black and white photograph, a group of African American soldiers along with two white men.

Black Liberators during World War II

The hidden story of African American soldiers in the Netherlands

Sebastiaan Vonk (pop.history.)

More than 15,000 African American soldiers were stationed in the Netherlands during World War II, but their stories have not been represented in the overall narrative about the war. In this blog, historian Sebastiaan Vonk introduces the stories of the Black Liberators.

'We fought gallantly. When I say we, I mean people who looked like me.' Matthew S. Brown would repeat these words numerous times when he returned to Europe for the first time in 2019.

Brown was one of the 1.2 million African American soldiers who served during World War II.

War was not their only battle. They faced racism at home, and abroad. Late historian Stephen Ambrose once captured the absurdity of it all when he wrote that 'the world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.'

Serving behind the lines

In the segregated U.S. armed forces, African American soldiers were largely assigned to supporting units, partly as a result of racist notions that African Americans were incapable of being good combat soldiers. (There were some notable exceptions, such as the Tuskegee Airmen.)

In the Netherlands, the 784th Tank Battalion helped to liberate the city of Venlo alongside the 35th Infantry Division in March 1945. The battalion, like pretty much every unit African American soldiers were assigned to, was made up of African American soldiers, with the exception of the officers. There were only three Black tank battalions in the U.S. army during World War II.

black and white photograph, a line of tanks move through a town.

African American soldiers in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, over 15,000 African American soldiers were stationed during the war.

The majority were in the south of the province of Limburg, which served as the logistical hub for the 9th U.S. Army from October 1944 until March 1945.

African American soldiers were vital to the operation of the hub. They largely operated the depots, bakeries, laundries, etc. in cities like Maastricht, Heerlen and Sittard as well as in smaller rural towns. Trucks chauffeured by African Americans brought supplies to the front.

More to the north, they supported the 7th Armored Division, which fought the bloody Battle of Overloon. African American units also provided support to the airborne operations during and in the aftermath of Operation Market Garden, which took place in September 1944.

The most gruesome work was done by the men of the 960th and 3136th Quartermaster Service Companies, who had been tasked with digging graves at the military cemetery in Margraten. Staff Sergeant Jefferson Wiggins remembered: 'In all the eight, nine, sometimes ten hours a day we were digging there, there was fear in the air. Or maybe it was sadness. Every day was the same. Yet you didn’t get used to it.'

black and white photograph, soliders on the horizon digging graves in a snowy landscape.

Who is the enemy?

African American soldiers often had to deal with blatant racism from their fellow countrymen. Corporal Rupert Trimmingham wrote to Yank Magazine, describing how he and his fellow soldiers would not be served or even be allowed in establishments when they were on the road in the United States, while German prisoners of war were seated and served at the table.

It led Trimmingham to ask: 'Are these men sworn enemies of this country? Are they not taught to hate and destroy all democratic governments? Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this country? Then why are they treated better than we are?'

Corporal James Baldwin, who served with the 784th Tank Battalion in the Netherlands, remembered that 'white soldiers said that we had tails.' These rumours were efforts to maintain the racial status quo overseas by soldiers themselves, complementing official policies.

black and white photograph, two football teams pose for a photograph.

African American soldiers not only served in segregated units, they also were quartered separately and supposed to use separate facilities for rest and recreation.

Failure to maintain the status quo caused tensions. 'It meant trouble when a Black soldier was seen with a white girl. And locals invited us to their homes or to go to a café with them, angering white soldiers,' Corporal Baldwin recollected.

Mieke Verkuyl, who was 12 years old at the time, invited some African American soldiers to have a drink in her father’s café in Valkenburg. Reluctantly, they entered. Angry, the white soldiers started swearing and forced them out.

‘Faites comme home’

Despite this, there were friendly encounters between locals and soldiers, and long-lasting friendships were founded. Out of some relationships, children were born.

'We totally did not feel superior towards our Black liberators,' said Clim Daemen, a 12 year old boy in Maastricht at the time. 'That is why my mum and dad welcomed these soldiers at their home, even though it was the first time they had seen people of colour.' They tried to overcome the language barrier. 'My mother spoke French, but no English.' So, when Alex Brothers, one of their regular visitors stops by again, she says 'faites comme home,' make yourself at home. Alex was 'a friendly, easy boy with a contagious laugh,' Clim remembered.

black and white photograph, a group of people sitting around a table in a home.

Not every African American soldier felt at home, nor were they seen as equals by everyone.

African American soldiers complained about Black Pete, a blackface character that serves as the helper of Saint Nicholas. A promise was made that the figure would not be seen as long as African American soldiers were in the country.

Some newspapers in Limburg felt the need to run articles on how to address these soldiers. One article discussed the use of the term Black people, of which 'you might not know that this term has an unsympathetic meaning.”

It is true that many Europeans had never personally met people of colour before, and their thoughts were shaped by colonial imagery. Many locals recollected how the soldiers were, at least initially, seen as ‘exotic’ and, therefore, interesting.

But while how these soldiers were treated may have in part been caused by ignorance, the articles also allude to a bigger issue: racism. One article called out the false rumours and stories that the people of Limburg were spreading. In another article, the author recalls how African American soldiers were turned away when looking for billeting, because there was no space. Soon after, white soldiers were welcomed.

When asked why, the answer was: “African Americans are not as civilised”. The author wondered whether “the way we treat blacks is any different than the racism of the Nazis.”

black and white photograph, two men working on a large baking machine.

'That was how it was in those days,' Jefferson Wiggins sighed. 'And that is how it still sometimes is today.' He wondered whether Europeans ever saw African Americans as equals. 'I am sure that our role in the liberation was appreciated, but without a gun, you were not considered a real liberator.'

Even though he was forced to sit in a dirty, segregated train wagon again when he got back home, by then he had been promoted to first lieutenant, he knew change was to come. 'We no longer accepted that we were treated as belonging to some kind of inferior human species. I think every Black American who had witnessed the war in Europe was determined to bring change upon coming home.' It was time for victory at home.