In a Margraten cemetery in the Netherlands, 172 black World War II soldiers lay buried, their graves tended by a group of Dutch volunteers who are desperately trying to learn more about the heroes they refer to as the “black liberators.”
Like many people, David McGhee was unaware of the existence of the black liberators, let alone that one of them was his grandfather. That is, according to a recent NPR report, until he dug through a mysterious suitcase his grandmother had kept nestled away.
As NPR reports, McGhee inherited his grandmother Effie Payne’s leather suitcase after she passed—at the time he received it, no one else in his family had laid eyes on its contents. In fact, he says, he waited 10 years before opening the heirloom. It contained a “treasure-trove” of documents, writes NPR—photos, records, medals, telegrams, much of it pertaining to a man no one in their family ever spoke about—David’s grandfather, Willie F. Williams.
Williams was a sergeant in the Second World War, where he died in Germany. McGhee found Williams’ photos and his letters home and discovered that his grandfather had served in an all-black unit, where he managed ammunition and explosives. Williams reportedly died in an explosion in Germany.
But it would take some internet sleuthing for McGhee to find out where his grandfather was buried, a search that led him to a site called Black Liberators of the Netherlands, NPR reports. The project, started by Mieke Kirkels, tells the story of the African-American soldiers in the American Military Cemetery in Margraten. But little is known aside from the soldiers’ names.
NPR explains why:
Military records have a code to indicate the soldier’s race, but beyond that, there’s not much else Kierkels could learn about the buried soldiers. It’s hard to get more information because a lot of records were kept by veterans organizations, and most didn’t allow black members in those days.
“They hadn’t been mentioned in schoolbooks, or in documentaries about the war,” Kirkels writes on the site, adding that many Dutch people didn’t know about the segregated U.S. forces until 2009, when a black gravedigger returned to the cemetery and spoke about his experience.
“Still many don’t know about Black Liberators,” she writes.
The U.S. armed forces were deeply segregated until 1948, and while the all-African-American unit of fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, may be a household name, less is known about the contributions of the 761st Tank Battalion (better known as the Black Panthers) and other black military men, many of whom served in combat-support roles.
McGhee eventually traveled to the Netherlands to visit his grandfather’s grave, where he met the local couple who had personally looked over Williams’ grave. Jan and Jos Smeets would visit the cemetery on special occasions and lay flowers on Williams’ grave, NPR writes, and kept a framed photo of the fallen soldier on display in their home. When they die, their daughter will continue looking after the gravesite.
According to NPR, all of the roughly 8,300 American graves have been adopted by Dutch families.
“To know that Jan and Jos Smeets have been tending to his grave and knowing that others are being tended to the same way—it’s hard to put into words,” McGhee said.