The Liberator

A hero’s journey leads an author to Regis


Author Alex Kershaw returns to Regis’ Northwest Denver campus on April 2 to talk about his Regis collaboration and his book,“The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-day Odyssey,” which spawned an upcoming Netflix series.

Alex Kershaw’s initial journey to Regis University’s Center for the Study of War Experience began with a single black-and-white image.

In the photo, a U.S. Army officer fires his pistol into the air while, in the background, bodies of German SS officers lay piled on the ground. It was April 29, 1945, and U.S. troops were liberating Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside Munich. The officer in the photo was warning his men to stop executing the German officers.

It was around 2004, and Kershaw, a bestselling author of nonfiction books about World War II, was searching for the topic of his next book when he found the image. “I was looking at doing a story about the soldiers who liberated the camps,” Kershaw recalled. “I couldn’t find a way to do it.”

That startling image eventually led Kershaw to Regis.

The officer was Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, who commanded the company that liberated Dachau. After the war, Sparks moved to Colorado to attend law school and spent the rest of his life here, practicing law and serving one term as district attorney in Delta, Colo. He also was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court. And, after serving as its commander for more than a decade, Sparks retired from the Colorado Army National Guard with the rank of brigadier general.

His story, told in Kershaw’s book “The Liberator,” follows Sparks from his first battle on the beaches of Sicily through 500 days of war, ending at the gates of Dachau. Along the way, Sparks’ 45th Infantry Division of the Seventh Army suffered massive casualties. Sparks lost his entire company — 230 men — at the Battle of Anzio in Italy, during some of the most intense combat of WWII. He also took part in the Battle of the Bulge, leading a division south into Germany while the largest battles raged in the north. In “The Liberator,” Kershaw chronicles in detail the extreme hardships Sparks endured in the final weeks of the war.

“Few men in World War II would endure so much loss and unrelenting violence and come out of it physically unscathed,” Kershaw wrote.

“Sparks was serious minded, a soldier’s soldier who led from the front,” said Dan Clayton, founding director of Regis’ Center for the Study of War Experience. “He’s a true American hero, no question.” Clayton also launched an undergraduate class at Regis, called Stories from Wartime, in which veterans and others affected by war share their personal stories. The class is now in its 25th year.

Clayton interviewed Sparks for many hours in 2001 for the center’s oral histories collection. The center collects and preserves interviews with veterans and civilians who have been involved with or changed by modern war. Sparks died in 2007 at age 90. 

Sparks’ story, as told in Kershaw’s book, caught Netflix’s attention: The streaming service is producing a four-part, animated series based on Kershaw’s book that stars Bradley James as Sparks. The series is due to premiere in April 2021.

Kershaw was able to listen to Clayton’s audio interviews with Sparks thanks to an introduction from Rick Crandall, the longtime moderator for Stories from Wartime on whose talk radio program Kershaw had appeared. “It was very helpful for me to have Dan hand me the interviews he did with Sparks,” Kershaw said. “It was important for the book.”

The collaboration was mutually beneficial: Kershaw has been returning as a Stories from Wartime guest speaker for more than a decade. And he was so impressed with the center’s work that he donated to it research materials, including hundreds of hours of audio interviews, collected while working on his first eight books (and promised Regis the materials from his ninth book, “The First Wave”).

Kershaw said his partnership with Regis made the University the perfect choice to house his research collection. “It’s been a great experience (attending the classes). I’ve always enjoyed the presentations,” Kershaw said. “It’s been a great delight to help support Regis. They were very supportive of me when I was working on ‘The Liberator.’ It was a great collaboration.”

Clayton, in turn, is thrilled to receive the research of a distinguished author. “This is a very big deal,” he said. “The center has acquired a really considerable reputation for the work it does collecting the memories of war veterans.”

As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau — and the end of World War II — approaches, Kershaw again returns to Regis to talk with students and the public about the Allied liberation of Europe. And to remember Felix Sparks.