Wereth, Belgium, is a tiny hamlet near the German border where, during the Battle of the Bugle in 1944, 11 black American soldiers were captured by German troops. The story of the 11 men would probably have remained buried in a dusty file in the National Archives if not for the efforts of a Belgian man who was 12 years old at the time. (Natalie Hill / for USA Today)
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By the time Army Capt. William Everett examined the 11 bodies, they had been on the frozen ground for more than a month, covered only by a shroud of snow.
“On 15 February 1945, I personally examined the bodies of the American Negro soldiers listed below,” Everett wrote. In a single-spaced, one-page memo, the assistant regimental surgeon chronicled their wounds. Most had been killed by blows to the head with a blunt instrument, probably a rifle stock. They had been stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. The finger of one man was almost completely severed. The soldiers had been shot multiple times.
There was little time to pursue justice. The Allies were advancing on Germany, and the European war was drawing to a close. “The perpetrators were undoubtedly SS enlisted men, but available testimony is insufficient to establish definite unit identification,” the report concluded. The investigation was closed and marked secret.
Back in the USA, the wives and parents of the 11 soldiers received letters saying their husband or son had died in combat. Most went to their graves believing that.
Nearly 70 years later, as another Veterans Day approaches Monday, the mystery of what happened to the 11 men in Wereth, Belgium, is unraveling, revealing a remarkable tale that has shed new light on the contribution of black Americans in World War II’s European theater. The story of the 11 men would probably have remained buried in a dusty file in the National Archives if not for the efforts of a Belgian man who was a 12-year-old boy when he saw the 11 Americans marched out of the tiny hamlet by a handful of SS soldiers. Unable to forget that image, in 1994, he quietly placed a cross on the site where the black Americans were brutally murdered. From there, a network of amateur historians, relatives of the soldiers and military officers worked to uncover what had taken place.
Thanks to those efforts, families have learned for the first time that their relatives were killed in a war crime. “It was overwhelming to know,” said Renna Leatherwood, who is married to the grandson of Jimmie Leatherwood, one of the men killed at Wereth.
Regina Benjamin, the former U.S. surgeon general, whose uncle was a member of the same battalion and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, said, “These 11 guys deserve to be remembered.”
Battle of the Bulge
On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched a furious offensive aimed at punching a hole in Allied lines. They concentrated their efforts on a wooded area near the Germany-Belgium border that was defended by an American division untested by combat.
Supporting the 106th Division was the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-black unit. Unlike the inexperienced outfit it supported, the battalion consisted of combat veterans who prided themselves on being able to pick off German tanks at great distances with their 155mm howitzers.
The 106th Division was overrun in what was one of the worst American defeats of the war. Many of its members would join columns of American prisoners marched back to Germany, said Norman Lichtenfeld, a Mobile, Ala., physician who has helped lead efforts to uncover the story of the 11 men. Among the prisoners were the black soldiers in the 333rd.
Benjamin said her uncle described hearing the German advance as tanks rumbled through the woods, driving right up on to American positions. “All of a sudden, the earth started shaking,” she said.
The unit was decimated. “We were all either killed or captured,” said George Shomo, 92, a veteran of the 333rd who lives in Tinton Falls, N.J.
Eleven members of the 333rd managed to escape. For hours, they trudged through waist-deep snow, staying away from roads and hoping to avoid German patrols. They carried only two weapons.
Exhausted and hungry, the men stumbled upon the tiny Belgian farming hamlet of Wereth shortly before dusk. They were waving a white flag, recalls Tina Heinrichs-Langer, who at the time was 17 years old.
Tina’s father, Mathias Langer, didn’t hesitate to offer help. He invited the men into his home, seating them at the family’s rustic kitchen table, where he gave the grateful soldiers hot coffee and bread.
Harboring the Americans was a risky move for the Langer family. Wereth was a town of divided loyalties. It had been part of Germany before World War I, and some of its residents still identified themselves as German.
But Mathias Langer was unwavering in his support of the Allies. He hid deserters from the German army and sent his own sons away to avoid having them conscripted.
Captured by SS
The men hadn’t finished eating when a military vehicle pulled up to the house. The Americans knew there was nowhere to go and may also have wanted to save the Langers from trouble. They emerged from the house with their hands up.
A couple of German soldiers, members of the Waffen SS, entered the Langer home to make sure no one was hiding. Then they ordered the 11 Americans to sit on the damp ground behind the house. It was growing dark, and the men began shivering.
Mathias Langer asked the Germans if the Americans could wait somewhere warmer. The Germans scoffed, saying the men would warm up when they started running.
Tina and her younger brother Hermann watched as the exhausted men ran with the German soldiers following in their vehicle. It would be the last time they saw the Americans alive.
In the following weeks, the villagers huddled in their homes while fighting raged around them. It was the last gasp for the Germans, as their enemies closed in on them.
By early February, the fighting had subsided enough for people to venture out. Mathias and his wife, Maria, were walking to church when they saw hands emerging from the ground. The snow had receded, and the bodies were visible where they had been slaughtered, not far from the family home.
The villagers reported the bodies, prompting an investigation.
Over the years, the massacre was rarely discussed in the village. The people in the war-ravaged area simply wanted to get on with their lives, said Anne-Marie Noel-Simon, president of the Wereth memorial organization.
But Hermann, the young boy who had seen the Nazis march the men off, never did shake the vision. “He saw the fear in the eyes of the soldiers,” Noel-Simon said of Hermann, who died this year.
In 1996, more than 50 years after the killing, Hermann Langer quietly placed a cross at the site of the massacre, a cow pasture, and sought the names of the 11 Americans his father had sheltered for a short time before their death.
“Hermann never thought it was right that no one remembered those men,” Lichtenfeld said. “He never forgot it.”
In 2001, Lichtenfeld, whose father was a Battle of the Bulge veteran, helped a small group of Belgians from the area raise funds to purchase the property and build a larger memorial.
Lichtenfeld’s interest in the story dated to 1994, when he accompanied his father to the Belgian battlefield and stumbled across the small Wereth memorial. A World War II buff, he was surprised to learn of the role of black soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge and set out to learn all he could about their role.
For at least the past decade, there has been a ceremony each year in the spring, attracting Americans, Belgians and Germans to the memorial.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell, a guest speaker at one ceremony, said, “We owe a lot to the Langer family.”
An unmarked grave
In the USA, starting in the 1990s, amateur historians and the families of World War II veterans caught wind of the story and began seeking out relatives and descendants of the men. Several years ago, one amateur historian, Joe Small, financed a documentary film about the carnage.
It was too late for the parents and wives of the men, but their children and grandchildren are discovering the role their relatives played in the war and the details of their death.
The body of Pfc. Jimmie Lee Leatherwood, who was 22 when he was killed in Wereth, was returned to a cemetery near Pontotoc, Miss., in 1947. His body lay for decades in an unmarked grave. Families were often too poor to buy a gravestone, and it was not uncommon for African-American veterans at that time to have difficulty in claiming benefits.
Last year, local supporters and Leatherwood’s family unveiled an engraved headstone with a short description of how he was killed.
In Piedmont, W.Va., locals led by T.J. Coleman, an Air Force veteran, have dug into the background of James Stewart, who went by his middle name, Aubrey. They’ve discovered letters he sent home, including one to his mother urging her not to worry and telling her the money he sent home was for her to spend as she saw fit.
The story of Stewart’s service has inspired the community, said Richard “Preston” Green, a nephew of Stewart who lives in Ohio. “Once that came to light, they really understood what patriotism is,” he said. “They were proud.”
Historians disagree over whether the Waffen SS killed the men because they were black. The Germans killed 80 prisoners of war the day of the Wereth killings. The Malmedy massacre, as it came to be known, captured headlines worldwide and ultimately led to war crime trials.
“I don’t think it was as much about racism as these guys had to get to the Meuse River,” said Robert Hudson, whose father fought with the 333rd during the Battle of the Bulge. “I just don’t think they could afford to take prisoners.”
The torture and disfigurement of the bodies suggest a different motive. “There is no doubt in my mind that race had something to do with it,” said David Zabecki, a retired Army major general and military historian. “You can never forget the twisted racial ideology of the Third Reich.”
Hermann Langer was surprised that the story attracted worldwide attention. The memorial services have grown larger with each passing year, attracting top U.S. military brass.
“He never expected it to get so big,” said Marion Freyaldenhoven, a granddaughter of Matthias Langer. “It was just to get him some peace.”