FORT LEE, Va. - Jefferson Wiggins was a Soldier in the war but never saw direct combat. Like the majority of African-Americans who donned uniforms during World War II, he was on the wrong side of a segregated Army, one that generally relegated them to jobs as laborers or restricted them to that which supported white troops performing the most critical missions.
Despite their places behind the scenes, Wiggins and his unit members literally found themselves face-to-face with the horrors of war – not as a result of wielding weapons of destruction – but clutching shovels and tossing dirt at a Netherlands cemetery where they buried thousands of white Americans who had died doing so.
Jefferson Wiggins (first row, third from right) with fellow members of the 960th Quartermaster Service Company unit members during training prior to being deployed to Europe in World War II. (Courtesy Photo)
For Wiggins, a 19-year-old first sergeant with the 960th Quartermaster Service Company, it was a troubling mission, one that grew in difficulty and complexity and required a burial in its own right – only to be uncovered 65 years later as a way to honor the men responsible for it, said his wife, Janice Wiggins, via a phone interview.
“Over time, he realized it was important for him to tell the story, because at that time he was the only African-American Soldier of his unit who could be found still living,” she said of her husband's 2009 revelation. “He knew if he could not tell the story from the perspective of the black Soldier, no one else was alive to do it. He felt it was his responsibility to talk about it.”
Dr. Jefferson Wiggins is not here today. He died four years after liberating himself of haunting memories surrounding his unit's mission to fill the initial burial plots in 1944 at the Netherlands American Cemetery located in the village of Margraten.
Details of Wiggins' life and the mission of the 960th QSC at Margraten can be found in the book, “Return to Margraten” and in the documentary, “The Fields of Margraten,” which marked 65 years of liberation in the Netherlands after the Nazi occupation there.
Wiggins was one of the more than 900,000 black men and women who served their country during the war but were mostly assigned to segregated units subjected to substandard training, poor living conditions and menial work.
As a member of the segregated 960th, Wiggins didn't have the benefit of mortuary affairs training like those who currently undergo such instruction at the Quartermaster School here. They were supplied with the hardware and simple instructions that included gravesite dimensions and requirements to dig three gravesites per day, per man. The unit's mission was performed under the leadership of a white graves registration element, forerunner of today's mortuary affairs unit, according to "Return," the book Wiggins co-authored with his wife.
Wiggins' journey to Margraten started with his upbringing in rural Alabama as a member of a poor sharecropper family. He was a child of the Jim Crow South, his family the victim of Ku Klux Klan terrorism campaigns, according to the book. He joined the Army sometime in the early 1940s, attracted by its promises of a better life than the one he left.
The Army Wiggins joined was one divided by race, but in the minds of many black Soldiers at the time, this was a mere extension of American society, albeit a more favorable one in some respects. The issue became more problematic when Wiggins' unit undertook the mission at Margraten. Beginning in the fall of 1944, he and his unit members relentlessly stabbed the frozen earth with their shovels and picks to make graves for an estimated 20,000 U.S. service members – some likely mangled beyond recognition, others likely attired in their blood-soaked uniforms and still others frozen with expressions of shock or fear – without the decencies of caskets and ceremony, according to Wiggins in "Return." He described the mission as grim and emotionally wrenching.
“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 recalled in the book. “They were just completely traumatized.”
The mission of burying those who wore the same uniforms – but who did not look like him and who were not treated like him – was troublesome if not burdensome in light of the difficult task at hand, said the former Soldier in the book.
“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.”
Despite bouts of uncertainty, the painful sense of hopelessness the Soldiers initially felt because of their assigned mission and the sheer amount of bodies that required burial, most unit members were able to find the dignity and reverence in laying to rest those who died for the cause, no matter who they were, said Wiggins.
“We had been commanded to give respect to those we could not even associate with in life,” he said during a 2009 speech in the Netherlands. “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 deserved.”
Wiggins and his Soldiers completed the mission, but it didn't mean they were at peace with it. Wiggins later questioned his status as a U.S. citizen and as a black Soldier, especially one commanded to fight for someone else's freedom when he had no sense of freedom himself. He could not, however, bring himself to contemplate the images of dead Soldiers at Margraten. It was subject he never discussed, said Janice.
“Jeff didn't talk about his experiences voluntarily,” she said, noting he, like many WWII Soldiers, may have had some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. “We were married for more than 40 years at the time (of his revelation), and although he spoke freely about his military service – being in Europe during World War II – I never knew anything about Margraten.”
After the war, Wiggins returned to Alabama only to see – despite having served his country in Europe – the stark reminders of Jim Crow's throbbing heartbeat and simple American injustice: The sight of German prisoners of war riding in the front of municipal buses while black children rode in the back, according to the book.
Despite what he came back to, Wiggins pushed himself onto a lifelong path of learning and human relations, earning several academic degrees, including a Ph.D., and becoming a teacher, community leader, writer and mentor in the Northeast. He settled in New Fairfield, Connecticut, in the mid-1990s and, along with his wife, captured many accolades as a community advocate. He also was a popular and sought-after speaker.
Considering all of his achievements, his kind disposition and his reputation as a bridge-builder, there was very little to suggest her husband harbored a secret, said Janice. In fact, if not for the efforts of enterprising Dutch writer Mieke Kirkels, the story of the 960th may have been forgotten, lost in the annals of the thousands of people, places and events that make up the history of WWII. Kirkels had done much research on Margraten and called Wiggins in 2009, presenting him with an opportunity to tell his story as part of a larger history project, said Janice.
Wiggins' acceptance of Kirkels proposal meant he would have to recall the trauma he actively sought to repress for the past 65 years. He would have to confront his ghosts, so to speak, and come to grips with a grim history, not as a young Soldier, but as an octogenarian. He eventually warmed to the idea.
“Within a year after Mieke first called, we went to the Netherlands in September 2009,” said Janice. “He had been invited by Mieke to speak at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the southern part of the Netherlands.”
September 13, 2009 - Netherlands American Cemetery Superintendent Mike Yasenchak presents the American flag to veteran Jefferson Wiggins for his role in helping to bury thousands of American service members there during World War II. The flag had been flown over the cemetery in his honor. (Courtesy Photo)
The visit to the Netherlands was somewhat of an awakening for them both, said Janice, her trembling voice recalling the warmth and gratitude expressed by the Dutch for what the Americans did for their country.
Wiggins, in particular, felt some measure of relief and pride to honor his fellow Soldiers to a greater degree than how they felt following their departure at argraten, but he had done so at a cost.
“We had an amazing trip there, but when we came back to the states, his personality changed,” said Janice. “You could see he was still carrying a burden of memories that couldn't be buried again.”
That burden, said Janice, resulted in him being “less lighthearted and more sober” and more focused on sharing his story – to the detriment of his personal quality of life.
“He felt he had an obligation to tell the story and people were interested,” said Janice, “but after about a year, I said to him that he really needed to try to put it aside because – not that it was easy – we had to move forward because in a way he was giving up every day of his current life reliving what had happened at Margraten.”
Dr. Jefferson Wiggins died Jan. 9, 2013.
Janice Wiggins said her husband, like many who serve in war, made sacrifices for his country, and later in life committed to telling the story of the men of the 960th Quartermaster Service Company, who were not provided the opportunities for recognition like white units or whose achievements did not break barriers like the Tuskegee Airmen, but who nonetheless answered the call of duty the best they knew how.
Jefferson Wiggins wanted to give them a voice and a place in history, said his wife.
“I know he would have had a great sense of satisfaction knowing that the untold stories of those who came from humble beginnings like his own are finally being given the honor and recognition they earned ... no more but certainly no less than the recognition that was earned by the white soldiers with whom they served,” said Janice. “He would have been pleased that interest in his own story provided a vehicle for telling the stories of so many others who performed their duty and, in doing so, made a statement about their right to claim this country as their own.”
By U.S. Army Terrance Bell
Provided through DVIDS
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