Colonel James Baldwin, in the company of the 784th Tank Battalion, landed in Holland in 1945.
The 784th Tank Battalion was a segregated one and on a mission to fight Nazis and help free the Dutch from German invasion.
“We took 23 cities in three days,” recalled Baldwin, who fought with the U.S. Army’s all-black 784th Tank Battalion.
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“We were really moving. We were taking the cities, meaning killing Germans, and running them out. We came in and freed them. We liberated them. To know I had a role in the liberation of Holland means a lot,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying.
A decade ago, Mieke Kirkels led a research effort in the Netherlands to compile oral histories from the war, including from Dutch farmers who lived under Nazi occupation in anticipation of the 65th anniversary.
Through them, Kirkels heard accounts of black service members who had labored tirelessly to transport and bury the dead at temporary collection points and field cemeteries, reports Military Times.
The burial sites became the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten.
Jefferson Wiggins, a sharecropper’s son, joined the army at age 16 to escape the cruelty in Jim Crow South and the brutish Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
According to Military Times, as a first sergeant, Wiggins served with the 960th Quartermaster Service Company (QSC), later receiving a battlefield commission to become a second lieutenant from Gen. George S. Patton himself.
Wiggins’ job, along with hundreds of other black soldiers, was to bury nearly 20,000 soldiers killed in action during the ongoing battles for liberation.
“There were some Soldiers who actually cried when they were digging the graves, particularly when they started to lower the mattress covers (used as body bags) into the ground,” he said. “They were just completely traumatized”
“And here we all were – this group of black Americans having to deal with these bodies of white Americans,” he said. “The situation brought vivid thoughts to my mind. The stark reality was we had to bury those Soldiers although we couldn’t sit in the same room with them when they were alive. ‘Something is wrong here,’ I thought.”
Seventy-five years after Baldwin and his battalion fought the Nazis and liberated the Dutch from the evil clutches of the Germans, the Embassy of the Netherlands, earlier this month, honored Baldwin and hundreds of other black soldiers as part of its commemoration of the 75th anniversary of liberation.
“The citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands express their sincere appreciation and gratitude for your sacrifice, courage, and willingness to fight for freedom while enduring the hardships of war,” the embassy wrote in a certificate of appreciation presented to Baldwin.
“… Seventy-five years later, the footprints of courageous men like you are still found in our thriving economy, our stable government, and in our hearts and minds. Freedom sways in the wind while our flag flutters in peace. We will never forget.”
The move to liberate Holland from the invasion began after thousands of Allied troops landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Allied forces drove German troops from France and Belgium. By September 1944, the Allies arrived in the Netherlands. The Nazis invaded Holland in 1940.
“December 25, 1944: that’s when we had our first baptism of violence,” Baldwin said per Military Times. “We wanted to go in to prove that we [African Americans] could fight.”
At the time, the prevailing stereotype was that most black service members should be sidelined in noncombat roles. Baldwin said the 784th had white officers, who often favored the unit’s white infantrymen over the black tank drivers and crewmen.
“I said, ‘I’m black and they’re white. We are going to fight the same enemy. Why the difference?’”.
According to Commodore Paul Herber, the embassy’s defense attache, when the fighting ended, Europe broke free of Nazi occupation, and thousands and thousands of soldiers died, including Americans — 8,291 buried in the cemetery in Margraten.
“In many ways, the cemetery is to the Netherlands what Arlington National Cemetery is to the United States. It is hallowed grounds. One cannot walk through Margraten without feeling the sacrifices American soldiers made to free Europe and the Netherlands,” he said.
They fought to liberate Europe from the Nazis but had no freedom back home. That’s the irony of the black liberators’ mission during the world war II.
“Segregation pervaded every aspect of African American soldiers’ experiences in World War II,” said Dr. Tyler Bamford, Leventhal Research Fellow at the National World War II Museum.
“More than one million African Americans served in the Armed Forces, yet they could not even use the same facilities as white soldiers, even on military bases.”
“The Army believed white southerners were best qualified to command black troops by virtue of their experience growing up in the segregated South,” said Bamford.
“In practice, many white officers resented the assignment and took opportunities to denigrate and abuse African American soldiers.”