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Honor, courage, commitment: James Sparks serves country in U.S. Navy

FRANKLIN LIVING—It was 1977 when a young James Sparks heard the call of his country and decided to serve with U.S. Navy forces during the Cold War.

Sparks had begun a welding job following high school, but the 19-year-old soon realized he wanted join up. Enlisting with the Navy was an easy decision. “It just seemed like the kind of thing where you could get around and see some of the world,” said Sparks. “It seemed more interesting than the Army or the Air Force to me personally.”

Sparks was driven by the idea of helping protect the country from hostile forces. “As a youngster, I considered that really a threat. It seemed like a worthy cause.”

So, leaving his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, Sparks first traveled to his eight-week boot camp near Chicago – which was a whole new world.

“I hear they have softened it some nowadays,” Sparks said. “You realize you’re not in Kansas. You realize you don’t have any rights, and nobody cares how you feel about anything. But after they break you down, they begin to build you back up again.”

Sparks said he found at boot camp that everybody was treated equally – “equally nasty.” Overall, however, he described it as a “wonderful tool for teaching a young person” and a “great growing experience, discipline-wise.”

His next stop was Treasure Island, San Francisco, where he was trained in firefighting and damage control before shipping out to Guam to serve aboard the USS Proteus AS-19. A bus ride from the airport, along jungle roads through the night, took Sparks to his ship – where he would serve for the next three years. “The ship I was on was pretty darn cool. It was in World War II,” Sparks said.

The USS Proteus AS-19 was a submarine tender, a ship that served as a location for submarine repairs. “It did any kind of work that needed to be done on a submarine,” said Sparks. The ship boasted a foundry, machine shop, pipe-fitting area and more. “It was one big, floating shop.”

For a week or two he went through training before being assigned to his division, R-1 – a repair division. In addition to serving as a hull technician, Sparks was also constantly on call to guard against fires and flooding on board.

Submarines in need of service would come from across the West Pacific, many of them carrying missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, Sparks said. Their locations of origin – and destinations upon leaving the shop – were always confidential.

Also among his early duties, Sparks remembers a 30-day period assigned to mess cooking. “I peeled potatoes and made salads for 1,500 people,” Sparks recalled. “You’d have to get up way before everybody … and then nobody leaves the galley until everything is cleaned up, so usually you’d go to bed at midnight or a little after. That was something you didn’t want to do.”

When not on duty, Sparks would pass the time exploring the island. He also learned to scuba dive, becoming certified in recreational diving, night diving and deep diving. “It’s pretty neat, to go that deep underwater and see some of those things,” he said. “In Guam there a lot of wrecks from World War II and World War I that you can go down and check out.” The time he had free from his duties varied greatly. “Sometimes I’d go on two dives a day. Sometimes, if there was work to do, you’d work for 24 hours in a row.”

When his term of service ended in 1980, Sparks returned to Cincinnati and to his former welding job. A few years later, he married a Phil Campbell native, Sharon, and 15 years or so later, the couple returned to her hometown in Franklin County.

“It’s a lot different than Cincinnati,” said Sparks. “They roll up the sidewalks at 9 o’clock.”

Sparks, now 60, has six adult children – Melody, Mary, Bethany, Joey, Micah and David. Although he faced some tough challenges during his military service, he also looks back on that period of his life with fondness. “Now that I look back at it – maybe as you get older you just remember the good things and you don’t remember the bad things,” he said. “I would think it’s an experience that every young person might want to do.”


Story by ALISON JAMES

Photos by CHRISTOPHER WEBB and CONTRIBUTED

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