Willie F. Williams
Willie was born on January 20, 1921 in Sumter County, Georgia. He died in Europe in June 1945. His widow, Effie Payne, was left behind with three small children.
She did not have the money for a burial at home, so she did not let him repatriate from the Netherlands where he was buried at the American cemetery in Margraten. Effie remarried. Gradually nothing was said about Willie. In a blue suitcase under her bed, Effie kept photos and documents about her first husband.
Years later, after her death, that briefcase led her grandson David McGhee from Connecticut in 2016 to the grave of his forgotten grandfather Willie Frank Williams.
David McGhee grew up with two mysteries. One was his grandmother's blue suitcase full of things nobody came close to. The other mystery was his real grandfather. David vaguely knew something about a grandfather who fell in Europe during the Second World War.
One day, he was about nine years old, he caught a glimpse of a picture in his grandmother's briefcase. Grandma was looking for something in that briefcase and in the photo that David saw was a young couple. David asked his grandmother who they were. Grandma said it was a picture of her parents. Then she quickly closed the briefcase again. That was never mentioned again. The briefcase was kept and guarded under her bed. Only she knew what was in it. Even her three children had no idea. Effie rarely spoke about their father.
David remained curious about that briefcase, and when his grandmother died, it was the only legacy he claimed. He, in turn, kept it for years in his basement. When he finally decided to seriously study its contents, he smelled terribly stale when he opened it. Not surprising, after being locked in a basement for 20 years.
The first thing David got out of it was an award his grandfather, Sergeant Willie F. Williams, received for his merits as a soldier during the Second World War. For David it was as if he had opened a treasure chest. A wealth of information about his grandfather Willie. He discovered, for example, that Willie had served in Europe and eventually died in Germany, on 4 June 1945. Among the documents that David studied were letters that his grandmother had received from the army until her death. There were photos, honors, medals. And also Western Union telegrams, including that about his grandfather's death. David's grandfather had a particularly beautiful and precise handwriting and during his service he drew meticulously parts of German bombs and maps. For David, that was the confirmation of the brief stories about grandfather, who had been a very precise, accurate student before leaving for Europe. The briefcase also contained a handwritten letter from Sergeant Williams to his wife from "Somewhere" in Germany.
The documents that David studied made it clear that his grandfather had served in an African-American unit in charge of storing ammunition and explosives. He also discovered that his grandfather had died in an explosion. The documents in the briefcase did not answer one question. Where was his grandfather buried? David looked for an answer to that question and started an investigation on the Internet.
After Sgt. Willie Williams died on 4 June 1945, he is buried in Margraten. David discovered that little piece of unknown history soon after typing his grandfather's name on the computer. He ended up at www.Fieldsofhonor-database.com and there he found a lot of information about Willie. David was brought into contact with oral historian Mieke Kirkels through Sebastiaan Vonk of this organization. Not long after, he and his wife Nancy were on a plane on their way to the Netherlands. They attended the annual Memorial Day ceremony. Willie's grave is one of the nearly 8300 graves at the American cemetery in Margraten, South Limburg, and one of "the 172 African Americans" buried there. Just like the other graves in this American cemetery, that of Willie F. Williams is "adopted". The adopters of Willie's grave are Mr. and Mrs. Smeets who live in the region and who give flowers on special occasions.
When grandson David was in the Netherlands he visited his grandfather's grave with the Smeets family and was invited by them at home. When he arrived there, David saw a photograph of his grandfather, Sgt. Willie Williams. 'Going to a country far away and being greeted by family there? That's amazing, "said David after returning home.
Hear his story on NPR link.