Friday, December 25, 2020

The day an American GI became Saint Nicholas

By William Haupt III | The Center Square

Little Mountain 5 | Wikimedia via Creative Commons

“Sometimes celebrating a special day together can bring peace to a world at war.”
– Harry Stutz

Photo: Richard Brookins as St Nick in a parade in Wiltz during WWII

It was the night before Christmas in the small Luxembourg town of Wiltz, as World War II paused one day. Throughout the town, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. But no stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Because of the war, the children had no hopes St. Nicholas would be there that Christmas.

As the children lay restlessly huddled in their beds, there were no sugarplum fairies dancing in their heads. The only thing within their heads was the continual sounds of the non-stop Nazi war machine instead. As they drifted off to sleep, they prayed for one gift on the next morrow’s Christmas Day: That Saint Nicholas would deliver peace and make all wars – forever go – far away.

Millions of battlefront children were victimized during World War II. They endured starvation, rationing, gas mask shortages, abuse and molestation while living with strangers and enemies they did not trust.

Children accounted for 10 percent of the deaths during WWII. The physical and emotional impact on battlefield children robbed them of their childhood. They only remember huddling in safe places to escape the bombing, the stench of the dead in the streets and the fear of being left all alone as they ran from one shelter to another. They never knew if they’d have food the next day, and who in their family would be the next to die. Each day was a living hell and they wondered why:

“Men who have no personal quarrel should be trained to murder one another in cold blood.”
– Aldous Huxley

The small town of Wiltz, Luxembourg, had been occupied by Germans for four years and was the object of brutal reprisals. Resisters were executed or sent to concentration camps. This hell on earth took a sabbatical in September 1944 before the town's liberation. The impoverished people had nothing to celebrate during the German occupation, especially Christmas.

But for a short while, that would change when the 112th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard was sent there to heal their battle-ridden bodies and bury their dead. They welcomed this opportunity after suffering heavy casualties during the battle of Huertgen Forest in Germany.

“None of us ever thought we’d ever like being stuck in pitch tents in the middle of Luxembourg in December.”
– Richard Brookins

For GIs stationed at Wiltz, the interim peace offered them a time to reflect on the yuletide holidays without the lethal sounds of war bereaving the serenity of Christmas. As Corporal Richard Brookins peered into the dim lights of the village, he saw dead plants on balconies in the ruins of demolished homes. There were remnants of store signs and street markers dotted with temporary food carts in the town square. But there was nary a sign of Christmas anywhere. Yet this town had celebrated every year with a St. Nicholas Day parade. Corporal Harry Stutz, a friend of Brookins’, turned to him and remarked: "Hey Dick! I think we should give this town a Christmas party, on St. Nicholas Day.”

Brookins agreed. “Yes, let’s make it happen. The children look so sad and it's Christmas time!”

For centuries, they celebrated on Dec. 5 on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, when a man dressed as St. Nick pranced through town giving the children treats. But they had not done this for five years and many kids had never seen St. Nick. With a little divine intervention, they persuaded Father Wolffe to lend them his cassock, cape, and miter hat. They fashioned a beard out of rope. Soldiers donated candy and the cooks baked cakes. But they had a big problem? Who was tall enough to wear the cassock? By default, Corporal Richard Brookins got the honor.

Photo: Corporal Richard Brookins

“I had never played Santa and didn’t want to wear those fancy robes and hat. But nobody else was the right size."
– Richard Brookins

Knowing the parade must be over by the time Sunday Mass started so Father Wolffe could retrieve his vestments, they arrived at Wiltz convent school in midmorning. The nuns helped Brookins dress in Father Wolffe's vestments. They made a train from an old cape that trailed behind him. Two girls dressed as angels were St. Nick’s helpers. This special holy trinity climbed into an army jeep ready to depart for the town square for the celebration. As Corporal Stutz put the jeep into gear, Father Wolffe blessed them.

"May God and the spirit of Saint Nicolas be with you always."
– Father Wolffe

Women and children along with men from the 28th Division lined the streets. One played songs on a guitar as children sang and danced. As the jeep arrived, the children’s faces glowed as bright as the star of Bethlehem! The American St. Nicholas greeted each child in broken German and dished out the tasty rations the soldiers provided. This newly ordained St. Nick made the sign of the cross and blessed each child as they told him what they wished St. Nick would bring them. After an hour, the trinity climbed back into the jeep and scurried back to the convent.

“When they said, Dick, you gotta do it for the kids, I didn’t know how much it would mean to all of us also.”
– Richard Brookins

When they returned to the convent, Mother Superior thanked Saint Nicholas: "The children are very happy. They will remember this as long as we all shall live." Saint Nicholas blessed his angles and Father Wolffe retrieved his robes in time for evening Mass. Brookins, remaining in character, turned to the church and made the sign of the cross. He climbed in the jeep and waved as it left for camp. For most of these children, this was the first and last time they’d see St. Nick in their shortened, war-filled lives. Two weeks later, Wiltz was decimated. Over half of its inhabitants were killed. Wiltz was in the center of the Battle of the Bulge that totally annihilated almost every town within its warpath.

Everyone in Luxembourg celebrates St. Nicholas Day, but Wiltz’s St. Nicolas is an American. Each year, someone is chosen to be “American Saint Nicholas.” And he goes through the town greeting children and giving treats. The celebration ends before mass at the convent. Brookins returned in 1977 and 2009 to be their GI St. Nick again. 

At 92 in 2014, he was St. Nick on the 70th anniversary of the GIs sharing their love with the terror-stricken, war-torn children of Wiltz. As an ailing Richard Brookins left the convent for the last time, he turned back to face the tearing crowd. Sill in character, the forever loved American St. Nick raised his hand toward heaven. While making the sign of the cross he said,

“God Bless you on St. Nicholas Day from every GI in America.”
– Richard Brookins

It was more than a party for the children in 1944. It was an act of love and kindness to help temper the pains of occupation and the brutality of the executions deeply ingrained in the people of Wiltz. Seven decades later, the impression it made on Wiltz is forever lasting. It was a benevolent act at a time most needed. It was a bestowal of brotherly love from American GIs, who had ventured so far from the security of their country to dethrone an atrocious, heinous dictator and deliver freedom to the doorsteps of Wiltz. These GIs gave them a gift that keeps on giving: America sharing its liberty with the world.

“There's something about an American soldier you can't explain.”
– Marlene Dietrich

Saint Pope John Paul told the world one Christmas: “War is a terrible thing and the children suffer most.” These GIs felt the pain of the battle-worn children of Wiltz and brought love and joy into their war-shortened lives. They gave them the best Christmas they ever had. These altruistic GIs proved “it is not difficult to bring people together on one special day a year.”

Brookins died Oct. 11, 2018, at the age of 96.

To this day, the people of Wiltz place flowers on the graves of the GIs who gave their lives during the Battle of the Bulge. A Merry Christmas to every GI who has gifted the world with liberty from every free world country! And on this special day let us all remember:

“Above all, the soldier prays for peace.”
– General Douglas MacArthur

William Haupt III Contributing Columnist William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.