Omaha Beach. Utah Beach. Sword Beach. Juno Beach. Gold Beach.
70 years ago, on June 6th, 1944, thousands upon thousands of American soldiers came to Europe for the first time, up these “beaches” into Normandy. And over the next few months, thousands followed behind them for the push into Germany.
Like newborn ducklings, the students follow their teacher single file up the road. On bicycles, of course. Each student wears a bright orange vest announcing that they are on a day trip away from their local middle school. Rolling wheat fields surround them on all sides as they turn in at the manicured drive. In the background can be heard the occasional squawk of a crow and the lowing of distant cows. Farm country. As they get closer, the sound of American and Dutch flags cracking in the wind announce that class is about to begin.
“Hello, I’m glad you’re here. I knew you would come, and I’m impressed that you found my grave. They all look so much alike. More than 8,000 men who fought in the Second World War are buried here, and I am one of them. If they all could tell you the experiences they’ve had, you’d hear a lot of different stories. But today you’ve come to hear my story; to hear about my life from the time I was born to the moment I was laid in this grave.”
The students’ teacher, Laur Rutten, is on a mission. His goal, his “ultimate challenge,” as he put it to me, is to get these children to grow up as “citizens who feel responsible for a peaceful world.” With that challenge in mind, he brings his Dutch 7th and 8th graders to this cemetery every year. The Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten.
“After high school I started dating a girl named Marion, whose parents were also Irish. . . . Even with my small salary we were able to save some money and then get married in 1941. We’d been dating 7 years and knew each other well. We were very happy, especially when our daughter Gerry was born in March 1942. . . . I left out of New York with 2000 other soldiers to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a big ship. . . . The beaches of Normandy, where the Allied troops began the liberation of Europe, are now named after various American states and cities, such as Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. I arrived in France in February 1945 with my division, the Second Division of the 38th Infantry Regiment.”
Rutten wrote a eulogy in three parts. Three segments of a day-long lesson. He spent countless hours researching and interviewing, phoning and writing, and weaved together the life of David Conway, out of Massachusetts, killed on April 14, 1945, just weeks before the end of the European war.
“In the morning we got up early and got ready to leave for Leipzig. We hadn’t yet gone a kilometer before we were facing enemy fire. Everyone ran for cover. In the crossfire that followed, the freight truck I was hiding in was hit. A lot of things ran through my mind all at once. I thought of my mother, my father, my brothers, my friends at school, and all the nice and sad things I had experienced. Last I thought of my wife and little girl. I was badly wounded. No one could help me because they were all as badly hurt as I was. Marion and Gerry would have to live on without me.”
Rutten wrote the eulogy in the voice of the dead soldier, who tells the students of his life, his family, his marriage, his new-born daughter. He tells of the war. The dangers. And, ultimately, of his own death.
“You are now standing at my grave, but soon you’ll return to home or school, to your family or friends. That seems normal, but it is something special. We can only enjoy this peace because of those who were prepared to come and fight for it. I was one of them. When I was born, that was my mother’s wish. Her wish came true. My wish for you is to live a long and happy life. But at the same time I hope you’ll understand that peace on earth is much more than what it says on a Christmas card.”
As they circle the grave at the end of class, the young Dutch students remain transfixed. Faces down, tears trailing on cheeks, they stand in silent reflection.
“It’s a start,” Rutten says.
The old couple sit as solid as the stone bench on which they rest. They look out over a bumper crop of marble crosses and stars of David. The sun shines bright and hot on this spring day. The couple doesn’t flinch. They know weather, good and bad. Their faces are open, friendly, looking with anticipation as my wife and I approach. They’re from Pennsylvania. Edna and Dave.
They take us to the grave where Dave tells us his story.
“My father, Harold Wray, went by the name of ‘Huck.’ It’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow. Of course I was a small boy when he died. My mother, I was told, went through a deep depression. As a small boy, I couldn’t figure out why other family’s dads were coming back and mine wasn’t. Finally, when I was about six, my mother had this wooden box with all the letters and the flag and she said we’re going to go through this . . . and then she put it away. . . . She only lived to be 37. Then I got the box.”
Edna’s eyes begin to glisten.
“Several years ago a man approached me at our small church in Pennsylvania. He had noticed my last name and wondered if I knew a “Huck Wray.” It turns out he and my dad had been best of friends since they shipped to England. They were both blown up by the same bomb. He ended up in the hospital.”
“First time I came over here was 1968. There was an ad in the paper, for next of kin. KLM flew us over here. That was really something. Very special.”
“Did you notice all the John Deere’s they have doing the cutting at the cemetery? They keep it spotless. It is an honor to these men.”
“See how his name is almost golden. They have sand from the Omaha Beach. They have fine sand and wipe it on there. It gives it a gold cast.”
“We hope to bring our son Jim over to see this. He wants to come so bad. Him and his wife . . . . We’ll see how we hold up.” Dave clears his throat.
Edna leans in to adjust Dave’s shirt. They stand as one. A family picture is taken — Dave, Edna, and Huck.
Jeff Wiggins appears to have lived a life of teaching and community service from what I can tell from my readings. An exemplary life. He was an outspoken advocate for different races and religions to coexist and learn from each other. He was an author and a leader. But, for all that, he never spoke about a time when he was 18 years old. Even to his wife of over 40 years. It was as if the months spent in Holland in the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945 never existed.
Wiggins was one of 280 African-American soldiers assigned to dig graves at Margraten.
“We need to remember that in World War II there were two armies. One army was white and one army was black. They had chosen not to use us in combat and gave us the tasks that nobody wanted to do.” Wiggins spoke for the first time on television and in newspaper interviews in his home state of Connecticut after being discovered by a Dutch author and documentary director in 2009.
Wiggins reported that he was unfamiliar with death as an eighteen year old. Suddenly, he was burying three bodies a day. 28,000 soldiers were laid to rest at Margraten in 1944 and 1945.
Wiggins did not want to remember this time. However, after being discovered as the last surviving gravedigger, he was compelled to change his mind: “If these 28,000 can’t escape where they are, I have no right to escape their memory. There is a price to be paid for war. In spite of all that we hear, there is no glamour. There is suffering and death.”
“When I first arrived, I had to dig a grave with someone with the same last name as me. I was 18 years old. I was a country boy never been to the big city. I saw this name ‘Wiggins’ and the first thing that came to my mind is this all a dream? Am I in that grave?”
And, as this picture of the Margraten gravediggers shows, they were.
Jeff Wiggins and his fellow gravediggers laid to rest many an Iowa boy in Margraten. Every burial was done with dignity and honor in spite of the harsh conditions, according to Wiggins. He recalled another gravedigger who decided to sing an old spiritual after every grave was dug. Soon the song was echoing over the burial grounds as the dead arrived by the hundreds. “Lord, I’m coming home.”
Jeff Wiggins can be found today in the Mountainview Cemetery, New Fairfield, Connecticut.
On this 70th anniversary, may they all rest in peace.