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The forgotten soldiers behind Netflix’s ‘The Liberator’

The men of the 45th Infantry Division fought for each other, as all soldiers do, but they also fought for their country. Not for what it was — with its segregation, its double standards, and its signs in front of businesses saying who could shop or eat or drink there — but for what it could be.
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In the opening moments of Netflix’s new animated series The Liberator, the narrator introduces viewers to the men of the 45th Infantry Division, “most of whom couldn’t drink together in the same bars back home.”

But in July 1943 they weren’t back home. The 45th Infantry Division dubbed the “Thunderbirds” were at the beginning of a journey that would span the breadth of the European theater of World War II, from the earliest days of the United States’ involvement to its end. 

After training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where they learned to shoot and fight, to follow and lead, to be soldiers together, they shipped off to Europe. Once there, they took part in the Italian Campaign, beginning with the Invasion of Sicily. Then it was on to Anzio, where they endured artillery bombardments and blunted the enemy’s attacks on their lines. Next to France and later to frigid mountains in Germany, and deeper into Bavaria and the heart of the Third Reich, through some of the bloodiest street-to-street fighting of the war. And finally, they reached the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp, and one of the unit’s darkest moments. Their advance across Europe came at a great cost. By the war’s end, the Thunderbirds had suffered more than 10,500 casualties in under two years.

For more than 500 days in combat, they had braved all manner of violence and death. They fought together, killed together, and died together.

Among the Army’s 45th Infantry Division were the 157th, 179th, and 180th Regiments, whose members had come from across the American West: from New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Some were mountaineers, others were ranchers and the sons of cowboys. They were white Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans from more than 50 tribes. In all likelihood, theirs was one of the most diverse units of the war.

They fought for each other, as all soldiers do, but they also fought for their country. Not for what it was — with its segregation, its double standards, and its signs in front of businesses saying who could shop or eat or drink there — but for what it could be.

“A lot of these guys in this unit had come from different Americas and they were fighting for different ideas of what America stood for,” said Alex Kershaw, the author of The Liberator, which served as the basis for Netflix’s series by the same name.

Kershaw’s 2012 nonfiction book was based on his interviews with veterans of the unit and chronicles the bloody odyssey of the 157th Infantry Regiment during World War II, culminating in the liberation of Dachau, a concentration camp in Bavaria, and the killing of Nazi SS prisoners. 

Both the book and the show follow the service and exploits of Felix Sparks, a Silver Star recipient who rose from the commander of E Company up through the 157th’s ranks, and who as a second lieutenant was one of only two men from his unit to survive the Battle of Anzio after being cut off by German forces.

Related: ‘The Liberator’ is a visually stunning and grim World War II series unlike any other

“I always saw him as the main character, but also as a vehicle to tell a broader story about that amazing regiment, and also the Thunderbird Division, which was an incredible division and to put that in a broader context of the liberation of Western Europe,” Kershaw said. “Because they were there at the very beginning on the 10th of July, 1943 and they were at Dachau at the end, literally, a week before the end of the war. By telling that story, I could tell the story of the liberation of Europe, too.”

The series, much like the original source material, uses Sparks as a vehicle to tell the story of the 157th Infantry Regiment while spotlighting the service and sacrifice of a highly decorated and racially diverse infantry division that’s often overlooked in pop-culture depictions of World War II.

After reviewing the four-part miniseries by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), Task & Purpose had a chance to chat with Kershaw about the real-life soldiers who endured some of the most savage combat of the European theater, and whose service and sacrifice was for too long forgotten.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Task & Purpose: What drew you to Felix Sparks and the 157th?  

Alex Kershaw: I came across an image on Google of Dachau and it showed Felix Sparks. It’s a Signal Corps’ cameraman’s image of him firing his pistol into the air. It’s in the Dachau coal yard on the 29th of April, 1945. It shows him, literally, it shows him firing his colt and thrusting his hand out in the air.

Sparks at the coal yard at Dachau shooting his pistol in the air to tell his men to stop shooting the Nazi guards.

What he’s doing is he’s stopping his men from killing SS soldiers who’ve been lined up against the wall in the coal yard. I was just absolutely fascinated by that. Number one, it was an incredibly beautiful image of a guy in a very intense moment of his life, a moment that defined who he was.

It showed him to be a fantastic officer, to be a man of great honor and integrity. Because what he found in Dachau was so mind-blowing and so disgusting. That to stop that, yes, a good officer should stop a killing like that. But then, again, you wouldn’t blame anybody for wanting to kill the SS that they found there that day when there’s literally thousands and thousands of bodies rotting all around them and Dachau was an incredibly horrific place.

That image really fascinated me, I was like, “Who the hell is that guy?” 

GI’s inspecting box cars at Dachau shortly after liberation

T&P: You had a chance to meet Felix Sparks. What was he like in real life? Did the series capture his personality or nature accurately?

AK: I think they captured a lot of it. I met him and he was a very big guy in every way. He was dying when I met him and he was in a lot of pain.

But he was quite an angry guy. He was very outspoken about some stuff. He hadn’t been impressed by a lot of the senior commanders that he’d served under, and he said that to me. He was a hard ass. I don’t think in the Netflix show you see his real rage. He’s not quite the hard-ass that he was in real life. He’s all business. There’s a guy still alive called Carl Mann who was Sparks’ translator, and I interviewed Carl and I said, “What was Sparks like? You spent six months in a Jeep with him.”

He said, “You know what, Sparks never ever talked about his family, he never talked about anything but getting the job done. He’s all business all the time. He was just really just about getting the job done and getting it done as fast as possible.

At the beginning of the war, he didn’t have any problems with people being disciplined very harshly. There was one thing that I quoted in the book where there was a bunch of guys that he had to take over a group of guys that had been disciplined and literally get them out of the slammer. They were a rough lot, and he was quoted as saying that he got some of his sergeants to rough these guys up and kick them into shape. He says “it probably wasn’t legal but it sure as hell worked.”

This guy was not the softest.

T&P: I was wondering about that. That was in the show, but they made it seem like a Dirty Dozen reference, where he gets them out of the brig, whips them into shape, and it’s this moment where they all come together as a unit.

AK: That’s true.

T&P: But they left out the asskicking?

AK: Yeah, they left out that part. They left out someone getting kicked in the ass really hard. Yeah.

But when I went to the reunion and stuff, everyone just said that the thing about Sparks was that you knew that he’d look after you. The reality was that you just didn’t want to die, you didn’t want to have your life wasted. You didn’t want to take orders from someone that was going to get you killed unnecessarily. He was a sure hand. Sparks was someone that thought about minimizing casualties.

The job had to be done, and his decisions every day got people killed.

But he was trying to bring people home, and there were a couple of occasions in the war when people had been in combat for an awfully long time, and he’s trying to get them pushed out of the unit or put them somewhere else where they wouldn’t get killed.

There was a certain amount of time that people spent, and he felt that was it. If they went for three or four months, it was time to put them somewhere safer. Time to give them a break, to try to transfer them out of the unit. He was aware of things like that, that there was only so much that these guys could take.

He was calm under pressure, very calm. I think that’s the universal fear of all officers that the first time they lead men in combat is “are they going to let them down? Are they going to be able to do the job?” They’re more afraid, in many cases, of failure than they are of being killed by the enemy. The last thing they want to do is look like a coward.

They want to be able to do the job and earn the respect of their men, and Sparks was good at that.

T&P: Tell me about the soldiers who served in the 157th. What made it such a diverse group and was that was unique at the time? 

AK: The 157th [Infantry Regiment] and the 45th [Infantry Division] drew from New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona, so very much the American West. That connection meant that there were a large number of Native Americans and the 45th had more Native Americans in it than any other American Division. They had over 1,500 Native Americans who left for Europe in a division. There was a disproportionate number of Native Americans compared to other American combat units in World War II. 

Then there were also a large number of Mexican Americans, again, because of where the unit was drawn from and quite a few of those guys couldn’t speak very good English. They had to have their buddies write letters in English to get past the censor. 

So you got a combination of cowboys from Oklahoma and rural Denver and rural Colorado, New Mexico, etc. You’ve got Native Americans, and you’ve got Mexican Americans and a lot of dirt poor kids from the West that grew up in terrible poverty during the Depression. You put them all together and you end up with the 45th [Infantry Division]. Then you end up obviously with one of the three regiments, which was the 157th.

A lot of these guys in this unit had come from different Americas and they were fighting for different ideas of what America stood for.

I think that’s one of the wonderful things about it is when you look at the Netflix show and when you look at the faces of the guys in photographs from that Infantry Regiment and the Division, they are Mexican American, they’re Native American, they’re white. It’s not just the white victory we’re talking about here and the white unit. In Band of Brothers, it’s mostly white guys that win that war.

That’s the image you get from The Longest Day and almost all World War II movies and miniseries and such things like that. “White America won World War II,” well, white America did win World War II, but Black and Latino and Mexican Americans and Native Americans, they all won it too. When you look at, certainly, the 45th Infantry Division, there were as many Native Americans and Mexican Americans as there were white rural cowboys. 

T&P: When you hear about all that they accomplished — more than 500 consecutive days in combat from Italy to France to Germany — it’s surprising that their story isn’t widely known. Why do you think that is?

AK: I think there are two things going on there. Number one is the fact that they were forgotten in World War II. They were even disparaged as the so-called “D-Day Dodgers.”

T&P: Really?

AK: There was a song that was famous at the time, the D-Day Dodgers, and that came from, I think, that’s Lady Astor, who was an American who became a British [Member of Partliament]. She complained about “what the hell were they doing in Italy still and the real fight was in Normandy.”

What happened was that Sparks had been in three amphibious invasions before June the 6th, 1944, and Rome was liberated by the Thunderbirds and by other elements of the 5th Army, 3rd Division, 36th Infantry Division, and Brits, etc. It fell on the 4th of June 1944, and this is the first Axis capital to be liberated. It was a big deal. It was a huge deal. That fame and that glory only lasted for 48 hours because then you have the 6th of June 1944, which was D-Day.

Everything shifted then to Normandy, to the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden. It all became Northwestern Europe and the guys that fought all the way through to that terrible campaign — it was very, very bloody, and it was a complete nightmare — it was all kind of forgotten in the American press at the time.

It was partly because of history, the way it played out, and they became the Forgotten Army, the Ghost Army.

T&P: Do me a favor, describe the 157th Infantry Regiment in just a few words.

AK: Yeah, eager for duty. 

Their motto was “eager for duty,” and they were, and they were astonishing. They were just a fantastic outfit. They saved the day at Anzio. The 157th was right on the line on Anzio, actually, during Operation Fischfang which began on the 16th of February 1944. 

If it wasn’t for the 157th sitting there and getting the hell beaten out of them and fighting like crazy, the Allies would, probably, have failed at Anzio and they would have been kicked back into the sea and that would have been a terrible military disaster. 

But their heroism and their fortitude were just extraordinary, especially, at Anzio.

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