MANCHESTER -- On April 29, 1945, units from the 157th Regiment of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division entered the now-infamous Dachau concentration camp, one of the many that made up Hitler’s Nazi gulag.
More than 30,000 prisoners were still held captive there that morning, amid thousands of other corpses who had already perished and were jammed tightly into railroad boxcars.
The "Thunderbirds," as the men of the 45th Division were known, stared directly into the face of evil that day, and some of them, already weakened by too many days and months of direct front line combat, broke under the strain.
"Several of the dead had open eyes," Alex Kershaw a British-born author and historian currently living in Williamstown, Mass., writes in his masterful new book, "The Liberator." "Their last moments of agony were etched on their faces. It was as if others were staring at the Thunderbirds, remembered one scout, with accusing looks asking:
‘What took you so long?’"
Kershaw recounts in excruciating detail the events of that day, but it is only a part of a larger and sweeping narrative that chronicles a story centered around one of the officers of the 157th, Felix Sparks. He rose from a second lieutenant in 1940 to command one of the regiment’s battalions by 1945, and was decorated for his valor and leadership more than once along that journey.
Kershaw will be discussing his latest book -- his eighth and the most recent in a long line of books about World War II that have included such New York Times bestsellers as "The Bedford Boys" and "The Longest Winter" -- at the Northshire Bookstore Friday, Dec. 7. His talk will start at 7 p.m. His long running interest in writing about World War II stems from the fact that it remains the seminal event of recent modern history.
What we are today, and the type of world in which we we live, derive from the fact that, however imperfect, at that moment in time the forces of freedom defeated the forces of tyranny.
"World War II was the biggest event in history -- it defines us, it’s why we’re able to vote -- it’s the defining narrative of our time," he said during a recent telephone interview. "If you don’t know about it, if you don’t honor and remember the true sacrifice, the true suffering of the people who preserved the world’s freedoms, then we don’t know ourselves."
Kershaw describes how on that April morning in 1945, as the scope and scale of the horror of Dachau became apparent, one group of U.S. soldiers in Sparks’ battalion lined up about 75 captured German SS prison guards and started shooting them, killing at least 17 and wounding many more. When he realized what was going on, Sparks ran to the concentration camp’s coalyard, where the shooting was taking place, raised his pistol into the air, fired several rounds, and brought control to the situation.
"It defines a moment in that guy’s life that completely captures his humanity," Kershaw said. "He had every reason to wipe the SS guards off the face of the Earth, but he didn’t."
But it wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that Sparks was fully vindicated from all suspicion that somehow he had been responsible for the atrocity. He narrowly avoided a court martial in the weeks immediately after the war, and it was only through a flukish discovery of some film footage shot that spring morning in 1945 that his true role was proven beyond a doubt. This was in the wake of more than 500 days of combat, which included all the campaigns the regiment endured from the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, through the brutal slog up the Italian peninsula, the bloodbath of a botched invasion at Anzio, the long march through southern France, the Vosges mountains and into the German homeland in the spring of 1945.
As riveting as the account of the liberation of Dachau is, it is but one part of a larger narrative. "The Liberator" tells one soldier’s story in the global drama that was World War II, mostly from the frontline soldier’s often grim perspective. And it is in the psychological toll war extracts from those who do the actual fighting that elevates "The Liberator" from being one more book about one of the most exhaustively mined chapters of modern history to one that offers a fresh perspective on the true butcher’s bill of combat. It’s one that will have relevance for new generations of Americans, as many of the thousands of returning veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to adjust after undergoing the same transformations that Sparks and his fellow Thunderbirds did 70 years ago during World War II.
"... I think it’s time we stopped talking about the ‘greatest generation’ and look at what these guys actually suffered -- how painful it was and how damaged they were," Kershaw said. "There was no such thing as an unbroken combat veteran; it changes, alters and damages you. In the same way, when you fire and kill the people who are firing at you, and people around you are being killed, you are changed and damaged."
"My book shows that -- it’s in your face, the nature of the killing and the violence," he added. "It doesn’t matter which war you’re going to, you’re going to be affected by different things in the same way."
Sparks’ story is told from his birth in 1917 in a faded Arizona mining boom town through his survival of the Depression, his drive to better himself by going to college and his aspirations to become a lawyer, through his courtship and marriage. He and his wife, Mary Sparks, had a son that Sparks did not see until the child was more than two years old, when he finally returned to the United States. The central core of the book tells the tale of the long march from the shores off Sicily into the German heartland, studded with numerous major battles and firefights. Along with the shock and trauma of frontline combat, there is another theme -- the burden of command. Sparks, as he is promoted from a company commander to a battalion leader, must learn to cope and deal with the stunning number of casualties, many fatal, suffered by the men he orders into combat. Almost 1,450 soldiers who served in the 157th Regiment were killed in combat over that less than two-year stretch. By war’s end, few of the members of the regiment were left from the group that waded ashore in Sicily.
Though damaged inside, Sparks held it together under the strain of command, and went on to have a highly successful legal career after the war, which included serving a term as a state supreme court justice in Colorado. But in 1994, one of his grandsons was shot to death in a drive-by shooting. Although in his late 70’s by then, led a state-wide campaign to make obtaining the type of handgun used in the slaying of his grandson more difficult. The effort met powerful opposition from the National Rifle Association -- the NRA, which feared encroachment on second amendment freedoms. Due in large part to Sparks’ military career and service record, as well as his standing as a former commandant of the Colorado National Guard, he was able to get the legislation passed. It banned everyone under the age of 18 from carrying a handgun.
But the death of his grandson also blew the lid off long buried memories as well, Kershaw said.
"All the years of repressed grief and denial were blown away," he said. "All that suppressed grief came back -- it was not just his grandson but all the men he had lost under his command."
Sparks died in 2007, a few months after Kershaw had gotten out to Denver to interview him.
With each passing day, there are fewer and fewer veterans of the war around to tell their stories, which is another factor in Kershaw’s long term interest in the epic clash of World War II. Somehow, he seems to keep finding fresh ways and fresh stories to tell of this event, merging the personal, human scale narrative with the bigger picture of global conflict. He’s already at work on his next one, which will look at France under the German occupation of 1940-44, he said.
For more information about Kershaw’s appearance at the Northshire Bookstore Friday, Dec. 7 -- by coincidence the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which catapulted the U.S. into active combat in a war that had already been raging for more than two years -- call 802-362-2200, or visit www.northshire.com.