Alex Kershaw has written an outstanding tribute to one more courageous American of a generation full of very courageous Americans. Felix Sparks was already a Depression-era survivor, army veteran, newly-married and soon-to-be-father when he becomes a relatively green 2nd Lieutenant of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division (“Thunderbird”). He would fight the Germans all the way from Sicily to Germany. In Sicily, Sparks experienced the loss of his entire company, good men whose names he had memorized. In the Vosges Mountains, he demonstrated a cool bravery under fire that even earned the respect of the dreaded Waffen-SS. If a reader were too, in their mind, compare Sparks’ leadership abilities and style to those of Major Richard Winters, the eventual commander of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame, they should probably not be blamed for doing so. But unlike Winters, whom has come to be lionized to the point where there are no visible faults, Sparks has a temper which leads to occasional trouble with higher-ups, and a penchant for getting drunk when on the few leaves he actually received between combat. Kershaw is able to show that Sparks was human after all and despite his great leadership and courage, was able to break down under the strain of near-constant combat, as most of us mere mortals would.
Kershaw writes about the chaos of combat well. The details in the fighting in Sicily and at Anzio are not “big picture” history, but the ground-level type that seems to endear itself to readers. Since most of the fighting men were not privy to the “big picture” either, this style serves the book well. Kershaw also does a fantastic job in the chapters describing the fighting in the Champagne region in France and the later battles in the Vosges Mountains, both of which seem to be woefully neglected areas of World War II research, a point Kershaw does not miss when comparing them to the oft-written about D-Day invasion.
The strength and highlight of the book lies in the emotionally devastating arrival of the 157th at the notorious Dachau concentration camp inside of Germany. Dachau had been the first such camp opened in Hitler’s Third Reich, and the horrors that awaited Sparks and his men laid bare the evil of Nazism and their absolute depravity. Sparks temporarily loses control of some of his men while inside of Dachau, a few even going so far as to fire upon and murder some Waffen-SS prisoners. The horrified Americans are later investigated by the US Army for war crimes. That the victims were members of the SS does not automatically give the reader a sense of sympathy, but Kershaw does point out that most of those killed by the Americans had been wounded Waffen-SS soldiers that were supposed to be guaranteed rights as prisoners of war and had not been death camp guards, a distinction most American GIs were not terribly concerned with. Sparks’ integrity and leadership in turn is questioned, especially after a misleading (and mistaken) remark from one of his own soldiers during the investigation leads some of the investigators to believe Sparks himself was involved. That Sparks was not directly responsible for the murders isn’t definitively put to rest even after General George Patton theatrically tears up the charges. It is only after the efforts of a Jewish-American veteran named David Israel, whom helped track down a member of a Signal Corps unit that had been taking photographs that day at Dachau, that it was proven that Sparks had indeed attempted to stop his men from gunning down the SS prisoners at Dachau.
The weakest parts of the book are the passages that focus on Hitler. These do nothing to add to the overall narrative about Sparks or the 157th Regiment fighting for survival in Europe. The few concerning the enemy that do work are those involving Germans that directly went up against the Thunderbird Division, including Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, and Waffen-SS soldier Johann Voss, a man that respected Sparks’ heroic deeds one day in the Vosges Mountains so much that he refused to fire at him. If Voss had, Sparks would not have made it home to see his wife and two year-old son, Kirk, whom he had only known through photos and letters. Sparks’ later years are also touched upon, including his career in law and activism after the violent death of his grandson. The final chapter of the book is much weaker than the earlier chapters involving Sparks’ early life and nearly two-and-a-half years of combat, because the writing itself does not seem as polished. They do, however, provide a window into the thoughts and actions of a man that had seen so much death, as well as his need to try and save others from such needless violence.
However, Kershaw’s overall abilities as a writer continues to improve, and his research is extremely impressive. He personally interviewed Sparks and several Thunderbird veterans, and it is their contributions that Kershaw is able to weave into this well-crafted tale of death and devastation, of love and remembrance. This is an incredible story centered around one American soldiers overwhelmingly tragic, but ultimately triumphant journey through the horrors of war.