I received the sad news today that Mr. Willie Sparks, formerly with the 492nd BG, had passed away a few days before Thanksgiving. Willie was one of the veterans we interviewed in 2008 when we traveled to Minneapolis for the 492nd BG Reunion. Willie had an easy going way about him. I only met him in 2008, and then only briefly, but one could sense he had a great attitude and a positive outlook on life in general.
We had been corresponding via telephone for several weeks prior to meeting up in Minneapolis and he was very eager to have his story told and recorded for posterity. I'm certainly glad we managed that. Willie walked into our interview room and immediately had the crew and I in stitches, regaling us with asides and sly references. He had a twinkle in his eye and one could tell he was more readily inclined to smile and laugh than to frown- just look at the photo if you don't agree. I think there are two types of people in this world, the Smilers and the Frowners. Willie was a Smiler. So am I, I think we bonded almost immediately because of that common ground.
Willie was a great interview for several reasons. He had enlisted after Pearl Harbor, even after it was determined that an older brother stationed at Pearl had been among the very first killed that day. This didn't deter Willie at all, if anything it made his desire to strike back at the Enemy that much stronger. His mother, who had just lost one son, was not eager to let fate interfere in another of her son's lives. He only received her approval to join the Army Air Force after promising her that his plane, "would only fly low, close to the Earth" While Willie was saying this, he had a grin on his face. I don't think his mother was fooled one bit, but she did give her blessing and off Willie went to the War.
Soon enough, 2nd Lt. Sparks was assigned as a navigator on a B-24 crew, the Graham-Powers Crew 614 of the 856th Bomb Squadron of the 492nd BG. He had some fascinating stories to tell. One of these was about having to take over a mission after the Lead Navigator became completely lost. The task of returning the Bomb Group back to England fell to the Deputy Lead ship and Willie soon found himself plotting a return course over occupied France to England. Unfortunately, his course took them too near an Enemy Flak Barrage and one of the planes took a direct hit and was lost. Willie felt terrible about this, and when we interviewed him, 65 years later, one could still feel his sense of remorse and guilt over having lost that 10 man crew. (It was later determined that 4 men manged to bail out and survived the crash.) For Willie, this was small consolation. He felt he had let that crew down and the mission objectives as well. In another portion of our interview, he remarked on the losses on the 492nd BG and declared that his crew was one of only 14 original crews still around after only 89 days. It was a grim reminder of the short and bloody history of the 492nd. For your information, a bomb group consists of approximately 70 planes and crews. Imagine being one of the 14 out of those original 70. Devastated is an apt word.
After the War, Willie started an automotive supply company with some of his brothers. In his own words, "we never got rich, but we manged to live comfortably and what more do you need?" What more indeed.
I never saw Willie again after that brief 2-3 days up in Minneapolis, but we did manage to correspond over the years. Willie Sparks was a good man who served his country in need. I'm a better man for having known him. You will be missed.