Story of Black glory: Connecticut resident revisited WWII burials before his death

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The smell joined Jefferson Wiggins and members of his all-Black service unit as they tramped through the French countryside.

The telltale foulness grew in the weeks following the Normandy invasion in June 1944. It became more constant as American soldiers pushed the Germans back through Belgium and into the Netherlands.

This October morning, Wiggins stood on the edge of a freshly tilled field outside the Dutch village of Margraten.

The stench of death was suffocating. In the pre-dawn darkness, Wiggins could make out the strange harvest: rows and rows of dead American soldiers.

Wiggins would be among the 260 African American men who would dig graves and bury the fallen.

The field would become the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.

Wiggins died in 2013 at age 87 at his home in New Fairfield, Conn., and his widow, Janice, said recently that he had spent most of his life trying to forget that grim work detail.

History seemed to forget, too.

Mieke Kirkels, a public historian in the Netherlands, didn’t know about the gravediggers until 2014, when she learned that 172 African American soldiers are among those buried in Margraten.

Now a team of Dutch historians and an author in Portsmouth, Va., have embarked on several projects to spotlight these men. They are looking specifically for any relatives of the 172 and want to include photos and histories of the men in The Faces of Margraten program.

Chris Dickon, in particular, said people should know about the soldiers’ sacrifices, especially when the military of World War II didn’t trust them to fight but only to help. Military policies then created painful consequences that linger in America and the Netherlands as well, Dickon said.

May 4 was the National Day of Commemoration in the Netherlands and graves of soldiers were decorated, including those of the African American troops. But more needs to be done, Dickon said.

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Janice Wiggins answered the phone in their Connecticut home in January 2009. The caller was a stranger with a Dutch accent who wanted to speak to her husband.

Mieke Kirkels was working on an oral history project about the development of Margraten. During interviews, several elderly locals mentioned those “poor Black boys” who created the cemetery. Kirkels got Jefferson Wiggins’ number from a former first sergeant of his.

Janice remembers her husband’s mixture of shock and anger as he spoke with Kirkels. He’d often talked to his wife about his Army time, how it bettered his life, the countries he’d visited. He’d even written an autobiography. But in their 30-plus years of marriage, he’d never mentioned the bodies.

“When Mieke called he had to deal with it,” Janice said. “He would often fight in his sleep and he would make noises, but he would just say it was something with the war. He never went into details.”

He agreed to be interviewed and was included in a documentary, “The Fields of Margraten: Bitter Harvest.”

Later that year, the Dutch government invited him to return to Margraten for the 65th commemoration of the liberation of south Netherlands. He became the first African American veteran welcomed – and publicly thanked – for his service.

He struggled to write the speech, Janice said. That was odd. Her husband was such an admired educator and eloquent speaker that in 2005 the state of Connecticut held a Jefferson Wiggins Day.

“He realized he was the only one who could tell the story from his perspective; he really felt that obligation,” Janice said. “It was an honor, it was a gift, but it was also a tremendous burden. But he was never the same after that. He had to keep reliving it and he was a much more serious person.”

When Wiggins revisited those days, he often mentioned the woman outside the newly liberated St. Lo, France. The woman was so grateful that she rushed Wiggins and his comrades with gifts of bottled apple brandy. He recalled it in the book he eventually wrote with Mieke, “From Alabama to Margraten.”

The French woman said to Wiggins, then a 19-year-old first sergeant: “You don’t understand how it is to have your freedom, to lose it and then regain it.”

Wiggins didn’t know how to tell her that he never knew what it was like to truly be free.

Two years before, he fled to the Army. Life was so precarious for Blacks in his rural Alabama town that when he ran away to enlist, his parents feared that he had been snatched by the Ku Klux Klan. Wiggins couldn’t read and had to lie about his age to join the military.

His new life was slightly better. He was making more money than he’d ever made picking cotton.

By the time the Americans breached Normandy, Wiggins had learned to read with the help of a library volunteer. But the military was just as segregated as the South.

African Americans weren’t even initially allowed to serve in combat. They filled the quartermaster service companies and supplied food, fuel and ammunition to the front.

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On the transport over, Wiggins and other Blacks were assigned to the bowels of the ship, while whites bunked on the higher decks. When they camped, everything was separate – where they ate, where they saw a doc, where they slept. Once in the Netherlands, a Black soldier couldn’t go into a bar if white soldiers were there.

In September, the U.S. Army and Wiggins’ 960th Quartermaster unit were penetrating the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, the province of Limburg. The Black soldiers became a curiosity. Few, if any, of the Dutch had ever seen a Black person. Moreover, the villagers had been occupied by the Germans since 1940. The Nazis described Black Americans as having tails like monkeys and an appetite for human flesh. Once, Wiggins walked up to a group of girls who had gathered for weeks, at a distance, to watch the men work. He offered his hand in greeting and one girl touched it. She then drew it back and stared at it as if to see if it would change color.

Soon, the residents seemed simply grateful for anyone who was there to help them recover. Several of the Black soldiers in turn “adopted” them. It wasn’t unusual for Black truck drivers to drop a crate of food in front of a home in the village.

By that October, a rainy fall began, a record cold winter was on its way, and the 960th had its orders.

“On that first day, we realized that whatever life experiences we’d had as African Americans, this was our obligation,” Wiggins said during his 2009 speech at the Margraten ceremony, “to set aside our prejudices, our colors and our fears and give to these young Americans the honor, the respect and the dignity that they so well deserved.”

Each gravesite had to be precise: 6 feet long, 6 feet deep, 3 feet wide. The men had to take a dead soldier, open his mouth and place a dog tag inside for identification.

There were no caskets. The gravediggers had to respectfully

bury their men in mattress covers.

One soldier would sit a dead man up while another slid the cover over his head, down his stiff body and over his feet.

The newly deceased were easier to maneuver.

Each end of the cover was tied and the body lowered into the grave.

Too many times, there were no identification tags or mouths to put them in. Too many times the Black soldiers buried severed legs and arms.

During hard rains – and it never seemed to stop, Wiggins said – a freshly dug grave dissolved into a brown pudding. Wet bodies couldn’t be buried, and tents did not always keep them dry. Once the cold came, the icy earth refused to yield, and diggers attacked it with blowtorches and axes. Many times, the bodies were frozen, too.

Still, the men worked from dawn until dark, often weeping as they shoveled. “Taps” played at the end of the night. The morning brought the rumble of trucks with more bodies.

“In all those eight, nine and sometimes 10 hours a day that we were digging there was fear in the air,” Wiggins said. “Or perhaps it was sadness. Every day was the same. Nevertheless, you didn’t get used to it.”

Wiggins worked in the cemetery for several weeks until he was promoted by Gen. George S. Patton to support the American push through the Ardennes region of Belgium, the famous Battle of the Bulge, beginning that December.

More men came in to continue the construction of the 65-acre cemetery. It now contains 8,301 burials and “Tablets of the Missing” with 1,722 names.

Dutch families adopted each grave, and they decorate them on special occasions.

Wiggins never buried any Black bodies.

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Kirkels learned about the African American soldiers only when an American superintendent in 2014 gave her a list of names. By then, Wiggins had died at age 87. Janice worked with Kirkels to finish the book he started with her, “From Alabama to Margraten.”

It was published only in the Netherlands in 2014. During one of the book signings, a Black man from the Netherlands approached Kirkels and told her how Wiggins’ story had changed his life. It was a history he didn’t know, and it filled several gaps in his own story.

“My father,” Huub Schepers told Kirkels, “was a Black soldier.”

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Watch a video of Jefferson Wiggins’ story here:

Chris Dickon is a retired Emmy-award-winning producer and has always had a strong compulsion to memorialize the dead. He’s written several books, including “The Foreign Burial of American War Dead” in 2011, and used some of Kirkels’ research. The two have become friends and collaborators, two 70-ish storytellers concerned about the human aftermath of the war. Kirkels in 2019 was recognized by the country for her work and appointed an officer in the Royal Order of Orange-Nassau.

After Schepers met Kirkels, she met other Dutch men and women who had been born to African American soldiers. Her interviews with a dozen of them became her 2017 book, “Dutch Children of African American Liberators.”

Dickon wrote and expanded on the text, adding the necessary texture of American racism and the segregated military. It helped explain how the biracial offspring were left with so many questions.

The book with the same title, “Dutch Children of African American Liberators,” was released in September.

Fraternization among Allied troops and European women was discouraged but not uncommon, Dickon said. Tens of thousands of children were born throughout Europe during and in the years following American occupation. Kirkels said the Netherlands alone saw about 10,000 “liberation babies.” About 70 of them were children of color.

While the white offspring could blend in, biracial children rarely could.

Dickon said military policy and social customs, in America and the Netherlands, conspired to create tragic, lonely existences for many of the subjects of the “Dutch Children” book.

For example, if couples wanted to marry, interracial marriage was almost impossible. It was illegal in most U.S. states at the time. In the Netherlands, the man would have to show that matrimony was legal in the state in which he lived.

The military often reassigned Black soldiers out of the country when it learned that they got a local pregnant. It refused to pass on location information if the mothers requested to know. American adoption agencies often refused to get involved.

In turn, the children grew up knowing nothing and could not understand why they were “different.”

The majority of subjects in the “Dutch Children” book were neglected, abused, tormented in public and denied jobs when they became adults.

Schepers, who met Kirkels in 2014, was born to a mother who kept him in the basement separate from his white siblings. He was later sent to live with an elderly widow who scrubbed his skin repeatedly to try to remove its color.

He was later moved to a Catholic orphanage where he was sexually abused.

“They were neither Black nor white, Dutch or American,” Dickon said. “They didn’t know about each other, they didn’t know who their fathers were, they didn’t know any of this history of the way Blacks had been treated.”

The children grew up in separate towns and villages and didn’t know each other until they were brought together by Kirkels’ work.

After learning of his American heritage, Schepers was quoted as saying, “It suddenly felt like I belonged to something.”

He started organizing the children, most of them senior citizens, in a loose community before he died in 2016.

Dickon’s interest in their story was personal. His American mother fell under the charms of a sailor on a train ride, Dickon said. She later became pregnant and the soldier vanished.

He grew up with questions and only recently discovered his father’s identity through DNA analysis.

This all shows the importance, he said, of knowing and telling histories. Books are not the only things left with gaping holes.

Dickon said he believes there’s a natural instinct to take care of and memorialize the war dead. But to do so, we need to know who they are.

“Whatever the motivation is,” Dickon said, “in the larger scheme of history, it seems natural to bring this story of African American soldiers and their contributions to the forefront.”

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Looking for info, relatives:

Dutch historian Sebastiaan Vonk is working on a book about the 172 African American soldiers buried in Margraten. He is looking for relatives of the soldiers and for researchers in the United States to help him locate and interview relatives about them. Anyone with information or interested in helping can contact Vonk at sebastiaanpophistory.nl

Visit this website to see a complete list of those African American soldiers: http://www.theforeignburialofamericanwardead.com/the-margraten-172

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