Alex Kershaw is an honorary colonel in the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division and the New York Times best-selling author of several widely acclaimed books about American combatants in the European Theatre of WWII. A graduate of University College, Oxford, he was born in York, England and has lived in the United States since 1994. His books include, The Bedford Boys, the story of Bedford, Virginia's extraordinary D-Day Sacrifice; and The Liberator, One Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau, praised by the Wall Street Journal as an "exceptional account" of a US infantryman's journey through Europe in WWII.
More information may be found at www.alexkershaw.com.
The Liberator, One Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau
PROLOGUE - THE GRAVES
October 1989, Europe.
THEY LAY beneath perfect rows of white graves that lined lush green lawns. He knew where they were buried. He had their names.1 Finding all of them meant walking back and forth, all across the graveyard, through avenues of thousands of white crosses. But he could manage the strain. His heart had given him problems for years but he still had the strength, the will, to search for his men. They had died near here, at Anzio, the bloodiest piece of ground occupied by American and British forces during World War II.2 Seventy two thousand men lost in all – killed, wounded, sent insane, blown to shreds, missing or captured,3 now a mere statistic in a history book.
The men he had commanded had achieved something of lasting greatness, something of permanence. They had defeated barbarism. He had seen it. He had been there, poisoned and heartbroken but somehow blessed, or rather damned, with the strength to fight on, to beat Hitler's most violent men.4
Often he had questioned what kept his men going. The American Army was on the attack all the time in Europe. He had kept thinking: "Why do they go? Why do they go?" It was hard to explain why his men had not hesitated.5 Many times he had said: "Let's go!" Every time, they had gone.6 Now that he was back in Europe, he marveled once more at the American spirit, as he called it, that had kept them advancing toward death or at best debilitating injury. It was this sprit that had mattered so much when the odds had been even.7
The American soldiers under his command had performed magnificently.8 He wanted to pay his respects to some of those who had fallen. That was why he was back. There had been no time during combat to stand over them and grieve, no time to say how he had felt, to show his love other than by trying his best to keep them alive. At that, he had failed, over and over, and over again.
Never give up. That was what had counted most. He had never given up, not once in his entire life. He had fought since he could remember to eat, to stay alive, to overcome everything a vengeful God could throw at him. He had survived, somehow, perhaps through grit and rage, perhaps because God took the good first and left the rotten until last.9
He had never been afraid of God or any man. Fear had never thrown him off balance, but he had felt great anxiety, mostly about what was going to happen to his men. Thankfully, he had always been able to think and act fast. In fact, he had functioned extraordinarily well in combat, remaining for the most part calm and focused. He had some of the fighting Irish in him plus a lot of anger. It was in his blood. His great grandfather had fought at the Alamo.10
The graves of his men stretched across Europe, over two thousand miles. They had died in Sicily, in France, at the dark heart of Nazi Germany. There had been several hundred killed under his command, half of them buried in Europe. Near a crossing over the fast-flowing Moselle, he looked for Sergeant Vanderpool and Lieutenant Railsback's final resting places. Railsback had looked like a high school valedictorian with his confident, easy smile and neatly cropped hair. He had been a hell of an officer, like Sparks at his age. As for Vanderpool – he should never have died. It had been his fault. He should have ignored the fact that he wanted to stay with his brother and pulled him off the line, but he had left it too late.
On the German border, near a small village, he traipsed along the ridge where he had been beaten just that one time, where in snow and ice the SS had humiliated him.11 His men's foxholes were still there as well as their spent cartridges.12 He had never gotten over their loss.13 How could anyone recover from losing a thousand men? Thirty platoon leaders and six hundred warriors who had never hesitated to carry out his every command.14
Then it was on into the dark forests where you could get lost after a hundred yards without a compass, a place of primeval fears, to the border of Germany and the Siegfried Line with its famous dragon's teeth, now decomposing concrete and rusted iron; across the swirling Rhine to a city on the banks of the Main River where a grateful mayor and townspeople honored him and left him beaming with pride; south toward the Alps and a pretty town where he pointedly reminded the good burghers that the German government had authorized the building of a center for the study of the Holocaust. Why hadn't it been built?15 Much as they might want to forget, future generations should not.
He had never been able to forget that day. He could still picture the girl lying on top of all the bodies. It was as if she and others were looking at him with reproach, asking: "What took you so long?"
Why hadn't he been able to save them in time?
He had lost control here, in the outskirts of this town in Bavaria, in this place of evil, for perhaps as much as half an hour. It had been impossible to stop his men from going crazy. The horrors had robbed their minds of reason. He had never liked to see people killed unnecessarily, no matter their color or nationality or whatever terrible things they had done. He had never allowed his men to kill without good reason. He had tried to take prisoners and treat them honorably. But at the end, with his back turned, near piles of dead, his men had killed unnecessarily.
Events that day, one of over five hundred at war, nagged at him like an old wound.16 The rumors festered still, the published falsehoods.17 Just once, just that time, among thousands of emaciated, stinking corpses, he had failed to control his men when they had gone on the rampage. But he had then done the right thing. He had stopped the madness. It was painful to think people thought otherwise.
Time had not healed. It had not erased the memories. That fall of 1989, 72-year-old General Felix Sparks wandered through towns he had set free, across battlefields and through several graveyards. The white crosses did not speak to him. They were silent. The men who had died for him could not be resurrected. They could not be brought back. He knew one thing for certain. It didn't matter how well he had waged war. The cost had been too great.18
1 Felix Sparks, 157th Infantry Regiment Association, 1 September 1989.
2 Felix Sparks, diary of a combat commander, p. 81.
3 Felix Sparks, diary of a combat commander, p. 94.
4 Johann Voss, letter to author, 4 December 2011.
5 Felix Sparks, interview with author.
6 Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
7 Felix Sparks, Regis University lecture.
8 Feliz Sparks, Regis University lecture, "Stories from Wartime."
9 Kirk Sparks, interview with author.
10 Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
11 Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
12 Rocky Mountain News, 10 March 2007.
13 Rocky Mountain News, 10 March 2007.
14 Karl Mann, written report on WW2 provided to the author, p.14.
15 Felix Sparks, Regis University lecture.
16 Felix Sparks, interviewed by James Strong, The Liberation of KZ Dachau, 1990.
17 David Israel, interview with author.
18 Felix Sparks, diary of a combat commander, p. 94