By JONATHAN W. JORDAN
From July 10, 1943, to May 8, 1945, America’s 157th Regimental Combat Team carved a long, bloody arc across Europe, burying 1,449 of its own in Sicily, southern Italy, Anzio, southern France, the Rhineland and Germany. One of the 157th’s standouts is the subject of Alex Kershaw’s exceptional “The Liberator”: Felix Sparks, who rose from a Depression-era Army private to the regiment’s lieutenant colonel.
Born in 1917, Sparks hailed from Miami, Ariz., a parched boom town whose copper mines were stilled by the Depression. As a youth, he hunted quail and rabbits to help feed his family and sought refuge at the local library, where he read books about the Indian Wars and the Alamo; in the summer, he applied his love of military history by drilling in the Citizens Military Training Program.
By Alex Kershaw
Crown, 433 pages, $28
Unable to find work when he graduated from high school in 1935, Sparks struck out on his own with $18 in his pocket, riding the rails throughout the West until he found himself in San Francisco. His job prospects there equally poor, he ended up joining the Army after encountering a sidewalk recruiter. When his enlistment was up, he left for college, but in 1940, with the Nazis swarming over Europe, Uncle Sam recalled Sparks as a second lieutenant in the 157th Infantry Regiment.
The 157th was one of the three regiments that formed the 45th “Thunderbirds” Division—whose original symbol, the Native American swastika, was understandably replaced with the mythical bird. Sailing from Virginia in mid-1943, the division was given two months of amphibious training in North Africa and then shipped off to battle. Aboard their transports, the Thunderbirds learned of their destination only when unit adjutants began handing out copies of “The Soldier’s Guide Book to Sicily.”
Sparks’s company fought under Lt. Gen. George Patton from Sicily’s southern beaches to the outskirts of Messina. Energetic and efficient, Sparks soon learned to project calm for the benefit of the men under him: “Well, soldier, we’re all scared,” he told one frightened private. “Don’t let that bother you.” Transferred to mainland Italy, Sparks was wounded by a strafing enemy fighter; checking himself out of his hospital, he courted AWOL charges to return to his men.
His company went ashore at Anzio in January 1944 as part of the great Allied attempt to outflank the Germans holding Rome. There, among hills, caves and woods bristling with gun emplacements and infantry, the 157th learned the meaning of desperation. Cut off from help, Sparks was forced to “pull the chain”—to call artillery down on his own position—to hold the enemy at bay long enough to give his few remaining men a slim chance to survive. “It’s not hard to get promoted in the infantry if you do your job and stay alive,” Sparks later reflected. “The problem is staying alive.”
After the 157th came ashore on the French Riviera in August 1944, Felix Sparks, having been promoted to major, commanded a battalion that having pushed north, endured surreal scenes of violence in the forbidding Vosges Mountains. There, in one of the book’s most poignant moments, a mentally exhausted Sparks reaches his breaking point. He climbs out of his tank and runs across open ground to pull wounded comrades to safety, in full view of the SS’s heavily armed “Black Edelweiss” regiment. The SS men—villains in nearly every war narrative—hold their fire as Sparks pulls one, then two, then three men to safety. “There was no honor to be gained,” Mr. Kershaw writes, “by drilling a brave officer with 7.92mm bullets as he tried to help his wounded men.” At last Sparks made it back to his post alive, but he was disappointed that he hadn’t rescued others.
The final curtain for the 157th Regiment fell at Dachau, a concentration camp near Munich distinguishable from extermination camps of the East only in that malnutrition, overwork, disease and the ad hoc execution were the preferred methods of dispatching inmates. The scenes that greeted Sparks’s regiment when they arrived on April 29, 1945, read like a lost canto from Dante’s “Inferno.” Upon opening one boxcar full of corpses, Mr. Kershaw writes, the “scouts stood and stared in utter disbelief. Several of the dead had open eyes. . . . It was as if the others were staring at the Thunderbirds, remembered one scout, and with accusing looks asking: ‘What took you so long?’ ”
The sight of emaciated, twisted bodies, living and dead, proved too much. Sparks’s men bridled at the injustice of merely taking the German guards prisoner. Voting with their rifles, several infantrymen, led by a tearful, crazed lieutenant named William Walsh, lined up SS guards along a coal-yard wall and shot them, killing 17 and wounding many more before Sparks, brandishing his pistol, stopped the killing.
The coal-yard massacre, undeniably a war crime, might have ended Sparks’s career. But with the German surrender in May 1945, America was in no mood to try its heroes. After an investigation, Gen. Patton called Sparks into his office and, with a flourish, tore into pieces the report condemning Sparks and his men. “You have been a damn fine soldier,” Patton told him. “Now go home.”
Mr. Kershaw faces the issue honestly. “In a later war,” he writes, “Lieutenant Walsh might have been tried for murder.” But he gives Walsh the last word: “I don’t think there was any SS guy that was shot or killed in the defense of Dachau who wondered why he was killed, or couldn’t figure it out.”
The thousand-yard stare that Felix Sparks brought home from the war eventually faded, and he reveled in family and veteran friends. He became a lawyer and state supreme-court judge as well as a commandant of the Colorado National Guard. In his twilight years, his 16-year-old grandson was shot dead, and Sparks launched a campaign to ban handgun possession by children in Colorado. But Mr. Kershaw leaves no doubt that the fulcrum of Felix Sparks’s life was the struggle to free people he only vaguely knew existed before the Army dumped him on Sicily’s shores.
In combat, men in the trenches see only their own small, terrifying slice of Gehenna. Yet Mr. Kershaw also keeps the reader in touch with the larger drama, giving the impression of an American everyman gliding across a dark, savage backdrop. Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, the liberation of Rome, and the German surrender to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower are interwoven with the Thunderbirds’ journey and deftly remind the reader of the war’s full sweep without derailing Sparks’s compelling personal story.
“The Liberator” balances evocative prose with attention to detail and is a worthy addition to vibrant classics of small-unit history like Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers.” We speak easily of the “Greatest Generation,” but each individual’s story, like a small, bright tile in the overall mosaic, reveals how hard-won that title was. From the desert of Arizona to the moral crypt of Dachau, Mr. Kershaw’s book bears witness to the hell that America’s innocents came through, and the humanity they struggled to keep in their hearts.