War can sometimes bring out the best in people: Such was the case when Corporal Richard Brookins, 28th Signal Company, 28th Inf. Div., agreed to play the role of St. Nicholas for the children of Wiltz, Luxembourg seventy-eight years ago today! Here is his story:
After suffering heavy casualties in the Hürtgen Forest in November, the 28th “Bloody Bucket” Infantry Division was taken out of the fighting and put in the relatively quiet sector of Luxembourg, with the divisional headquarters based in Wiltz. During that time, soldiers got to know members of the town, and the story goes that Cpl. Harry Stutz, after talking to key civilians, had the idea to have St. Nicholas pay a visit to the children of Luxembourg, as they had just lived more than four years under German occupation.
Stutz, an encryptionist with the Signal Company, worked with local townspeople and even won the approval of the 28th Division’s CO, General Norman Cota to organize a visit from St. Nicholas. Cota saw it as an opportunity to do good in the community and to boost troop morale. Traditionally, St. Nicholas arrives the night of 5/6 December, so the children wake up with gifts on 6 December. However, it was agreed that the celebration would fall on Tuesday, 5 December—one day earlier than normal in December 1944.
Signal Company cooks agreed to bake sweets for the children, but Stutz, who was Jewish, still needed to find a soldier to portray St. Nicholas. After an initial refusal, he was finally able to convince and recruit his roommate and fellow Signal Company encryptionist, Richard Brookins, to assume the role.
On Tuesday, 5 December, Cpl. Brookins, with the help of the local church and townspeople, donned a St. Nicholas costume, climbed into a jeep and drove through the town, accompanied by two young girls dressed as angels. The procession ended at the Château de Wiltz, where American G.I.s and Wiltz townspeople celebrated together. For a brief moment both could enjoy the peace of Christmastime. Of course, Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive would be launched on 16 December, and Wiltz would be heavily destroyed—largely by American bombings—as the U.S. pushed the Germans back in late December / January.
As luck would have it, two combat cameramen were in Wiltz and saw the jeep driving around. They grabbed their gear and photographed the events, leaving a lasting document.
The Post-War Years
The citizens of Wiltz never forgot this act of kindness. Beginning in 1947, they re-enacted the arrival of the American St. Nicholas every year for the local children.
1977 and Beyond
With the 30th anniversary of the reenactment approaching, a small cadre of citizens sought to do something special: They hoped to find the original G.I. and other participants and to invite them to return to participate in the parade. Through determination and luck this succeeded, and Brookings returned to participate in the ceremony that year, along with Harry Stutz and other participants in the 1944 events.
In total, Brookins would return to Wiltz six times, with his last trip being in 2014, just four years before his death in October 2018.
The Story is not Forgotten
Peter Lion, a journalist who worked with Richard’s son, Terry Brookins, would hear the story and became fascinated with it. He would ultimately research it and write a book titled “American St. Nick: The TRUE story of how a handful of American soldiers brought Christmas back to a small war-torn town during the darkest days of WWII.”
On YouTube today, you can view the original footage, the movie and numerous interviews. In the links below I’ve included an interview with Peter Lion by battlefield guide and historian Paul Woodadge.
This is one war story where the actions of a relatively small group of American G.I.s did a world of good to the residents of Wiltz Luxembourg in the midst of a terrible war. 78 years later, it’s worth remembering what an act of compassion can do!
The original 1944 footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlMWg6S3dlk
The American St. Nick Movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPV7uV4xXwA
The interview with Paul Woodadge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xih68zNLhh0