Not by design, but fittingly I just finished a book about the 45th Infantry Division during World War II, titled “Liberator”. Formed around a group of National Guard Regiments from the west, the 45th Thunderbirds stormed ashore on the beaches of Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and finally the southern coast of France. Their losses were staggering, the suffering of its men unimaginable, their courage against terrible odds, weather, sickness, and the stress of battle is enough alone to celebrate their lives each Memorial Day. The book focused specifically on a young man named Felix Sparks who joined the Army in the late Thirties to escape poverty and starvation. He became a company commander towards the end of the Sicily campaign under General Patton. He led his company in Salerno, was injured, and went AWOL from a field hospital in Africa to rejoin his men. He led his company again onto the beaches at Anzio, and suffered from the indecision and poor leadership of his Division Commander, Major General Lucas, along with numerically superior German forces. Cutoff and unsupported as the leading element of the Allied push, Sparks lost every single man in his Company, killed, captured or wounded. He was also wounded again, but stayed to fight. He knew the name and face of every single soldier under his command, mourned their loss, was driven to fight on because of their sacrifice.
Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel before his 27th birthday, Colonel Sparks became a battalion commander in the 157th Infantry Regiment, part of the 45th. He led his men ashore in Southern France, and was part of the western push into Germany where again his men were leading the attack, only to be cut off and virtually abandoned by higher headquarters. On one particular day in the cold of January, 1945, Colonel Sparks realized that many of his men were wounded, surrounded by SS troops, and had no way to escape. They were literally being slaughtered. Exasperated by the lack of support, he commandeered two tanks and tried to reach his men. When the tanks got stuck and could go no further, he climbed out of the tank and personally loaded each of his men onto the back of the tank, retreating after each man was recovered. He did not understand why he was not cut in half by the SS troops ahead of him in their firing positions, as his men had been. Much later in life, he learned from one of the lead gunners of that SS troop that every German had simultaneously held their fire, so filled with compassion and wonder because of Spark’s selfless display of courage for his men.
Perhaps fitting for an organization with a leader such as Sparks, it was the 3rd Battalion, 157th Regiment, that freed over 30,000 prisoners from the concentration camp at Dachau. After fighting their way across Europe and Africa for over 1000 days, these men no longer wondered why they were there. Seeing the dead and dying, literally thousands stacked up like cordwood in train cars and behind buildings, they wept at the ugliness of that war, but we grateful for their part in liberating these people.
It is because of men like Felix Sparks, and those he led, that we take pause to remember how blessed we are, and honored we are to be descendants of the likes of him. When Felix returned from the war, he spent much of his time visiting the families of those soldiers who did not return home, who paid the ultimate price. To him, everyone mattered, all their sacrifices mattered, and he would never forget them. Neither should we.