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In journalism school, budding newsgatherers are taught how to extract the information necessary to build the who-what-when-where-why-how foundation of any article. Fact-finding is rarely an easy endeavor, but being able to talk to an actual person or access records from a database via the internet makes the pursuit much more manageable. Not every story, however, offers up its details so willingly.
For two years, 5280 senior staff writer Robert Sanchez had been noodling—off and on—about digging into the backstory of a man whose headstone had caught his eye in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. The grave is located in a section for U.S. military members, and the inscription reads: “His life an idea—his memory an inspiration.” But beyond his dates of birth and death, that was all Sanchez knew about the interred until he began reporting for this issue’s “Why Did Walter Springs Die?”
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As he delved into what was, he learned, the controversial death of the Army technical sergeant in December 1942, Sanchez realized that the facts would not readily reveal themselves. He also understood two things clearly: First, no one alive today knew what really happened the night Springs, a 24-year-old Black soldier from Denver, died in a Texas bar at the hands of white military police. And second, his family deserved the truth.
After interviewing Springs’ relatives and examining military records, photo albums, news clippings, and university archives, Sanchez felt like he better understood who Springs was as a person, but he still didn’t know what could’ve motivated a fellow soldier to shoot him dead. Nearing his deadline but still missing the “why,” Sanchez filed a last-ditch request with the National Personnel Records Center in Spanish Lake, Missouri.
The file Sanchez received was 79 pages long, but the text on page 55 was all he needed. “I closed my computer, and a few tears definitely came out,” Sanchez says. “I called Walter Springs’ niece. After eight decades, her family finally knew what had happened to Walt.”