The scene, captured in black and white by a corps photographer, shows an Army officer in drooping fatigues and combat helmet. His left hand is raised in the universal gesture for “Stop.” His right holds the pistol he’s just fired into the air.
Dozens of bodies line the wall to his left, stacked like sandbags before a flood.
A machine gunner is splayed on the hardscrabble ground at his feet.
The date is April 29, 1945, and the man with the pistol is 27-year-old Felix Sparks, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, one of the Colorado National Guard’s oldest and most storied units.
Sparks and his men have just become the first Allied forces to enter the Dachau concentration camp, the oldest extermination center in Hitler’s crumbling Third Reich.
In the photo, Sparks is firing his gun, demanding an end to the massacre.
When you realize the bodies aren’t prisoners, but Nazi soldiers and officers, the bravery of the moment — and of the young officer’s act — takes on a whole new weight.
“What he’s doing is stopping his men from massacring SS soldiers in Dachau on that day,” said British journalist and author Alex Kershaw, who came across the photo while doing research for what he originally envisioned as a book focusing on the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. “I was, like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here? Who’s that guy … and why would he stop people killing the SS in Dachau, when you’re surrounded by thousands of rotting bodies and you’re confronted by absolute evil?”
Thirteen years ago, Kershaw didn’t expect his research would lead him to Colorado and a deathbed interview with a forgotten hero and “combat superstar of World War II.” He didn’t expect to find an agonizing, sweeping and mostly unsung saga of warriors whose valor and ultimate sacrifice were pivotal to the Allied victory in Europe.
“I don’t think I have come across any American combat commander on the ground who was quite as successful, who went through as much combat, difficulty, heartbreak and loss,” said the Savannah, Ga.-based Kershaw, whose acclaimed 2013 book, “The Liberator: One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau,” tells the story of Sparks and his men in the 157th. “He was there at the beginning and there right at the end, when working-class Americans began to free people who had suffered enormously under the Third Reich.”
Kershaw’s book has been made into a Netflix animated series that will premier on Veterans Day, this Wednesday, on the subscription-based streaming service.
“For me, what’s incredible is that so many people now can possibly watch it and see this fantastic story about this incredible Coloradan ... this incredible man, who is such an unbelievable example," said Kershaw, who is on the board of the National WWII Memorial. “It’s a powerful message about what’s important. And I think that's something everyone needs, especially right now."
Felix Sparks was born in Texas but grew up in a small town in Arizona, the oldest of five children during the Great Depression in a family that, like many across the nation, was struggling to make ends meet. His father saved up a grubstake and set him adrift, in his teens, and after riding the rails, scrounging an existence as a hobo and failing to find work in the shipyards of Texas and California, Sparks did what many young men of his generation did in the late 1930s. He enlisted in military service.
The men he ultimately ended up commanding in combat in WWII, in the 45th “Thunderbird” Division — many of whom hailed from mobilized National Guard units in small and mountain towns across the Midwest and West, including Colorado — likely enlisted for similar reasons, said Flint Whitlock, a Denver-based military historian and author of more than a dozen books, most of them about World War II.
“In the post-Depression days, a lot of young men joined the National Guard to make a few dollars to feed their families,” said Whitlock. "I think most of them were probably hoping the U.S. wouldn’t get involved in the war, but were preparing for that eventuality."
Many members of the 157th Infantry Regiment were farmers or laborers, kids who’d grown up on farms and ranches in Colorado and Oklahoma and probably didn’t pursue an education beyond high school.
“I call them the salt-of-the-earth types,” said Whitlock, whose previous book, “Soldiers on Skis,” had focused on the elite 10th Mountain Division.
“It’s kind of interesting going from the glamour boys … the hot-shot skiers from Ivy League colleges, to these salt-of-the-earth farm boys and ranch boys who got almost no publicity at all,” he said. “And yet (Gen. George S. Patton) called them one of, if not the finest infantry division in the U.S. Army. The more I dug into it, the more fascinating features that I found and colorful characters. The 157th, these were the guys who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They had 511 days of combat.”
Guardsmen with the 45th Infantry Division were among the first units activated in World War II, and suffered heavy losses in 1944 and 1945, as the Allied advance on Hitler’s Europe tightened. The units Sparks led — whose men carried out four amphibious combat assault landings in the Mediterranean, at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and in southern France, where they had to “fight their way on shore” — were “almost totally responsible for preventing the Germans from throwing the Allied invasions … back into the sea,” said Whitlock.
“These guys were clinging to the beachhead with their fingernails. The fact that they fought their way up through eastern France, the Vosges mountains, in the wintertime. The tremendous battles that were fought there as part of the southern front of the Battle of the Bulge…,” said Whitlock, whose 1992 book, “The Rock of Anzio,” is about the 45th Infantry Division and the actions of its regiments, including the 157th.
Sparks lost almost every man in his company at Anzio in February 1944. And more losses were to follow before he would lead his replacement battalions into Dachau, and into horrors that would redefine human understanding. Being witness to such atrocities had an effect, but the nightmares that would haunt Sparks for the rest of his life were already firmly seated.
“He told me, losing your men is something you never get over. You don’t recover from that kind of grief,” said Kershaw, who interviewed Sparks at his Lakewood home just months before his death in 2007. “These lives are in your hands. You want to bring (them) home. I’ve interviewed quite a few veterans, and he was one that left a very deep impression. He was still in a lot of pain, and was very outspoken and very angry about some of the things that happened in World War II, and the cost to his men.”
After the war, Sparks moved to Colorado, the state from which so many of his men had hailed.
His men, “they would always wax lyrical about how wonderful Colorado was, and he said, 'What the hell? Why not go and try it out,'” Kershaw said.
Sparks went on to earn his law degree at the University of Colorado, later serving on the state Supreme Court. Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, who was close to Sparks, was quoted as saying that Coloradans could never thank Sparks enough for helping protect water rights, Kershaw said.
Sparks ultimately was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and, for more than a decade starting in the late 1960s, served as leader of the Colorado National Guard, stepping into an official role he’d been personally pursuing, off the books, since returning from the war.
“He took several months off 1946 and '47, and drove all around Colorado trying to get the National Guard back together in these mountain towns, and while doing that he visited widows of the men who’d served in his combat (unit),” Kershaw said. "He deeply cared about, and was committed to his men. During the war, and after."
Later that day in Dachau, in 1945, Sparks would go on to point the gun he’d fired into the air at a superior officer, who, while touring the camp and grandstanding for a reporter, grew indignant at Sparks' refusal to cede control of the camp. Sparks was only following orders, but in the confusion of the day, there'd been conflicting directives from the top. The general wound up striking one of Sparks’ men with his riding crop.
Sparks "pointed the pistol at a general’s head and said, ‘If you touch another one of my men, I’ll kill you right here,’” said Kershaw.
Though the official lineage of the unit now belongs to Oklahoma, Colorado’s National Guard soldiers of the 3-157th proudly carry on the legacy and traditions of Felix Sparks and the Thunderbirds who sacrificed so much during World War II, said Colorado Springs-based battalion commander Lt. Col. Russ McKelvey. All members must know the history, and the battalion’s crest, designed by members, includes imagery that celebrates Sparks and his men. The Guard's readiness center in the Springs even has a collection of artifacts from members of the 157th who fought during WWII, including original documents penned by veteran and military historian Jack Hallowell.
If not for the pandemic, they’d planned to hold a screening of the new Netflix series at the Guard’s readiness center in the Springs on Veterans Day.
Now, they’re going to have to do things remotely. But McKelvey said people are still excited and inspired that the under-told story of heroism is finally getting its due — on one of the world’s most popular streaming platforms, in a next-gen format that might help broaden its reach.
“Anything that can help attract a new audience, that's a good thing," said McKelvey. "I think the story is a source of motivation. It’s terrible what they went through, but it’s a very inspirational story that needs to be told.”