Over 1.2 million Black men enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. They fought a war for democracy overseas – and a war against discrimination and segregation within the armed forces. They were often assigned to labor and service units, and not to the positions for which they had trained. Despite the discrimination, they served their country with honor and valor.
One of these units was the 960th Quartermaster Service Company, activated on August 5, 1943, at Camp Phillips, Kansas. The Company included three white officers and 276 enlisted Black men. The 960th moved equipment and supplies throughout the war, dug ditches and performed other manual labor. They traveled from place to place providing vital functions to infantry troops. In March 1944, they arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, and helped run a depot, gathering supplies for the D-day invasion. They did not participate in that invasion but moved from France to the Netherlands, providing additional supplies for troops.
By the time the 960th arrived in the Netherlands, the country had already been liberated, and there were many casualties. In late October 1944, a location was chosen for a new cemetery in Margraten, and road construction began for the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. The 960th was under the command of Captain William O. Solms when they received orders to dig graves and bury deceased soldiers sent to the newly created cemetery. They didn’t know how long this new assignment would last or the breadth of the monumental task before them. The Battle of the Bulge and the Battles of the Ruhr and the Rhine left thousands of casualties, and the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial became the final resting place for many of those servicemen.
Jefferson Wiggins, an 18-year-old first sergeant in the 960th Quartermaster Service Company, along with the other 276 men, didn’t receive any specific training for this task. According to Wiggins they were “handed a pick and shovel and told to dig three graves per day.” These graves were six feet deep, six feet long, and three feet wide. One can only imagine the daily physical, mental, and emotional toll of burying the deceased, especially when they weren’t even allowed to sit in the same room with these servicemen when they were alive. Nevertheless, the 960th laid each soldier to rest respectfully.
They kept digging graves and burying young men for three months, even in harsh winter conditions, never taking a day off. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, the men had dug over 20,000 graves in this cemetery. The casualties were so overwhelming that a call went out to the people of the town. The mayor went door to door, calling on villagers for help. By wars end many villagers contributed to the grave digging project and over 28,000 servicemen were buried in the cemetery.
Wiggins was promoted to Second Lieutenant by General Patton. He became one of the first Black officers in the U.S. Army. He also served in the Korean War and received a promotion to First Lieutenant. After returning, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and studied political science at Tennessee State University. In the 1960s he was a director of social services at a college in New Jersey. For 65 years, Wiggins didn’t tell anyone about his experiences at Margraten. Not even his closest family members knew that Wiggins helped bury over 20,000 men.
To celebrate “65 Years of Liberation” (a national project in the Netherlands), researchers started working on a documentary. They gathered information from officers, farmers who saw the cemetery being built, and others. When they tried to find men from the 960th, they came up empty-handed. Word of the project reached Wiggins and he quickly realized that he was the only one left to tell the story.
When asked what he hoped people would learn about Margraten, Wiggins replied, “I’m not concerned about them learning what I did, I am concerned about them learning about what American soldiers did.” Author, Mieke Kirkels documented Wiggins experiences in From Alabama to Margraten.
Beginning in 1945, families in the Netherlands began a project to adopt a grave in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. In a tradition that continues today, families care for and visit the grave multiple times a year often on holidays or anniversaries. Many of the Dutch families have cared for the same grave since WWII and pass down the responsibility to their descendants. Even though they didn’t know the soldier, they carry them in their heart and try to learn more about him. Some have contacted relatives in the U.S. and built relationships with them, even meeting them at the cemetery. In those moments, hearts are knit together in love and appreciation for these soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In 1945, the 960th was decorated by the Ninth Army with this citation:
“The 960th Quartermaster Service Company for superior execution of duty in the performance of exceptionally difficult tasks. From 11 February 1945 to 13 April 1945, the 960th Quartermaster Service Company rendered meritorious service in the accomplishment of its numerous duties on the continent. Throughout this period, this unit achieved and maintained a high standard of discipline and demonstrated superior performance in every duty it was assigned. The conduct of the 960th Quartermaster Service Company is in keeping with the high traditions of the military service.”
The citation was published in the unit’s operational report, but over time knowledge of the award was forgotten and only rediscovered in 2007, when the current commander of the 960th was researching the unit’s history and found mention of it. The citation has now been added to the unit’s official lineage.
Thank you to the 960th Quartermaster Service Company. We are grateful for their service and nobility in honoring over 20,000 soldiers, laboring to dig their graves, and burying them with honor and respect. Despite facing discrimination, segregation, and the horrors of war, these young men fought with valor and honor.