Iowa State Memorial Union

Donald Sparks - Sergeant 1st Class

Rank: Sergeant 1st Class
Date Of Birth: : Nov 7, 1946
Date Of Death: Nov 5, 1979
War / Conflict: Vietnam
Hometown: Carroll, Iowa
Gold Star Hall - Wall Location: Northeast Wall (by Entrance Door)

Biography

Donald Lee Sparks was born on November 7, 1946 to Calvin and Arloha Sparks in Carroll, Iowa. The family farmed southwest of Glidden, producing cattle, hogs, corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Don was one of four children. Ronald was his older brother, Russel his younger brother, and his sister Esta was the youngest of the four. Don was fond of Esta, even teaching her how to drive a tractor at a young age. “He let me drive the tractor before my dad would,” she recalled. “I think it was his way of conning me into doing work.” Don was a quiet but fun-loving child.

Don was active in the FFA and 4-H, and was a better-than-average student in high school. Don was well-liked at Glidden-Ralston and had several good friends. Jim Wiederin, a classmate from Glidden, recalled that “He would not hesitate to go out and have fun with the guys – basketball games or after-school stuff. He was just fun to be with.”

After graduation from Glidden-Ralston High School in 1964, Don attended Iowa State, where he received a degree in Farm Operations Management in 1968. His college roommate, John Ealy recalled, “Don did excellent in college, and was quick to understand and put together and make sense of concepts.” Don attended Iowa State on a draft deferment from his Army draft notice. Don originally wanted to serve in the Air Force, but instead the Army called, and he accepted.

He was assigned to 1st Platoon, Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, then serving in Vietnam. Don broke his ankle during Basic Training, but was sent to Vietnam anyway.

On June 17, 1969, Cpl. Larry A. Graham and PFC Donald L. Sparks, whose ankle still hadn’t healed completely, were serving as pointmen for their company when it was ambushed by an enemy force near Chu Lai, in the Tien Phuoc District, Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. Witnesses indicated that both men were hit and fell to the ground. As the remaining members of the patrol withdrew, they observed North Vietnamese Army personnel stripping PFC Sparks of his clothing and weapon. No one was able to reach the area where they lay for almost twelve hours because of heavy enemy fire, however, and several members of the platoon believed both men to be dead.

Air strikes were requested and napalm, and 500 and 1,000 pound bombs were dropped on the enemy position. Later the same day, another attempt was made to reach the bodies, but again it was thwarted by the enemy. On the morning of June 18, a recovery element was able to reach the site, but was unable to locate the remains of PFC Sparks. The remainder of the day was spent in digging in the vicinity of a bomb crater where witnesses had last seen Sparks. The remains of Cpl. Graham were recovered during this search. It was believed that PFC Sparks' body had been destroyed by the air strikes, but with no positive evidence of death, Sparks was initially listed as Missing in Action.

On May 17, 1970, a Viet Cong soldier was killed in fighting near Chu Lai. On his body, American soldiers from the 19th Infantry Division found two letters from Donald Sparks dated April 11, 1970, ten months after Sparks had been presumed dead. One of the letters was addressed to his parents and included information that only Sparks could have known, like his bank account number in Glidden and questions about his family and farming. Sparks also said he was wounded in the foot and head.

A report from the 8th Military Personnel Group crime lab conclusively proved that the letters were written by PFC Sparks. Six months later, Sparks' official status was changed to Prisoner Of War and his rank was upgraded to sergeant. On September 19, 1973, a Vietnamese Army returnee stated that a U.S. POW entered a POW camp in February 1970 using a stick for support as his feet and legs were bruised. Allegedly, the POW later contracted beriberi and is reported to have died in June 1971. This report was correlated to Donald Sparks.                                              

In 1973, when 591 Americans were released, Vietnam denied any knowledge of Donald Sparks. He was one of nearly 3,000 Americans who did not return. At the time, military experts were shocked that hundreds of US servicemen believed to be held captive and expected to be released were not returned to US custody.

Donald Sparks was apparently never held with any returning American POWs. Studies of the Vietnamese prison system indicate that those POWs who returned had all been held together, moving from camp to camp within the same system, but that other systems probably existed.

On 5 November, 1979, since nothing had been heard of him for nine years, a military tribunal once again ruled that Sparks was dead, only this time he was listed as having died in captivity; however, government documents report a list of possible sightings and an investigation into Sparks’ disappearance running well into the 1990s. “Previous investigations indicate that PFC Donald Sparks was alive in January/February 1970, when he was taken from the field hospital where his wounds were treated,” Sparks’ Army file says. “… What happened to Sparks after he left the field hospital remains unknown.”

Besides the letters, the most compelling evidence that Sparks was alive for years after the fire fight that day comes from a nurse in a Vietnamese hospital who says that Sparks’ blood was used for transfusions for North Vietnamese soldiers. Her report is corroborated by a North Vietnamese officer who said Sparks could speak Vietnamese.

The Sparks family has been in contact with the US Department of Defense since Donald’s disappearance, and has learned a few facts regarding his time as a POW, including a story of how Don escaped a camp with white sheets to make a “HELP” sign, but was recaptured a few days later. They’ve also been told that Don would “get to a window” every time a plane went by, and that officers from the hospital where he was held related that he made them nervous, so they decided to move him from that hospital to a POW camp with other Americans. And this is where the trail of Sparks’ fate disappears. In fact, in 1973, American POW Maj. Harold Kushner and two other released American POWs stated that in the spring of 1970, while en route to a new detention camp in the same province in which Sparks was lost, their Vietnamese interpreter and guard said that a U.S. POW by the name of Don was scheduled to join his POW group, but had been moving more slowly because of foot wounds. This occurred in the spring of 1970, but "the soldier named Don" never joined the other Americans.

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