found his body," he said. "He went into th line with only a few days of training. We had no equipment."

At some of the battlefields the veterans sang war songs. At Jarama to the tune of "Red River Valley" they intoned:

There's a valley in Spain

called Jarama.

It's a place we know so well.

It was there that we gave

our manhood.

Where so many other

comrades fell.

At Gandesa, they joined in, "If you want to write to me, you know where I will be; in the front at Gandesa, right in the first line of fire."

In Madrid, they visited the headquarters of the Communist Party. They heard Communist poet Rafael Albert I read verses in their praise and the full text of La Pasionaria's farewell speech. Rossen cried at the ceremony.

They also met leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. The two parties - banned by Franco - became legal again only a few months ago. They were the backbone of resistance against Franco in the war and afterward.

Evelyn Hutchins, 77, now of Los Angeles, drove an ambulance and trucks for the brigade. She, too, was a Communist, and had worked to raise funds for the Republic in New York. She volunteered when ner brother, who was not a Communist, "came over to fight."

She recalled that the war was "an ugly things. It was work, hard work, and we hoped that somehow it would work, that the fascists would be defeated here in Spain."

Neither she nor any of the other seven visitors has any regret for their role in the civil war. "It was a terrific part of our lives," she said, even though she was questioned frequently by the FBI. She has continued to be active in "radical causes," and was involved - as was Rossen - in the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Surviving members of the brigade have kept in touch with Spanish developments since 1939. They have raised money for Spanish political prisoners.

Among those saying goodbye to them Sunday morning was a republican civil war commander, a captain and a member of the "Pasionaria" militia unit.

The eight said they intend to warn Americans that while democracy is budding in Spain. "There is a great fear that repression can return. We want to tell the Carter administration to watch Spain." Part of their trip was devoted to testing whether democracy is taking hold in the country where they fought in their youth.

Despite the passage of years, they still believe that they fought in Spain not just to save the Republic, but to stop fascism from conquering the world. Despite the terrible killing that claimed so many lives, the Spanish civil war somehow retains the romantic appeal that inspired Ernest Hemingway and many others to write of heroic deeds by the Republican side.

"All presented their lives," wrote the English poet W. H. Auden of the volunteers from all over the world who flocked to fight in Spain.