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Dutch Embassy Remembers Forgotten World War II African American Liberators

By  Diana Oxner

On Feb. 6, the Embassy of the Netherlands marked the 75th anniversary of Dutch liberation from Nazi occupation in World War II by highlighting a lesser-known story of America’s involvement in that liberation: the 172 African American soldiers who died in the war and are buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.

Despite being officially neutral, the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. At first the occupation was not as harsh as it was in countries such as Poland, but eventually conditions deteriorated, with the country plunging into famine in 1944 and the majority of its Jewish population deported to extermination camps.

Meanwhile, despite ongoing segregation in Jim Crow America, roughly 125,000 African Americans fought overseas in World War II — a contribution that for years has been overlooked in the annals of history.

But Dutch and American historians are trying to change that. For those 172 African American soldiers who perished, their graves at the Margraten cemetery have been adopted by Dutch residents, who lay flowers on them as a way of expressing their gratitude for the soldiers’ efforts to expunge the violent racism of Nazi Germany before going back home to face their own fight against discrimination, according to Dutch Embassy Defense Attaché Air Commodore Paul Herber and Sebastiaan Vonk, a historian with the Black Liberators Project, both of whom spoke at the Feb. 6 event.

African American Liberators, World War II, James Baldwin, Paul Herber
Dutch Embassy Defense Attaché Paul Herber, left, and Deputy Chief of Mission Heleen Bakker, right, present James Baldwin a certificate of appreciation for his role in the liberation of the Netherlands during World War II. Photos: Diana Oxner 

Also at the event was 95-year-old James Baldwin, one of the few remaining African American soldiers who fought in World War II. Baldwin, who was only 19 when he landed in occupied France, humanized the uphill battle that African Americans faced trying to serve their country. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that black soldiers should only serve in non-combat roles.

“We wanted to prove we could fight,” recalled Baldwin. “I said I know I am black and they are white. We are going to fight the same enemy. Now why the difference?”

Baldwin said that his all-black 784th Tank Battalion freed 23 cities in three days. “To know I had a role in the liberation of Holland means a lot.”

Despite soldiers of color serving with distinction, these soldiers were often segregated from their white counterparts in battalions, housing and even canteens.

Tyler Bamford, a research fellow at the National World War II Museum, noted that black soldiers also faced discrimination at the hands of their superiors.

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The flattened city of Rotterdamn is seen after a German bombing during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands on May 1940. Photos: U.S. Defense Visual Information Center 

“The army believed white southerners were best qualified to command black troops by virtue of their experience growing up in the segregated South,” said Bamford. “In practice, many white officers resented the assignment and took opportunities to denigrate and abuse African American soldiers.”

Ric Murphy from the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society pointed out that African American soldiers “came from the segregated South, predominately. Many of them went into battle so they could be treated like men and come up with certain dignities. And they went to a foreign land, to fight a foreign war, to liberate foreign people for their liberty, and many of them who survived came back to a segregated South.”

Murphy said members of the Black Liberators Project and Dutch historians have been working to uncover the story of these forgotten soldiers. Researchers have thus far found the relatives of 24 soldiers. “We are determined to find each and every one of the families” of these patriots, Murphy said.

One of those family members was in attendance at the Dutch Embassy. LaVonne Taliaferro-Bunch’s great, great uncle Lynwood Taliaferro was killed in the Netherlands on March 31, 1945. His body now rests at Margraten, which Defense Attaché Herber described as “hallowed grounds.”

“For many, this is an unknown story — not only here but in the Netherlands,” he said. “We want everyone to know the Netherlands has not forgotten the efforts of these heroes.”

To that end, Herber gave Baldwin a certificate of appreciation for his service. For his 100th birthday, Baldwin said he plans to visit Margraten to see his old friends one last time.

Diana Oxner is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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