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Kindness of American Saint Nick remembered

By Gena Somra, CNN
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American St. Nick in Luxembourg
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In WWII Dick Brookins dressed as Saint Nick for kids in Luxembourg town
  • The American Saint Nick became one of Wiltz's favorite stories
  • Thirty years later, Brookins asked to revive his role
  • Now on possibly his last visit the story gives him perspective on why the war was fought
RELATED TOPICS
  • Christmas
  • World War II

(CNN) -- A small town in Luxembourg once destroyed by fierce fighting remembers one of the bright moments in the dark of World War II -- a visit from Saint Nick.

For Dick Brookins, a U.S. soldier standing in for an absent Saint Nicholas, it was to change his life also and help him find some meaning for the war in Europe.

Sixty five years after he first donned the flowing robe, the miter hat, and the white fluffy beard to become St. Nicholas, Brookins chuckles as he remembers his reluctance to assume his now memorable role.

It was a cold and dreary December 1944. Brookins was a lanky 22-year-old American Corporal fresh from battle.

And Wiltz, a tiny town in Luxembourg ravaged by war welcomed the weary soldiers who had helped liberate their town from occupation.

It was to be a brief respite for the U.S. troops, before pressing on to their next offensive. And the last thing on Brookins' mind was a Christmas party.

But the decision Brookins found in front of him wasn't which hill to climb, or what position to take in battle. It was whether or not he would agree to play the part of Europe's Santa Claus.

He sheepishly says he wishes now he hadn't told anyone about his fear.

With a wry smile he recalls being worried that he would be teased by his fellow troops if he agreed to dress the part. But he was equally afraid of disappointing the young children of Wiltz.

In the end it was an earnest plea from fellow soldier Harry Stuts that won him over.

"I finally said yes because he was my friend and he said, 'I really need ya. "

That need Brookins said, sprung from his friend's desire to bring a little bit of happiness back to a town that had suffered greatly during World War II.

"They were children, just like our kids at home." Brookins recalled. "And some of them had never even seen St. Nick at all."

For hundreds of years, Wiltz had celebrated the Christmas season with visits from St. Nicholas, who would bestow gifts, sweets and chocolates to boys and girls.

But four years of German occupation had meant four years without a traditional Christmas parade, and four years without a visit from St. Nick.

"So, Harry had this idea for a party. And we asked all of our G.I. friends to provide us with candy and stuff so we could give it to the kids. We had no toys, but it just grew until it was a town affair," Brookins said.

"We were doing our jobs, we were soldiers, and we were happy to be able to put on a party for little children. It was as good for us as it was for them"

I had no idea that 65 years later these people would still be trying to express their gratitude for what had happened.
--WWII vet Dick Brookins

For Brookins, that party was just a small gesture he and his fellow soldiers made while resting, before moving on to the next battle front in the allied march toward Berlin.

That battle would be the Battle of the Bulge, a turning point in the war, but a clash that resulted in more than 80,000 U.S. casualties and left the village of Wiltz in ruins.

Some of Brookins' own unit were lost in the fighting and some of his closest friends laid to rest alongside more than 5,000 others in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg.

As the war moved Brookins and his unit onward, there was little time to think about his friend Stuts' spontaneous gesture and its lasting effect on the people of Wiltz.

But 30 years after World War II ended, Brookins got an unexpected phone call at his home in Rochester, New York state. On the other end of the line, a request for Brookins to reprise his role as St. Nicholas.

That fateful day in December 1944 had became a cherished moment for a town that had lost so much. "It represented their return to freedom, and the restoration of their life," he said.

And year after year, the people of Wiltz had faithfully honored the day the man known as "American St. Nick," had come to town.

Hearing the news, Brookings remembers, "I was just dumbfounded."

Once again, Brookins found himself again in the miter hat, the flowing robes, and the white fluffy beard handing out sweets to a new generation of Wiltz's children.

Since then he has returned again and again to smiling faces, hugs, and family snapshots with children who rush to greet him.

And now at age 87, on what could be his final pilgrimage to Wiltz, he still seems amazed at his lasting legacy.

"I had no idea of the significance of it had, no idea of the difference we had made. I had no idea that 65 years later these people would still be trying to express their gratitude for what had happened.

"I am proud of that, and I am proud of the guys that worked on it, and I'm proud of what my country did for this country.

"One of my buddies always wondered if the people of Luxembourg or other countries we helped ever really cared about the sacrifice we made. But when we came back to Luxembourg and we received the attention and the obvious care we have experienced here... I guess it was all worth it.' "

As Brookins entered the town square for this year's parade, a simple reminder of how much it was worth it for the town of Wiltz too.

"Can I have your autograph?" a smiling stranger asked the now aging World War II vet as he stepped off the army jeep to greet the growing crowd.

"I grew up listening to my grandmother tell me stories about you."

 
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