IN AUGUST 1944, THE LIBERATOR AND HIS MEN FOUGHT THROUGH SOME OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VILLAGES AND TOWNS IN FRANCE – PART OF THE CHAMPAGNE CAMPAIGN.
THE THUNDERBIRDS’ MARCH TOWARD the Third Reich resumed the next morning shortly after dawn. They pushed farther inland, past seemingly endless vineyards where fat grapes ripened. Despite four years of conflict, the pastel-shaded houses and lovingly tended orchards and gardens gave the impression of a prosperous region little affected by world war. As they moved north, men started to practice their high school French.
“Avay voo des oeffs?”
“Voolay voo cooshay aveck moi?”
“Avay voo champagne?”
“A la Victoir!”
“And damn toot sweet!”
Villages and towns fell in quick succession as the Thunderbirds conducted their own Provençal blitzkrieg through Salernes along the D561 to Varages, north to Pertuis, and on to Apt below the Grand Luberon Mountains. It was a dreamlike rush through bleached fields dotted with neat bundles of drying lavender, its scent strong in the hot mistral winds, and along dusty roads shaded by plane trees. Photographs taken during the giddy advance showed Thunderbirds ducking their heads into yellow-stoned fountains, surrounded by excited French boys in shorts and sandals. In some villages, partisans greeted them, feverishly smoking sour Turkish tobacco cigarettes, their pomaded hair glinting in the sun, as vengeful crowds gathered to slap and kick black-eyed collaborators and watch the Germans’ French mistresses have their heads shaved.
Unlike in Italy, there were no shoeless children begging at the mess tents at chow time. No more widows clad in black scavenging in the dirt with bony hands for cigarette and cigar butts. Local partisans provided key intelligence about the Germans and their movements, and often eagerly joined forces with the Thunderbirds as they advanced, flushing enemy snipers like sangliers— wild boars— from cedar forests and gorges of the Luberon Mountains. Some would stay with the regiment until the end of the war.
One day, as he charged deeper into France, Sparks apparently learned from scouts that a key bridge was undefended and decided to check it out. As he approached the bridge, he began to feel distinctly uneasy. It was far too quiet for his liking. Nevertheless, he continued down a hill toward the bridge in his jeep. A dozen Germans suddenly appeared. Sparks put his hands in the air to surrender. A German walked over to the jeep. Then a fist flew. Sparks’s driver is said to have knocked the German to the ground and gunned the engine. Before the startled Germans could react, he and Sparks had raced around a corner and disappeared from view.
Sparks joked that he now must hold the record for the shortest time spent as a prisoner in World War II. But the near escape left him determined to be better armed in the future in case he had to blast his way out of trouble. What he really wanted was a shotgun, like the one he’d used to hunt with back in the Arizona. It wasn’t long before his men had found an old French farmer, paid him for his buckshot-loaded scattergun, and handed it to a delighted Sparks.
Sparks kept his Colt .45 in a hip holster and carried the shotgun up front in his jeep. In one village, he found a craftsman who replaced the pistol’s standard grips with transparent plastic taken from a downed American bomber’s windshield. Sparks set a photograph of his son, Kirk, and wife, Mary, under one grip and a favorite pinup under the other. From now on, beauty would be his lucky charm.
FELIX SPARKS’S COLT 45
GERMAN CONVOY DESTROYED