On December 25, 1944 – Christmas Day – Cpl. James Baldwin and the 784th Tank Battalion
landed in Soissons, France, to fight in the Allied liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The 19-year-old Baldwin, of tiny Wagram, North Carolina, had entered the service two years
earlier through the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which was created “to
ensure a continuous flow of technically and professionally trained men” for the war effort. He
had qualified for the program by achieving high marks on the Army General Classification Test,
but when the program was suspended, Baldwin found himself in the regular army and headed
As Baldwin and the 784th rolled through the forests of France to confront the German war
machine, they were attached to the 35th Infantry Division (Wagonwheel Division).
But unlike most armored and infantry battalions, the 784th was unique – it was a segregated
battalion. Its soldiers, Baldwin included, were black.
Now, 75 years later, a new research project aims to illuminate the forgotten history and legacy of
the “Black Liberators” of the Netherlands and the 172 black soldiers who remain buried there
Revisiting history’s forgotten soldiers
A decade ago, in anticipation of the 65th anniversary, 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. 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.
These sites would become the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten.
Soon after, researchers located Jefferson Wiggins, a sharecropper’s son who
joined the Army at the age of 16 to escape the Jim Crow South and the terror of
the Ku Klux Klan. As a first sergeant, Wiggins served with the 960th
Quartermaster Service Company (QSC). He later received a battlefield
commission to become a second lieutenant from Gen. George S. Patton himself.
Along with hundreds of other black soldiers, Wiggins was tasked with burying
nearly 20,000 soldiers killed in action during the ongoing battles for liberation.
Digging graves in the middle of winter, these men labored in 12-hour shifts for
three months straight, according to Wiggins’s account.
But their stories were largely forgotten, divided among the memories of those
who served, the lore of living family members, and the partially destroyed war
records in the archives.
When Dutch researchers located Wiggins, he had already written two books
about his experiences in a segregated military, been awarded a Meritorious Unit
Commendation in 2007, and delivered the graduation ceremony keynote address
at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2009. That year, he returned to Margraten,
Netherlands, for the first time since the war, the place where he worked
digging graves and burying corpses.
“We had been commanded to give respect to those we could not even associate
with in life,” Wiggins said during the visit. “But on that first day, we realized
that whatever life experiences we’d had as African Americans, this was our
obligation – to set aside our prejudices, our colors, and our fears, and give to
these young Americans the honor, the respect, and the dignity they so well
Wiggins, who went on to receive an honorary doctorate, died in 2013, shortly
before his story – and those of his fellow black soldiers – was memorialized in
Mieke Kirkels’ book, “From Alabama to Margraten: Memories of Grave Digger
Kirkels later expanded her research to document the stories of the children of
Dutch women and black GIs in “Children of Black Liberators.” Wiggins was not alone, however, in his quest for recognition of the black liberators, and researchers began to explore the lives of the 172 black soldiers buried in Margraten, among their 8,000 additional white compatriots.
The Black Liberators Project was born to capture the experiences of the living
veterans and highlight the memories of the 172 fallen, partly through
reconnecting with their descendants.
Documenting the Netherlands’ Black Liberators
On a rainy afternoon last Thursday near Embassy Row in Northwest
Washington, D.C., Cpl. James Baldwin entered the Embassy of the Kingdom of
Donning his “World War II Veteran” hat and a row of service medals on his
Army jacket, the now 96-year-old Baldwin sat in the front row as researchers
presented their findings. Baldwin recounted his story of serving in a segregated
military and liberating the Netherlands.
“December 25, 1944: that’s when we had our first baptism of violence,” Baldwin
said. “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?’” Baldwin added.
“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.”
For black soldiers, many of the freedoms they were fighting and dying to protect
in foreign countries were not afforded to them at home. To protest this
hypocrisy, and push for the end of segregation and discrimination, leaders in the
black community announced the “Double V Campaign” in the Pittsburgh
Courier, “the most influential black newspaper in the country.” The campaign
sought victory against foreign enemies abroad and victory against prejudice and
racism at home. Still, black soldiers faced routine discrimination in the segregated military.
“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.”
The segregated tank battalions, however, did enter combat. According to
the U.S. Army Center of Military History, on March 1, 1945, the 784th Tank
Battalion joined a task force that “moved so swiftly that the enemy, surprised,”
was quickly overwhelmed and defeated. The task force had captured 20 towns
and villages and rolled into Venlo, Netherlands, liberating the city.
Another black armored battalion, the 761st Tank Battalion, also participated in
the liberation of Europe, including the Netherlands. This unit entered combat in
November 1944 and consisted of six white officers, 30 black officers, and nearly
700 enlisted black soldiers. The battalion fought at Bastogne, Belgium, as part of
the famed Battle of the Bulge, before liberating several Dutch towns on the
“This is for many an unknown story, now told,” said Air Commodore Paul
Herber, Dutch defense attaché, at the event. “Research has shown that
contributions of African American soldiers were unjustly overlooked by history.
Through these new collaborations, we have corrected that oversight.”
The research was headed by Sebastiaan Vonk and Maarten Vleeming in the
Netherlands, who soon connected with American researchers Myra Miller, team
leader at Footsteps Researchers, and Ric Murphy, vice president of the Afro-
American Historical and Genealogical Society.
Vonk and Vleeming began with personnel files at the 65.5-acre Netherlands
American Cemetery at Margraten. Filtering by “race codes” for the deceased, the
pair located records for the 172 black soldiers. Then, they reached out to their
American counterparts, traveled to the World War II archives in Missouri, and
dug through thousands of boxes of fire-tinged personnel records. (A massive fire
in 1973 destroyed 80 percent of U.S. Army records from 1912 to 1960).
Through local chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical
Society, the team began crowd-sourcing stories about the deceased, utilizing
census records, oral histories, and family documents.
“When we talk about World War II, we often hear about it was a fight for
democracy, for freedom. But when you look at those black soldiers, they were
told to go overseas and fight for freedom that they didn’t enjoy at home,” Vonk
said. “I felt it was important to bring it out. These men made very vital
contributions to the war effort.”
“We have an opportunity to give proper recognition to their service and sacrifice.
What we are doing here in part is correcting our military history, our history of
the Netherlands,” Vonk added.
Completing family history
For Murphy, the lack of emphasis in historical discussions of the service and
deaths of the “Black Liberators” demonstrates a more significant trend of
downplaying the sacrifice of black military veterans.
“The perception is that [African Americans] tend not to look for our ancestors
because we think they are not in the files,” Murphy said. “Our ancestors are
there, and we are finding our ancestors are speaking to us and saying, ‘Come
For many veterans of the war – black or white – retelling stories of their service
was not easy. “It’s the things they don’t want to think about. They want to come back to
normalcy,” Murphy said. “It’s not unusual for any soldier of war to come back and not share stories.” Add to this fact, the tradition of oral storytelling and lost records, and it makes recreating these men’s lives difficult. “One of the things we encourage people to do is ask questions of their family members,” said Hannah Scruggs, a public historian at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We ask family members who have seen truly horrific things and don’t want to share, to please write them down. It’s so important to have these stories recorded, to continue to share these stories.” Despite these difficulties, many family members have tried to reconnect with
their loved one’s service. Now, the Black Liberators Project means the service
and sacrifice of the 172 black soldiers will become a permanent piece of their
LaVonne Taliaferro-Bunch, whose great uncle, Lenwood Taliaferro, is buried in
Margraten, shared that her grandfather had traveled around Europe decades
earlier searching for his brother’s final resting place.
“I think it’s important for my family because my grandfather talked to us about
the rich history [of service]. When you see people substantiating some of the
stories he told me…it’s important,” said Taliaferro-Bunch. “To see this [project],
to me, adds closure for him.”
“We talk about the struggles that we’ve had in this country, but we also
struggled to liberate peoples around the world. That makes us global citizens,”
And for Cpl. James Baldwin, he, too, has received recognition, 75 years later. At
the embassy on Thursday, Baldwin received a certificate of appreciation from
the Dutch people for his contribution to their liberation. For his 100th birthday,
Baldwin plans to visit Margraten to see his old friends one last time.