February is the shortest month of the year but for Felix Sparks, subject of my book, The Liberator, it must have felt like the longest by far. In the more than five hundred days he spent in Europe in WWII, the Texas-born officer suffered more heart-break in the month of February than in any other. I visited many places in his odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to the gates of Dachau, but one spot was particularly affecting, reminding me of the immense sacrifice of so many men who fought in overlooked or largely forgotten battles during the liberation of Europe.
Texas-born Sparks was a 26-year-old captain in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th “Thunderbird” Division when he ordered three platoons from his E Company to set up positions on the Via Anziate, a road leading toward Rome, on the plain of Anzio on February 15, 1944. After being wounded the previous October, he had gone AWOL from a hospital in North Africa in order to rejoin his men in Italy. The Anzio invasion had been his third amphibious landing of the war.
Early on February 16th, the Germans launched “Operation Fischfang”, an all-out strike to destroy the Allies. Unfortunately for Sparks and E Company, the Germans pushed down the Via Anziate in order to “lance the abscess below Rome” as Hitler called the beach-head. Sparks’ positions astride the critical road were actually a “Schwerpunkt": a place to concentrate German force in the hopes of breaking through.
E Company was massively outnumbered and isolated as several hundred Germans, accompanied by tanks, stormed Sparks’s positions. The air filled with bullets. Sparks’s machine-gunners mowed down the first wave but yet more Germans followed. Some closed on Sparks’s fox-hole. Sparks spotted one of his men, a sergeant, who had strapped himself to the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a tank destroyer. The sergeant opened up on the Germans closing on Sparks, just yards from his hole, killing most of them.
A German, armed with a light machine gun, survived and crawled toward the sergeant manning the gun. There was a brrrrp sound. Sparks saw dust fly from the back of the sergeant’s field jacket as bullets riddled his chest. A few moments later, one of his men put the German out of action. Several corpses lay close by Sparks’s hole - the sergeant had stopped the Germans at its very edge and saved his life.
The battle at Anzio raged on. After twenty-four hours, E Company had been reduced to just eighteen men from some two hundred. Bodies of young Americans - Sparks’s men - littered the muddy ground. Low on ammunition, traumatized, Sparks and his fellow survivors pulled back to a series of man-made caves where they found some protection.
I have visited the caves of Anzio several times over the years. They are barely changed from when Sparks and his fellow Thunderbirds sought refuge there and then were surrounded and shelled by the Germans for almost a week that longest of Februaries in 1944. Sparks never forgot the men who went deaf from the ear-piercing echo of gunfire inside the caves. He never forgot the Italian civilians, the women and children, who starved alongside his fellow Americans in the fetid tunnels.
Early on February 23, 1944, Sparks led a group of around fifty men from the caves in an attempt to cross German-held ground and reach Allied lines a couple of miles distant. The Germans opened up with machine guns and hurled grenades. After several hours, Sparks and less than a dozen men managed to slither and crawl to British lines. Not one man from Sparks’s E Company was with him when he got back to his regiment.
How do you recover from losing so many men – some two hundred captured, killed or wounded at Anzio over a week one bleak and gray February? I will never forget the words of Sergeant Jack Hallowell, who remembered Sparks’s return to the regiment: “He was physically and emotionally done in. He was a worn-out old boy. He had gone without rest for seven days and nights and had seen death and horror all around him.”
Hallowell and others dug a hole for Sparks who was still carrying his pistol and another gun when he lay down in it, and where he then slept, undisturbed, for more than twenty-four hours. Two days after he awoke, another man from E Company, Sergeant Leon Siehr, turned up, but would tragically be killed that spring, making Sparks the only man from the company he commanded to fight on after the Battle of Anzio.
I interviewed Sparks on his deathbed. He was 89 with just a few months to live. He was a formidable leader, every inch a warrior, perhaps the greatest I have known. He was angry, heartbroken still, about the loss of his men. No one had ever really been able to understand his sense of failure, his survivor’s guilt, the grief that had lasted a long lifetime. Losing two hundred men he loved and admired was a “terrible, terrible, terrible blow.”
I’ll go back to Anzio this fall with Friends of the National World War II Memorial. I’ll visit the graves of Thunderbirds who died like Sparks’s men to save the Allied beach-head that fatal February. His division lost half of its strength in just 36 hours. His battalion suffered 75 percent casualties and earned the Presidential Unit citation to stop the Germans.
Sparks received the Silver Star and was promoted to major for his heroism. Neither the medal nor the promotion salved his deep emotional wounds. Before this shortest of months ends, eighty years after the Italian campaign began, I’ll make sure I raise a glass or two of vino to Sparks and E Company … and to the thousands of others who fought at Anzio and who gave everything for our freedom.