Monthly Archives: February 2013



Pilot Art Donahue Spit Fire At Hitler’s Nazis


Art Donahue had nailed his Japanese targets, but had a gaping hole in his left leg from anti-aircraft fire. The World War II fighter pilot knew he had to do something to stop the heavy bleeding. Otherwise he would pass out and never make the 100-mile flight back to his air base in Singapore. So Donahue stuck one fist in the wound and flew his fighter plane safely home with his other hand. For his bravery on this successful mission in early February 1942, the Minnesota native was awarded the U.K.’s Distinguished Flying Cross.

Donahue also earned other medals from a grateful Great Britain. Plus he became the first American to lead an all-British squadron in the U.K.’s Royal Air Force. In addition, he was part of a small number of Americans who — while the U.S. remained neutral — served as RAF fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, the 1940 aerial clash with Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.

Donahue was especially effective among these Americans while motivated to defeat the Nazis, author Alex Kershaw told IBD. “He wanted to go over to Britain and fight Hitler there because he didn’t want to have to do it in his own backyard,” said Kershaw, who wrote “The Few: The American ‘Knights of the Air’ Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain.”

“He was doing it for a reason. He wasn’t just a solider of fortune.”

Facing The Heat

The few Americans who fought in 1940 put their lives on the line, but also basically became criminals. They were breaking U.S. neutrality laws and knew they might lose their American citizenship or face other penalties.

Arthur Gerald Donahue (1913-42) was born and raised on a farm in the St. Charles, Minn., area and fell in love with airplanes early.

Around age 15, he convinced a local pilot to give him flying lessons. That set him on a path toward making his first solo flight at 16 and becoming Minnesota’s youngest qualified commercial pilot at 19.

A devout Catholic and teetotaler, he considered the clergy, but flew in another direction. “During the years of the Depression this wasn’t always too lucrative, and at various times I worked as a garage mechanic, construction worker and truck driver, in addition to working on my father’s farm quite often,” Donahue wrote in his 1941 book, “Tally-ho! Yankee in a Spitfire.”

“Always, however, I tried to work at some place where I could also keep my hand in flying part of the time — barnstorming, instructing and the like, and working as an aircraft mechanic.”

As the fighting spread in Europe, Donahue considered joining the RAF, but instead applied to the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve. He figured that would mean fewer worries for his parents. But he found himself “frustrated for months by delays that were mostly hard to understand,” he wrote in “Tally-ho!” So he ended up joining the RAF after all. He traveled to London by way of Canada, initially saying he would take a noncombat job and lying to his parents.

Upon his arrival in London in early July 1940, just before the Battle of Britain erupted, he marveled at the resolve of Londoners. That clinched it. He signed up as a pilot rather than a noncombatant. The RAF certainly wanted someone with Donahue’s experience. He had 1,807 hours of flight time at that point, according to Lyle Harrison, a Minnesotan who has worked to make sure Donahue isn’t forgotten, such as by helping put him in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame this year.

Harrison, who was 10 years old in 1940, recalls living in St. Charles and hearing stories about Donahue fighting Hitler: “We started to hear rumors about this guy from St. Charles who had gone to England.” Donahue plunged into air combat right after completing the RAF’s advanced fighter training in just 18 days, according to Harrison. The pilot experienced his first dogfight in early August 1940 in the thick of the Battle of Britain, flying one of the Spitfires from 64 Squadron.

Pressure In The Air

Kershaw notes that Donahue had to survive tremendous stress in the cockpit without the gear that protects today’s pilots. “If you go and talk to any fighter pilot today, they’ll tell you that being a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain and World War II in a Spitfire without a G-suit was about as intense as it gets,” the author said. “It takes an enormous amount of moral, physical and spiritual strength just to endure that day after day.”

Donahue was shot down and forced to bail out during one mission that summer, suffering severe burn wounds before escaping the cockpit. He recuperated for several weeks, then returned to the air after the Battle of Britain ended with a U.K. victory while the broader war raged on.

He briefly was posted to an all-American RAF squadron called the Eagles, but switched back to 64 Squadron when he saw the Eagles hadn’t been provided with planes yet. His attitude, according to Kershaw, was: “They’re a bunch of cowboys, and I’ve got a job to do, which is saving Britain.”

Donahue had a chance to visit St. Charles and other parts of Minnesota in the spring of 1941. He likely enjoyed the events held in his honor, but remained disappointed that his country wasn’t in the fight.

“It was a big deal. They had a big banquet for him,” Harrison said. “He got a hero’s welcome. However, he could not wear his uniform.”

Kershaw points out parallels to how returning veterans feel today.

“Art Donahue would be a very sharp and poignant example of the dislocation between America and what happens abroad in war,” he said. “His own country was standing by while democracy was going up in flames. He felt very angry about that.”

After the trip home, Donahue returned to patrol the English Channel for six more months. He then joined 258 Squadron to fight abroad. That’s how he ended up in Singapore, a British colony in the midst of falling to the Japanese.

Back Up And At ‘Em

On the day Donahue was injured, his mission was to strafe Japanese barges invading Singapore. While he did hit those ships, he ended up hurt and a passenger on one of the last British planes fleeing Singapore as it succumbed to the enemy.

After recovering from this second injury, he made another comeback to the English Channel. This Spitfire hitch came as he commanded 91 Squadron, sticking with the British even though the U.S. had entered the war. His last aerial clash came on Sept. 11, 1942. The prior day, his wingman had been shadowed by a German plane, according to the supporting pilot’s memoir. Donahue planned to lay in wait for that enemy craft on this fateful day, and he did that, destroying it while getting hit. His last radio message was that his engine was overheating and he was too low to bail out.

Though his fellow RAF pilots searched the channel for signs of him, they were hindered by lousy weather and couldn’t find him.

“Art put himself in harm’s way to try to destroy one more German machine,” Harrison said.

Kershaw describes Donahue as “sort of a stereotypical Midwesterner — fairly softly spoken, quiet, reserved. He wasn’t big and brash.”

That modesty shines through in Donahue’s writing. Along with “Tally-ho!” he penned “Last Flight From Singapore,” which came out two years after his death.

“The most that can be said for myself is that I tried and tried hard, and fought hard,” Donahue wrote in “Tally-ho!”

“I did have the privilege of being numbered among the few score pilots who met the first German mass onslaughts in the Air Blitzkrieg against England. Of these facts I shall always be proud, even if I fail to add more to them.”




AUGUST 2, 1917 Felix L. Sparks is born in San Antonio, Texas

1935 At the height of the Great Depression, Sparks graduates high school but because there are no jobs in his hometown of Miami, Arizona, he is forced to ride the rails across America in search of a job.

1936-38 Sparks serves in the Coast Guard Artillery in Hawaii where he sets up a photography business and saves enough money to put himself through college.

1938 Sparks enters a pre-law course at the University of Arizona where he meets Mary Frances Blair, his future wife. FEBRUARY 1941 Sparks reports for duty at Fort Sill in Oklahoma where he joins the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th “Thunderbird” Infantry Division, a National Guard unit.

JULY 10, 1943 Captain Felix Sparks, regimental adjutant to the 157th, lands in Sicily on the first day of the Allied invasion of Europe. His first challenge is to identify and bury men drowned during the invasion.

OCTOBER 12, 1943 While leading E Company of the 157th, Sparks is badly wounded by anti-aircraft fire in the mountains of southern Italy and evacuated to north Africa.

FEBRUARY 16-23, 1944 During some of the most intense combat of WWII, Sparks loses his entire company to save the Anzio bridgehead in Italy, spending a week cut off and surrounded by the Germans before managing to get back to Allied lines.

AUGUST 15, 1944 Decorated and promoted for his heroism at Anzio, Sparks leads a battalion ashore in south- ern France as the Allies carry out their most successful amphibious operation in Europe – Operation Dragoon.

JANUARY 18, 1945 Sparks risks his life to try to save some of his men who have been surrounded by the SS near the village of Reipertswiller in the Vosges Mountains near the German border. Tragically, despite repeated rescue attempts, Sparks’s Third Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment is destroyed. Six hundred men are killed, wounded or captured.

28 MARCH 1945 As the Third Reich falls apart, Sparks leads a reconstituted Third Battalion into the German city of Aschaffenberg and encounters fanatical resistance, losing ninety men in an intense week-long battle to clear the city.

APRIL 1945 Sparks is made commander of a special task force whose mission is to advance without delay to southern Bavaria in the hope of capturing Adolf Hitler.

APRIL 29, 1945 Sparks receives orders to secure a concentration camp north of Munich called Dachau. Along with Company I of the 157th Infantry Regiment, he enters the camp that morning and amid scenes that “rob the mind of reason” liberates Hitler’s first and most notorious concen- tration camp.

MAY 8, 1945 Sparks and his men learn in Munich that the war in Europe is over. 1,449 of his fellow Americans in the 157th Infantry Regiment have laid down their lives to liberate Europe from the greatest evil of modern times, spending 511 days in combat.

MARCH 15, 1993 Having retired as a successful lawyer and much respected general in the Colorado National Guard, Sparks learns at his mother’s funeral that one of his beloved grandsons, 16-year-old Lee Pumroy, has been shot dead by another teenager in Denver. Heart-broken, he cam- paigns relentlessly and successfully to pass a law banning minors in Colorado from carrying handguns.

SEPTEMBER 24, 2007 Sparks dies with his wife Mary at his bedside in Denver. All Colorado and US flags in the state are lowered to half-staff. Rather than being interred at Arlington National Cemetery, he is buried in a Denver graveyard beside his slain grandson.



THE DESERT FOX, Erwin Rommel. He dealt the US its first defeat in WWII on the ground.

THE DESERT FOX, Erwin Rommel. He dealt the US its first defeat in WWII on the ground.

James Serano served 33 months overseas in WWII. It is a miracle he survived. Seventy years ago, in February 1943, he felt the full might of Erwin Rommel’s Panzer force. The citation for his Silver Star, earned for bravery during the battle on 19 February 1943, reads: “While assigned to Company B, 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, 2nd Armored Group, Sgt. Serano displayed courage and devotion to duty when he voluntarily hauled ammunition to the guns of his company, which were subjected to heavy artillery and machine gun fire…He freely offered to drive an abandoned vehicle to haul ammunition. He quickly loaded the truck at the ammunition dump and arrived on the scene just in time to permit the guns to remain in position. The company was about to withdraw for lack of ammunition when he appeared. By his ambition and courage, the guns remained in position and held off a strong hostile tank attack.”

He was on a hillside when the combat became most intense. “We were shooting at tanks coming up the valley, holding the German army back until Gen. George Patton could get there. Combat engineers were supposed to blow up the pass, so we were stuck there at the pass. For two days, we were constantly shooting at the enemy.”

At one point, he heard a cry for help. Someone was needed to set up a machine gun. “I had to run across this big open space. Someone shot at me and I was knocked unconscious. I was shot about 6 feet into the air, but when I came to, I didn’t have a scratch.”

He carried on and set up the machine gun. Not long after, the gun was hit. “The gun went up in the air and came down on all three of us. No one complained and after checking each other out, we realized that no one was hurt.”

“Someone said, ‘Let’s get this machine gun back in order and kill the [expletive]. I was down on my knees feeding the gun when we ran out of ammunition. In the meantime, our commanding officer was calling over the radio that we needed ammunition. Every vehicle has a radio, but nobody moved to do anything. I was out of ammunition and had nothing to do, so I thought, I might as well go.”

Serano ran across the battlefield and met up with his unit’s reserve. The reserve troops had several trucks, one of which had ammunition in it. “I said, ‘Let’s go!’ to the truck driver, and he said, ‘I can’t go unless I get orders.’ I told him to give me the truck, but he refused. I put a rifle to his head and said, ‘You’re going to go one way or the other.’

“He said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and jumped out of the vehicle. I took it down the pass. I had only one thing in mind, to get the ammunition to them.”

He managed to but so fierce was the German attack that he and others were forced to withdraw.

“It was a hell of a day.”

James Serrano with his Silver Star

James Serrano with his Silver Star



“The scope of World War II smacks you in the face when you consider that 995 members of the NFL, mostly players, interrupted their careers and, in some cases, gave up their lives serving in the military.

Those who served in World War II included some of the biggest names in football history – George Halas, Wellington Mara and Cold, Hard Football Facts all-time greats Otto Graham and Chuck Bednarik. Imagine today if Denver owner Pat Bowlen, Indy GM Bill Polian, New England QB Tom Brady and Baltimore LB Ray Lewis all left their cushy NFL gigs to join the service, and you get an idea of the impact World War II had on professional football and on society at large.

Twenty-three of the 26 members of the NFL killed in wartime gave their lives in World War II. Their names are listed below.

More than 200 NFL members served in the military during the Korean War, including Hall of Famers Dick “Night Train” Lane and Ollie Matson. Twenty-eight NFLers served in the military during the Vietnam War, including Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner, Ray Nitschke and Roger Staubach.

One World War II veteran played a key role in the NFL until very recently. Former Buffalo GM Marv Levy served in the U.S. Army Air Corps – the precursor to the Air Force – from 1943-46.

Before Super Bowl XXVIII, after his Bills had suffered three straight title-game defeats, then-head coach Levy was asked if the upcoming contest was a “must-win” game.

No, he said.

“World War II was a must win.”

This list of the 26 NFL members who were killed in service of the country during wartime was compiled thanks to information provided by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Football League.

Cpl. Mike Basca (HB, Philadelphia, 1941) – Killed in France in 1944
Lt. Charlie Behan (E, Detroit, 1942) – Killed on Okinawa in 1945
Maj. Keith Birlem (E, Cardinals-Washington, 1939) – Killed trying to land combat-damaged bomber in England in 1943
Lt. Al Blozis (T, Giants, 1942-1944) – Killed in France, 1945
Lt. Chuck Braidwood (E, Portsmouth-Cleveland-Cardinals-Cincinnati, 1930-1933) – Member of Red Cross. Killed in South Pacific, winter 1944-1945
Lt. Young Bussey (QB, Bears, 1940-1941) – Killed in Philippines landing assault in 1944
Lt. Jack Chevigny (Coach, Cardinals, 1932) – Killed on Iwo Jima in 1945
Capt. Ed Doyle (E, Frankford-Pottsville, 1924-1925) – Killed during North Africa invasion in 1942
Lt. Col. Grassy Hinton (B, Staten Island, 1932) – Killed in plane crash in East Indies in 1944
Capt. Smiley Johnson (G, Green Bay, 1940-1941) – Killed on Iwo Jima in 1945
Lt. Eddie Kahn (G, Boston/Washington, 1935-1937) – Died from wounds suffered during Leyte invasion in 1945
Sgt. Alex Ketzko (T, Detroit, 1943) – Killed in France in 1944
Capt. Lee Kizzire (FB, Detroit, 1937) – Shot down near New Guinea in 1943
Lt. Jack Lummus (E, Giants, 1941) – Killed on Iwo Jima in 1945
Bob Mackert (T, Rochester Jeffersons, 1925)
Frank Maher (B, Pittsburgh-Cleveland Rams, 1941)
Pvt. Jim Mooney (E-G-FB, Newark-Brooklyn-Cincinnati-St. Louis-Cardinals, 1930-1937) – Killed by sniper in France in 1944
Lt. John O’Keefe (Front office, Philadelphia) – Killed flying a patrol mission in Panama Canal Zone
Chief Spec. Gus Sonnenberg (B, Buffalo-Columbus-Detroit-Providence, 1923-1928, 1930) – Died of illness at Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1944
Lt. Len Supulski (E, Philadelphia, 1942) – Killed in plane crash in Nebraska in 1944
Lt. Don Wemple (E, Brooklyn, 1941) – Killed in plane crash in India in 1944
Lt. Chet Wetterlund (HB, Cardinals-Detroit, 1942) – Killed in plane crash off New Jersey coast in 1944
Capt. Waddy Young (E, Brooklyn, 1939-1940) – Killed in plane crash following first B-29 raid on Tokyo in 1945″





So many stories through the years — novels, movies, plays, TV series, multi-volume histories — have been added to the Second World War’s inexhaustible narrative that, faced with the prospect of a new book about the war, readers might be forgiven for feeling not so much daunted as just plain worn out. After all, seven decades after VJ Day, how many more new, genuinely gripping tales — from the Pacific, Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa — can any of us really hope to encounter? At this point, what else can anyone say or write that can appreciably deepen our understanding of the last century’s defining cataclysm?

Thankfully, if Alex Kershaw ever asks himself those questions, he answers them the only way a writer knows how: by finding those very stories that other writers have missed, or have only touched on, and making them feel at once urgent and somehow emblematic. As the author of several accomplished WWII histories (The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, The Few), Kershaw has forged something of an authorial niche in recent years, breathing new life into largely forgotten chapters from the war while capturing much of the era’s very best (its heroism, its sacrifice) and very worst (treachery, venality, downright evil).

Through deep, old-school research and interviews with those who survived — and through letters, telegrams and the memories of friends and family of those who never made it home — Kershaw has ensured that individuals and entire battles that might have been lost to history, or overshadowed by more “important” people and events, have their own place in the vast, protean tale of World War II.

Kershaw’s latest, and arguably his strongest, book is the story of an American officer and his men who not only fought some of the most brutal battles of the entire war, but who also, at war’s end, were among the very first of the Allies to bear witness to the incomprehensible reality behind the walls and barbed wire of the Nazi concentration camps. The title, The Liberator, is ostensibly a reference to the utterly remarkable protagonist of the book, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, who led the famous 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, the “Thunderbirds,” for almost two years from the summer of 1943 to the spring of 1945, fighting from Italy northward through France and into Germany itself. But the title — and the book’s stark black-and-white cover image of an anonymous GI making his way through an apocalyptic landscape — is really as much a tribute to the American infantryman, every infantryman, living and dead, who fought in the Second World War as it is an homage to the eminently deserving Sparks.

(The book’s subtitle, “One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey From the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau,” is unmistakably about Sparks — in part because so few of the hundreds of men he commanded and fought with, and became so bound to, made it to Germany in one piece.)

That the Texas-born, Arizona-raised Sparks was a phenomenal leader of men — the sort of seemingly indestructible, fair-minded, fighting officer that subordinates worship and superiors commend — is a point The Liberator makes early and late; but Sparks himself (who died in 2007, and whom Kershaw interviewed for the book) stressed again and again that his men were what mattered. He led from the front — he was miserable issuing orders from the rear — and he had the wounds by war’s end to prove it.

The Liberator will, in all likelihood, be compared to Lauren Hillebrand’s rightfully celebrated war epic, Unbroken. Both books, after all, are harrowing chronicles of tough, charismatic Americans surviving the very worst that World War II could throw at them. Unbroken‘s Louis Zamperini endured deprivation, torture, humiliation and more as a POW in savagely run Japanese camps; Felix Sparks withstood what sometimes feels, when reading The Liberator, like ceaseless violence, from the moment he and his Thunderbirds set foot in Sicily until, utterly unprepared (how could they have prepared?), they came face to face with the waking nightmare of Dachau.

Both Zamperini and Sparks displayed the same grinding, uncomplaining will to get the job done, no matter the cost. The only other real choice was despair — and for both of them, despair was not an option.

Where Kershaw succeeds, and where The Liberator is at its most riveting and satisfying, is in its delineation of Felix Sparks as a good man that other men would follow into Hell — and in its unblinking, matter-of-fact description, in battle after battle, of just how gruesome, terrifying and dehumanizing that Hell could be. Near the end of the book, when Sparks’ Thunderbirds, unhinged by the horrors of Dachau, begin to hunt down and kill unarmed Germans — even as many of the Germans are surrendering — the wanton slaughter feels, somehow, inevitable: all of the violent death and loss that Kershaw so ably chronicles in the book has led, inexorably, to this heart of darkness.

That the one officer who refuses to be swept up in the madness, and orders his men to stop the killing, is none other than Felix Sparks? That also feels inevitable. Like something out of Euripides, or a sicker, more deranged Titus Andronicus, Sparks bringing even a modicum of order to such moral chaos after an eruption of vengeance-fueled violence — there, at the end of all things — feels, in a word, cathartic. And catharsis, as we know, is nothing if not liberating.

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