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MailTribune.com
  • Rumble in the Jungle

    Phoenix veteran recalls WWII battles that are the topic of new documentary
  • When Benjamin Franklin "Frank" Sparks prepared for battle in World War II, he trained to fire at targets 100 to 200 yards distant.
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    • If you go
      What: Medford premiere of "Jungleers In Battle," a 67-minute documentary about the 41st Division in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II.
      When: 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov...
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      If you go
      What: Medford premiere of "Jungleers In Battle," a 67-minute documentary about the 41st Division in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II.

      When: 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10

      Where: Medford Central High School, MSD Education Center, Spiegelberg Building

      Cost: $10 per person

      Sponsor: The Historical Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Oregon history. See www.historicaloutreach.com for more information.
  • When Benjamin Franklin "Frank" Sparks prepared for battle in World War II, he trained to fire at targets 100 to 200 yards distant.
    "But in the jungles of New Guinea, we were firing at Japanese soldiers 20 feet away, maybe 30 or 40 feet at best," recalled Sparks, 93, of Phoenix. "You didn't have any long shots at all.
    "Even when we got to the Philippines and in those rain forests, it was like going into a tunnel, real dark," he added. "You could be ambushed anywhere in there."
    Sparks was a "Jungleer," a member of the 41st Infantry Division formed by National Guard units from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana that were mobilized on Sept. 16, 1940. After the nation entered the war immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the division would become the first American division to reach the South Pacific during the war.
    The Oregonians fought first in the jungles of New Guinea, then on to the Philippine rain forests.
    The 41st fought in more campaigns than any other division during WWII. When the war ended, 965 members of the unit had been killed in action and 5,624 wounded.
    The Jungleers are the subject of a new documentary, "Jungleers In Battle," a 67-minute film that premieres locally at 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at Medford Central High School's MSD Education Center. The cost is $10 per person.
    Sparks, who is prominently featured in the documentary, figures he may be the last Jungleer left in the Rogue Valley. He organized a reunion in Medford in 1982 that drew about 15 veterans of the unit, he said.
    "I guess they are all gone now," said the former farmer and mill worker who retired from the Phoenix School District as a groundskeeper and bus driver.
    He and his wife, Leilla, 87, were married on Aug. 20, 1945, five days after the war ended. They have four sons.
    A 1937 graduate of Medford Senior High School, Sparks, finding few job prospects as the Great Depression wore on, joined the Oregon Army National Guard in 1939. He became a private in A Company of the 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry headquartered in the Rogue Valley.
    After it was mobilized to become part of the 41st Division, the unit was shipped overseas on March 22, 1942. Sparks would become a platoon sergeant and later received the Bronze star for valor.
    "When there was a lot of shooting going on, I was as scared as the rest of the people," he recalled. "But you realized what your job was and you did it. Others were depending on you."
    After first arriving in Australia, the 41st was shipped to New Guinea, where they fought for some two years.
    "When we got there, the Japanese controlled just about all of New Guinea except for Port Moresby that was held by the Aussies," he said of Australian troops.
    They would fight for places like Hollandia, a Japanese air base. Securing the base in April of 1944 was a major step in the island-hopping march to the Philippines, he explained.
    "But we were only in Hollandia a short time, because they discovered the airstrips there were made of dirt and couldn't handle the bigger planes in the rainy season," he said.
    But the airfield on Biak Island was built atop coral rock, which could accommodate incoming bombers, he said.
    Unfortunately, an Army intelligence officer far underestimated the enemy strength on Biak, he added.
    "The officer had estimated that Biak would have 6,000 Japanese, and only 2,500 would be fighting soldiers," he recalled. "It turns out there were about 12,000 and they were all fighting soldiers. So our infantry was outnumbered when we landed."
    The Jungleers wrested control of Biak's airfield in the first week, but the fighting around the air strip continued for more than a month, he said.
    "The Japanese had anti-aircraft guns in caves in the cliffs overlooking the airfield," he said. "They shot down at us every day. And they couldn't land planes until we cleared those caves. That took us more than a month."
    Even then, the jungle fighting continued as isolated pockets of Japanese soldiers fought on, he said.
    "They made us get down and fight," he said. "That fighting went on into August of '44. In my platoon, I started with 36 men. When we finished with Biak, there were seven in my platoon, counting me. Another platoon only had nine soldiers left."
    The two units joined to form a battered platoon of 16 battle-tested soldiers, he noted.
    Sparks was not wounded during the war, albeit he had several close calls, including a mortar blast that covered him with brush and dirt.
    "Another sergeant helped me get up out of there and checked me over," he said. "He said I had a few scratches but no holes in me."
    Sgt. Sparks was good to go. He would also survive grenade attacks and sniper fire.
    It was for his efforts Palawan in the southern Philippines that Sparks would receive a Bronze star for valor in February of 1945.
    "We had a second lieutenant I had been told to keep an eye on because he was new," he said of a young officer fresh out of college. "But he was a big, strong-looking guy so I didn't pay too much attention to him."
    A Company was ordered to take the place of E Company, which had been "shot up pretty bad," Sparks said.
    "Well, when we got in there we ran into two machine guns," he said. "We were in bamboo, and they mowed that bamboo down with those machine guns."
    The young officer, believing the machine gun was friendly fire coming from another American patrol, kept yelling, "Yank patrol!" he said.
    But Sparks knew the other patrol in the area was a rifle platoon, which did not have heavy machine guns. He quickly got his men out of harm's way, only to discover the lieutenant hadn't returned with them.
    "I went back up that ridge by myself because I didn't want to make any noise and wake up those machine guns," he said. "I peeked over the ridge and saw him laying there with his helmet forward on his head. I figured he had been hit."
    Sparks crawled forward and whispered the officer's name.
    "He kind of wiggled, and I called his name again," he said. "This time he raised his head up a little."
    The officer was not physically wounded but had apparently lost consciousness, said Sparks, who helped the officer crawl out of his dangerous situation.
    "He said he remembered yelling 'Yank patrol' but had passed out after that," Sparks said, noting he learned later that the officer had apparently become incapacitated by fright.
    "I got scared every time someone shot at me but that put me in high gear," Sparks said. "I couldn't imagine anyone passing out from fear, but apparently it wasn't uncommon."
    When he was offered a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant, Sparks refused the promotion, which would likely have transferred him to another unit.
    "I told them this outfit was like family, and the ones who are left were important to me," he said.
    After all, they were Jungleers.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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