45th Infantry Division Thunderbird, second worldwar
157th Infantry Regiment Crest

At the Ready

157th Infantry Regiment Crest 45th Infantry Division Thunderbird, second worldwar

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At the Ready

by Laurie Lips
October 2001

On August 30, several hundred people gathered at the Centennial Armory, the headquarters for the Colorado Army National Guard.
The reason for the gathering was that the armory, built at 6864 S. Revere Parkway four years ago, was being dedicated in honor of Brig. Gen. (ret.) Felix Sparks.
As Sparks looked out over the crowd, he said, "I must say today we have, in the National Guard, the best-trained citizen soldiers that this country has ever seen," he said.

Gen. Felix Sparks

Little did anyone attending the dedication realize that a vow Sparks made years ago would ensure soldiers were at the ready.
During a two-hour ceremony that began with a cannon shot, Sparks described how an incident on Easter Sunday, 1944, strengthened his resolve to build within this nation a more highly trained Reserve.
About 3,200 men set sail from Virginia on June 8, 1943. Out of those men in the initial invasion force, about 2,000 were from members of the Colorado Guard.
Following its initial landing in North Africa, the 157th Infantry Regiment moved on as part of an invasion in Italy (at Sicily and Salerno) in September 1943.
On April 29, they stormed the beachhead at Anzio. Sparks, a 26-year-old captain, witnessed the death of five of his men, who were killed by a German shell that exploded on the beachhead.
"I was shocked," he said, "although I had seen death every day."
Sparks detested "a stupid system" that was sending young boys into combat with only 90 days of boot camp training.
"I swore to myself, "When I get out of the Army I am going to get into a Reserve unit and do my best to see soldiers are well-trained before they go into combat,'" he said.
But Sparks would suffer a further shock. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1944 and was a battalion commander of about 1,000 men.
Their last major assignment, in April 1945, was to capture Munich, the center of communications and supply.
As the commander of a task force, Sparks was given extra troops. On the way to Munich, he received notice via the radio to proceed to the concentration camp at Dachau, seize it, seal it off, and "let no one in or out."
Sparks had never even heard of a concentration camp. Nor had his soldiers.
When they reached the camp, the first thing they saw was a string of 39 railway cars, filled with perhaps 2,000 dead bodies.
Sparks found himself surrounded by troops that were crying, cursing, or absolutely silent.
They later learned that those bodies were those of prisoners from the nearby Buchenwald camp; after being crammed into the railcars destined for Dachau the people had suffocated along the way-at least most had. One had received an even worse punishment.
They soon discovered that most of the German officers had fled. Then, they found the prison area, in the far corner of the camp. The men liberated Dachau.

Col. Van Barfoot, CMOH recipient

In all, the 157th Infantry served 511 days in combat. Approximately 12,000 soldiers fought in the regiment. Out of that number, 1,065 were killed, 4,330 were wounded, and 143 were declared missing in action; 758 became prisoners of war.
Sparks received two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, Combat Infantry Badge, Commendation Medal, and eight battle stars. He also received the Croix de Guerre with the Silver Gilt Star. But he wasn't the only one awarded. Almond E. Fisher, James D. Slaton, and Van T. Barfoot received the Medal of Honor.

After WWII ended, he attended college in Arizona before moving to Colorado.
Right after he started law school, the Army pushed to get the National Guard going again. He received a call, from Governor John Vivian, asking if he would reorganize the National Guard.
He was put on active duty, and given a military car to travel around the state to get the units organized again.
The changes he instituted included having men earn ranks within a specific period, which kept the ranks knowledgeable and skilled in the defense of our country.
When he turned 50, he became the commanding general of the Colorado Army National Guard and held that position for 10 years. He retired soon after as a brigadier general.
In 1975, Sparks, who lives in Lakewood, organized a reunion of the 157th, which became an annual event.
On dedication day, along with family members, many who have served in the military or are currently in the military, and about 100 of his men of the 157th, in town for their reunion, proudly stood and applauded when Sparks rose to speak.
During the homage to Sparks, dignitaries lauded his life. Jack Goldman, who was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 by Sparks and his troops, was one of the speakers at the dedication.
"We remember our liberation from hell and death, and we remember you, our liberators," Goldman said to Sparks and his men at the dedication.

Barfoot, another speaker, described Sparks as "the epitome of courage, compassion, leadership and command ability."
Sparks, 84, and leaning on a cane, expressed his gratitude to the men who had gathered to honor him, but couldn't resist commenting on what changes time had brought.
"Some of 'em are in as bad a shape as me," he said as he looked out over the crowd.

Sparks was born in San Antonio, Texas, on Aug. 2, 1917. He attended the University of Colorado where he earned a law degree. He served as district attorney for a seven-county judicial district on the Western Slope and was also a Colorado Supreme Court justice (for six months in 1956).

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