By Alex Kershaw
Crown. 433 pp. $28
Alex Kershaw’s latest World War II narrative, “The Liberator,” traces the fighting life of Felix Sparks, a small-town Arizona kid who served heroically as an Army officer in World War II. It’s a poignant war story that culminates in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau.
Born in 1917, Sparks was a gifted and energetic high school student who joined the Army to earn a living during the Great Depression. By 1943, he was a second lieutenant in the vaunted 157th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division and was blazing a hard-fought path through some of the war’s fiercest fighting in Italy, France and Germany.
“The Liberator” is well-researched and filled with vivid battle scenes, including Sparks’s desperate attempt to save scores of soldiers caught behind enemy lines during fighting in Anzio. Elsewhere Sparks disregards a hail of bullets to drag wounded men to safety; German soldiers then decide to withhold their fire in admiration of their adversary’s bravery. Though at times we could use more insight into Sparks’s thinking, Kershaw still paints a revealing portrait of a man who led by example and suffered a deep emotional wound with the loss of each soldier under his command.
In 1945, then-Lt.Col. Sparks and his men liberated Dachau, a scene that Kershaw describes in all its wretched and devastating humanity. The terror — emaciated bodies piled high in boxcars — apparently provoked some of Sparks’s men to summarily execute German soldiers. At one point, Sparks dramatically made his men stop firing at the Germans lined up against a wall. The shootings were swept under the rug by Gen. George S. Patton, who told Sparks he was a “damn fine soldier” as he tore to pieces an investigative report, calling it “a bunch of crap.”
After the war, Sparks returned to the United States and pursued a lifelong goal of becoming a lawyer; he was elected a district attorney in Colorado, served on the the state supreme court and commanded the Colorado National Guard. In the 1990s, he pushed to tighten gun control laws after his 16-year-old grandson was shot to death. Sparks, who was interviewed by Kershaw, died in 2007.
For the most part, Kershaw’s narrative technique — telling the larger story of a war by focusing on a single man’s journey — works, though at times the book loses some of its narrative punch as it lurches among various viewpoints, including those of Army Gen. Mark Clark, Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. Even so, “The Liberator” is a worthwhile and fast-paced examination of a dedicated officer navigating — and somehow surviving — World War II.