SILVER STAR CITATION… 60 years later
Lloyd Sparks went ashore at Normandy on Utah Beach on D-Day+22 with the 712th Tank Battalion. His unit began the laborious and deadly work of pushing the Germans out of the French hedgerow areas on the 4th of July. He lost his first tank in that fighting.
His tank battalion was a separate outfit in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, operating most of the time with the 90th Infantry Division. “The 712th is my spearhead,” once remarked Division Commander, General James Van Fleet.
His tank section had taken over the lead when the other section got stuck in the mud off the main dirt road into the French town of St. Suzanne in early August 1944. They had experienced some resistance in that area.
Tank Platoon Sergeant Warren B. Willinger was positioned in the open top hatch of Sparks’ tank with a clear view of the road ahead. Suddenly a German Panzerfaust rocket launcher fired an anti-tank rocket from high up on a ridge over the road. The rocket killed him as it entered the open hatch and exploded inside.
Sparks grew up in Abilene, KS, where his father worked for a telephone company, moving to Modesto, CA, in 1937. He registered for the draft at the age of 23, a few months before Pearl Harbor, and had been classified 1-A. He was working in a wholesale grocery business in Modesto at the time. He received his draft notice in January 1942 and was ordered to the Presidio of Monterey for induction. His advanced training was at Fort Riley, KS, where he learned how to ride a horse and take care of it. “We all carried broom sticks in those early days as there was a shortage of rifles at the time,” he remembered with a laugh.
Private Sparks was not too happy doing the scoop-shovel work around the horse barn. “I could think of a whole lot of other things I would rather be doing,” was how he put it. His assignment with the horses didn’t last too long however.
The Army became mechanized in 1942 and, with that horse training experience, the new soldier ended up in an “iron horse” of the 712th Tank Battalion that had formed up at Fort Benning, GA. The unit left for England after extensive training in the States.
In the Army
“I was a gunner at first and later became a driver,” he said. “We had five men in the crew and were equipped with M-4 Sherman tanks with short-barreled 75-millimeter guns. The muzzle velocity was so slow that the projectiles in flight were visi-ble from a position standing directly behind the tank.”
The German tanks had a real edge against the American tanks with their long-barreled 88-millimeter, high-velocity guns. They also used that multi-purpose round in field artillery guns and anti-aircraft guns. The 75mm guns in the Sherman tanks were no match for the German 88s
Sparks lost his second tank in the fighting around St. Suzanne, France; he was awarded a Silver Star for his actions in that battle. When an anti-tank rocket fired from a hill above them entered the open top hatch, the molten slag produced by the rocket’s impact splattered around inside the tank, started a fire and welded the gun-breech closed. Sparks immediately turned on the tank’s fire extinguishing system and put out the fire. After he removed the wounded crewmen, he went back into the tank and moved it off the road to allow the rest of his battalion to continue into town.
A few days later he and another crewmember trucked back to an ordnance outfit to pick up another tank. The first tanks they saw had new long-barreled 76mm, high-velocity guns.
“You can’t have one of those as they are all going to another unit. You can go over to the other tank park and pick out one of those older ones we have fixed up,” said the ordnanceman.
The two tankers went to the other site, took a look at those old patched up “coffins,” and both agreed, “To hell with that,” and left without a tank. They went back and reported what they had seen to their company commander and some time later the 712th got the newer tanks with the 76mm guns.
The end of the war
They were in Suscice, Czechoslovakia, when the war ended and then relocated to Amberg, Germany, for rest and maintenance of their equipment. There he received his Silver Star — pinned on personally by Maj. Gen. James Van Fleet, 90th Infantry Division Commander — before leaving with the others for the States.
Sparks never received a copy of his Silver Star citation for that August 1944 incident; the Military Records Department in Washington, DC, searched for his citation in the 712th Tank Battalion records but found nothing. In 2004, Lloyd asked California Congressman Dennis Cardoza to have Washington check the records of the 90th Division for his citation and there it was found! Sparks received a nicely bound copy of the citation in June 2004, arriving just two months short of 60 years after he was awarded it in 1944 when the world was still at war.
It read: “For gallantry in action on 7 August 1944 in the vicinity of St. Suzanne, France. The tank which Technician Fourth Grade Sparks was driving was set ablaze by a hostile bazooka round. Technician Fourth Grade Sparks immediately crawled onto the back deck and operated the armored vehicle’s fire extinguishing mechanism. He then went back into the smoking turret and removed a wounded comrade from the tank. Despite intense machine gun fire directed at him, he carried the casualty 500 yards to an aid station. Returning over the fire-swept route, he evacuated another wounded crewmember. On his third return, he located the hostile machine gun position for the infantry commander to effect the speedy elimination of the strong point. The gallantry dis-played by Technician Fourth Grade Sparks was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit on himself, the 712th Tank Battalion, and the Army of the United States.”
The veteran tanker remarked, “I still have a copy of the history book from our battalion and the one from the 90th Division. I also have Gen. Patton’s ‘Prayer Card’ with my name printed on it.”
Lloyd was discharged in October 1945, went back to Modesto and got his old job back. In 1962 he began working for the California Department of Transportation, retiring in 1980. He presently hangs out at the Merced Senior Community Center (Merced, CA) and shoots a “mean” game of pool.