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African American Liberators In The Netherlands

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The following is a guest blog post by Sebastiaan Vonk and Mieke Kirkels, historians in the Netherlands working to research, document, and commemorate the history of African American soldiers stationed in the Netherlands during World War II. Much like the Veterans History Project, their work ensures that the stories of veterans—particularly those whose voices have not been heard before—are preserved and remembered.

We encourage African American veterans who served in the Netherlands during World War II, or their families, to contact the Veterans History Project so that their stories can benefit both projects—as well as our collective understanding of war and society.

Color photo of cemetery with green trees and green grass.
Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands. Photo by Sebastiaan Vonk.

Equal in death, unequal in life. Little remains of the segregated U.S. society and armed forces during World War II at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in the town of Margraten, the Netherlands. More than 8,000 white marble crosses and Stars of David at this hallowed ground serve as a powerful testimony to the cost of war. 172 African American soldiers rest here alongside their fellow countrymen. Death, after all, made no distinction.

The 30th U.S. Infantry Division was the first Allied unit to cross the Dutch border near Maastricht on September 12, 1944. It marked the beginning of the country’s liberation. Later on, American forces would also participate in Operation Market Garden and engage in the liberation of the province of Brabant. However, it would take until May 5, 1945 until the remaining German forces surrendered. Today, the people of the Netherlands have adopted each of the 8,301 graves and 1,722 names of the missing soldiers at the cemetery out of a heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifices these soldiers made for their freedom.

However, until recently, little was known in both the Netherlands as well as in the United States about the contributions of African American troops to the liberation of the country, which had been occupied for five long years by Nazi Germany. In the minds of many Dutch people, U.S. liberators were white, even though 900,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Army alone, primarily in quartermaster, engineer, and ordnance units. The successful Red Ball Express, which was fundamental to the supply of frontline troops from August 1944 until November 1944, for example was mainly operated by African Americans.

Color photo of cross headstones on green grass.
Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands. Photo by Sebastiaan Vonk.

Moreover, although a rare exception in a segregated army, African Americans also served in combat units. For example, the well-known 784th Tank Battalion engaged in the liberation of the Dutch city of Venlo. A call for infantry volunteers at the end of 1944, led to the transfer of about 2,200 African Americans to infantry units. 45 of these “negro infantry volunteers” rest in Margraten.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book on the 761st Tank Battalion highlights another dimension of segregation during World War II. When units were taken off the line, soldiers had an opportunity to take some time off in Rest & Recreation (R&R) centers; however, these facilities were restricted to white troops. The 761st Tank Battalion was forced to camp out on a meadow during their stay in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the unit formed a soccer team and played matches against locals during their time off. The only R&R for black soldiers in the army was established just across the border in the Belgian town of Eisden in January 1945.

Change in public understanding of the role played by African American veterans in the Netherlands came about in 2009. An oral history project in the Netherlands on the construction of the American War Cemetery in Margraten uncovered a personal story of an African American soldier, Jefferson Wiggins, who had worked there as a gravedigger. He was one of the hundreds of African American soldiers who had buried the bodies of about 20,000 fallen soldiers, including those of other Allied countries and Nazi Germany. Trucks driven by African American soldiers brought the bodies there from the battlefields or temporary graveyards. The trucks full of bodies left a lasting impression on the local population.

Photo of soldiers running.  Purple is over the photo and writing says: "Do you know someone who was there?  Help us identify and preserve the stories of African-American veterans who served in the Netherlands during World War II. -"However, stories of African American liberators of the Netherlands continue to be rare today. We believe that there are more stories out there, more stories that need to be told. To be able to paint a better picture of the stationing of African American troops in the Netherlands during World War II, we are looking for African American veterans, or their relatives, who are willing to share their recollections of their time in the Netherlands and their contribution to the liberation thereof. What were their experiences with the Dutch? Did they have contact with Dutch people? How was their relation with white American comrades? Did they participate in the daily festivities organized in villages and towns? Where were they housed? Do they have documents and/or pictures?

Likewise, we encourage relatives of the 172 African Americans who have found their final resting places in the Netherlands American Cemetery to come forward and share the stories about these men as part of efforts to document this history. And above all, to honor the service and sacrifice of those who were part of that history.

Indeed, the Netherlands seek to give long-due recognition to the African American soldiers for their contributions to the liberation of the country. As part of this effort, plans are being made to create an exhibition that highlights their contribution. The exhibition is scheduled to open in 2019, 75 years after the first U.S. soldiers crossed the border. A website and educational resources for schools will complement the exhibition. Your story will help us tell a part of the history that has been long untold.

To get in touch with the researchers to share your story, or the story of your family member, please send an email to the Veterans History Project at [email protected]. In the months to come, watch this space as we share more on the veterans who have served in the Netherlands or who have been buried at Margraten and the work being done to preserve their stories.


Comments (10)

  1. What about the soldiers that drove trucks with bombs and rockets. They were unsung heroes, those African American soldiers. Just curious.

  2. I am a naturalized American whose parents live little more than a mile from the Margraten Cemetery. It astonishes me every time I visit how engaged the Dutch population is in this monument, and how they have never forgotten the Liberators of WW2 – emotions born of gratitude passed down the generations. The 2 authors of this blog are among the most active and should be applauded for the work they are doing to turn unknown, hidden or forgotten history into a relevant experience whose time is overdue. The recent discoveries of some or parts of the 172 African American lives, their treatment and contributions of these African American Liberators brings these brave soldier’s tough and often heroic contributions among hardest circumstances to the forefront, from a shocking obscurity. We must never forget them and what was done to them and how they persevered. Let’s make sure we document fully for them and for our children and grandchildren.

  3. This article would make a great short story, graphic novel. Maybe I’ll write and illustrate it myself!

  4. I misspelled my name in the comment I posted. I need to use a stylus. Sorry.

  5. I also lived very close to Margraten. Beautiful, beautiful cemetery. Several years ago, my granddaughter was assigned a digital project. She chose to do it about me and report on the liberation day of my hometown. I Googled Margraten to get some pertinent information and learned that all the graves were dug by African-American soldiers. One in particular I would like to mention. His name was James Parks. The ground was frozen hard and I don’t know whether there were mechanical diggers. The soldiers dug and buried the bodies or parts of the bodies and when a soldier had been laid to rest, James Parks would stand at attention, place his hand over his heart and sing a Negro Spiritual. I can only imagine the sight of this tribute. Presently, the graves are still taken care of by members of the nearby communities. Some of those caretakers are the grandchildren of the original adopters of graves.

  6. For those who’d like to read excellent histories of the 761st and 784th Tank Battalions, see “The 761st ‘Black Panther’ Tank Battalion in World War II” and “The 784th Tank Battalion in World War II,” both by Joe Wilson, Jr. (The first of these was one of the sources for Abdul-Jabbar’s book.)

  7. I have an American Christmas card from December 1944 depicting the personnel of the 131st General Hospital in England. On the cover of their Christmas Card dinner menu is an image of Zwarte Piet.
    This card has signatures of those in attendance and images of a foreign Santa and helpers

  8. My late father, was PFC Henry Surant, who was in the 401st signal co. {aviation] attached the to the US 8th an 9th airforce in a radar unit, [mew] that guided AND WARNED our fighter bombers of nazi planes pursuing them. The 401st was located in wittem-gulpen holland in the thick of fighting. As a young 11 yr old boy wondering what he did in ww2, i would often ask about his war time service. He told me in the winter of the battle of the bulge. daily 6 by 6 open U.S. army cargo trucks coming from the front lines would be loaded with the dead, frozen bodies of U.S army GI’s destined for Margraten. he told me these were true hero’s of the terrible war. I understood his conversation with me as a young boy when i discovered Margraten as a man in my sixties. My fathers outfit was only 8 miles west of Margraten in 1944.

  9. I was stationed in Brunssum the Netherlands from 1990 to 1993. As a young Sergeant I was told to put on my dress green uniform and to attend a ceremony at Margarten at the cemetery. When I saw the rows and rows of Crosses and American Flags on the graves that Memorial Day I say a reminder of true sacrifice and it has stayed with me all these years. Another thing that stood with me all these years is how nice the grand parent of one of the Netherland Soldiers that befriended me was, when I asked why? She replied it was the face of African American troops she remembered seeing when the town she lived in was liberated during World War II. Not sure what stories you have found all I know is “We Were There”!

  10. My late Great Grandfather Staff Sergeant Levi Hills was in 784th Tank Battalion, those black soldiers went through so much and stories were left out, I’m glad they’re finally being told.

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