This country has had so many gallant warriors, genuine heroes of our wars, with stories of them filling many bookshelves. There’s a relatively new one, “The Liberator,” by Alex Kershaw, that we have read that ranks as one of the best on a World War II officer and his unit, the 157th Infantry Regitment of the 45th Thunderbird Division.
We strongly recommend the book, published in 2012, especially that it be read by former members of that regitment and division. There undoubtedly are still a few alive. The 157th suffered heavy casualties, with entire companies wiped out in fierce fighting from the invasion of Sicily, to the invasion of Italy, then in France and Germany.
The book spotlights a maverick U. S. Army officer, Felix Sparks, who rose through the officer ranks from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, and later became a general when he commanded the Colorado National Guard. Sparks survived wounds and more than 500 days of combat. He was awarded two Silver Star Medals, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and other awards. He should have been awarded the nation’s second-highest medal for valor under fire, the Distinguished Service Cross, but one of his several major run-ins with brass cost him that medal.
Sparks was an infantry leader who still was on the front lines with his men after attaining higher ranks. He lost his entire company in the Anzio fighting and an entire battalion in the forest of Vosges. His battalion liberated Dachau, the notorious German concentration camp outside of Munich. The author describes the conditions at Dachau and the killing of SS guards that may be one of the least publicized episodes of what can happen to soldiers under extreme stress.
It was at Dachau that Lt. Col. Sparks had one of his most serious disagreements with a superior officer. Sparks’ unit had liberated Dachau and his men were shaken by what they found. Several lost their cool when it came to taking SS guards prisoner. Several SS guards were shot. Sparks fired his .45 to gain the attention of his soldiers in ordering them to cease their firing at the German guards.
Later the same day, Gen.
Henning Linden of the 42nd Division (he was deputy commander) arrived with famed reporter Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune. He wanted to relieve Sparks, who refused to turn Dachau over to the general, who obviously was looking to gain credit for freeing prisoners who still were alive. At one point in their spirited argument, Sparks pointed his .45 at the general and told him to leave. It was true that the general had accepted the surrender of Dachau from a German second lieutenant, but Sparks maintained that he had received no orders that he turn the camp over to Linden.
The general and the reporter left. The general said he would see Sparks at a general court-martial. The general tried his best to get Sparks court-martialed. The case ended up on Gen. George Patton’s desk. When Sparks appeared before Gen. Patton, who said he had the matter investigated, and said the charges were a bunch of “crap.” Gen. Patton tore up the court-martial papers against Sparks and his men and told Sparks, “You have been a damn fine soldier.” The whole meeting took less than two minutes!
People who have visited Dachau, and the small museum there, don’t recall reading any information about the incident involving Sparks. We do remember that a number of the photos on display showing SS officers and guards had been slashed by visitors. When we visited Dachau (twice), there were tears and complete silence by the visitors in the museum. It’s a very sobering experience.
The author in his research was able to talk to a former German soldier by the name of Johann Voss, who related the incident that would have earned Sparks the DSC medal. Voss was with a German unit that observed Sparks under fire saving wounded members of his unit. The Germans were so impressed with Sparks’ bravery that they held their fire rather than killing him.
The book describes the horrors of war, especially for the foot soldiers, and is a valuable historical account of World War II. Sparks returned to civilian life, earned a law degree, settled in Colorado and died Sept. 24, 2007, of pneumonia in a Denver hospital. He never got over the random shooting death of a young grandson in Colorado. He took on the NRA and led the charge for tougher gun laws in Colorado. He even defeated the NRA, the book points out. He was 90 years old when he did.
Sparks was a member of the greatest generation. After graduating from high school in the height of the depression in 1936, he “rode the rails” looking for work. Finding no work, he enlisted in the Army and served a hitch as an enlisted man, before entering college. He was called to active duty in 1940, allowed to finish his semester at college, and earned a commission. He reported for duty in January 1941 at Fort Sill, Okla., with the 45th Infantry Division.