FIRST Witness: Remembering Margraten

 

Melanie Stengel

It was a quiet winter evening in 2009 when an unexpected phone call shattered the serenity of Jeff and Janice Wiggins’ life in New Fairfield.

Janice picked up the phone, and as she spoke with the unknown caller her husband heard her utter a word that made his stomach churn: “Margraten.”

It was a word that Jeff Wiggins had neither heard nor spoken for close to 65 years, not even to his wife of more than 40 years. It was a word that had come to represent a nightmare for the World War II veteran, a nightmare he thought he’d never have to revisit in the waking world.

In 1944, Jeff Wiggins was in Europe with the U.S. Army. An Alabama native whose parents were sharecroppers, he had lied about his age in order to enlist when he was only 16. Poor and often hungry, Wiggins joined up after a recruiter promised him three square meals a day. At 19, he was a first sergeant with the 960th Quartermaster Service Co., an all-black company in the still-segregated Army. In September 1944, the company was sent to the Netherlands to a small village with a population of about 1,300. That village was Margraten.

As they arrived in the village, the company’s white commander, William Solms, took Wiggins aside and told him why they had came to Margraten. A tract of farmland there was going to be turned into a massive graveyard for slain Allied soldiers; Wiggins and his company were going to dig the graves. As Wiggins toured the cemetery with Solms in a biting rain, the nature of their mission became chillingly apparent.

“It was almost like walking through zombieland,” he says now. “The first thing we saw was probably 300 or so dead soldiers lying out in the cold. It was a feeling and a sight that I’ll never forget.”

When Wiggins broke the news to the rest of his company, they were outraged; they were trained soldiers, they said. They hadn’t come all the way to Europe to be gravediggers.

Wiggins replied, “We’re either going to bury the dead or somebody’s going to bury us—what’s your choice?” He added, “These dead youngsters deserve nothing less than a decent burial. We’ve been assigned to do that, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

And that’s what they did. For three months Wiggins and his men worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Winter came early in 1944 and was unusually harsh. They dug with picks and shovels in the bitter cold. Each man was assigned to dig three graves a day, but the difficult conditions—thick clay sticking to the shovels, graves collapsing due to snow and rain—sometimes prevented them from reaching their goal. There were no coffins, so the dead were buried in mattress covers. Wiggins recalls he and his fellow soldiers treated their fallen countrymen with reverence and what dignity they could; they cried and prayed for the slain and conducted makeshift funerals. One man, Archie Johnson, sang hymns in honor of each fallen soldier. His favorite hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home,” soon became a standard in the graveyard. By the war’s end, 28,000 soldiers were buried at Margraten.

After leaving Margraten in late December, the 960th ran supplies during the Battle of the Bulge. It was more dangerous, says Wiggins, but less haunting work. After the war, he become an accomplished teacher and author and even wrote about his time in World War II, but never mentioned Margraten or what he’d done and witnessed there.

“Somewhere along the line, the word Margraten disappeared from my vocabulary,” he says.

Then the phone call came that evening in 2009 and everything Wiggins had tried so hard to forget over the years came rushing back. The call was from Mieke Kirkels, a member of the Fields of Margraten Foundation in the Netherlands, which was making a documentary about the cemetery.

At first Wiggins was angry that some unknown woman was digging into things about his past he had tried to bury. However, after speaking with Kirkels, his attitude gradually changed. He learned that he was the only known survivor of his company (which had numbered 280), and Kirkels convinced him that only he could tell the story of his company accurately.

A film crew traveled from the Netherlands to New Fairfield to interview Wiggins for Fields of Margraten: Bitter Harvest. His story was featured in the film, which was shown at last year’s Connecticut Film Festival in Danbury. Wiggins also returned to the Netherlands cemetery in 2009 to deliver the keynote address at a ceremony that marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the southern part of the Netherlands.

Janice Wiggins says that as she learned more about Margraten, she began to understand why Jeff didn’t talk about it. “Even now he hasn’t discussed some of the things he saw, all those bodies lined up,” she says. “They weren’t like bodies you’d find in a funeral home; these people had been shot and their bodies were not necessarily complete bodies. It was a very horrifying, very raw experience.”

Jeff Wiggins says that returning to Margraten and sharing his story has actually helped ease, though not erase, the pain of his memories of being there.

“Margraten taught me a lot about life and taught me also a lot about death,” he says. He adds that the horrors of war should never be buried. “In Margraten, dead soldiers came in every day—some with missing limbs, some shot in the head. It made you realize that war is evil and that civilized people are going to have to find a better way to settle their differences.”
 

FIRST Witness: Remembering Margraten

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