The bodies of eleven American soldiers were found in a field in Belgium during the last winter of World War II. Their eyes had been gouged out while they were still alive, they had tire tracks from being run over by armored cars. The bullet wounds on their bodies were placed to cause suffering and not to kill. The bodies also showed stab wounds, wounds caused by being hit with rifle butts, severed fingers, broken bones, and fractured skulls.
The soldiers had been members of the 333rd Field Army Battalion. They were known for their accurate aim in battle. Their story has been ignored by the US for seventy years.
In 1949, the US Senate released an official report that listed a dozen other massacres similar to the Wereth 11, as they became known, but didn’t feel the need to mention the eleven men found in that Belgian field.
A new book is out, and it tells their tale. It’s called “The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II” by Denise George and Robert Child. They conducted interviews with family members and other veterans in order to reconstruct their story.
The Wereth 11 were among the first blacks trained for combat and not stuck in service positions. They landed on Utah Beach on June 19, 1944, under the command of the VIII Corps.
They were known as Charlie Battery. From the moment they landed in Europe, they began developing their reputation. A Yank magazine reporter wrote about how he saw them launch four rounds in ninety seconds and put an explosive in the turret of a German tank that was nine miles away.
In October, they were camped with the 333rd in Schonberg, outside of St. Vith, one of the major transportation hubs in eastern Belgium. They were in a position to support the 2nd Division Artillery.
Gen. Omar Bradley had determined that the western front would not see action during the winter and so had left only a light guard along stretches of the Ardennes forest.
In December, the Second Division was pulled out and replaced by the 106th Infantry Division. The 106th was untested in combat, this was intended to be their training.
On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their final major offensive of the war. They took four armies, 450,000 soldiers all told, through the lightly defended front line. The Americans were completely unprepared.
The 106th didn’t have the experience to put up much of a fight. Cap. William McLeod, the commander of the 333rd, tried to get across the river on his Jeep to help out his men on the other side of the river but a German soldier commandeered his vehicle.
McLeod was able to sneak back to camp where he found chaos. Dead soldiers lay everywhere. Wounded soldiers screamed in pain. It was decided to evacuate most of the 333rd, leaving the Charley and Service batteries to support the 106th. It was widely known that they were not likely to survive the battle.
By the next morning, the 106th was surrounded. McLeod received orders to destroy their equipment. Three trucks were sent to get the soldiers out, but they arrived too late.
As Sgt. James Stewart was helping an injured man into a truck, thousands of German soldiers came pouring out of the forest, firing on the trucks. The drivers drove away, leaving McLeod behind with the remaining soldiers.
They fought the incoming Germans in hand to hand combat until they were forced to surrender. The Germans moved through the bodies lying in the field, shooting the wounded point blank. Only the soldiers who got to their feet and hid their wounds were able to survive.
In the chaos, 11 men from Charley made their escape. They ran for three hours and hiked for hours after that. Exhausted, they came upon a farmhouse in Wereth. Mathias Langer, a farmer, got them all inside. He already had two Belgian deserters from the German army in his basement.
The Langer family patched up the wounds until the SS knocked at the door. One of the Langer’s neighbors was a Nazi sympathizer and had reported them.
The eleven US soldiers insisted on surrendering to avoid causing the Langers any more trouble.
In 1994, Hermann Langer returned to Wereth to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre. He erected a small wooden cross. Over the years the numbers have increased as the US and European visitors come to honor the eleven soldiers. In 2004, enough money was raised to erect a monument to the eleven and to all black soldiers who died fighting in Europe, Daily News reported.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the US Senate passed a resolution which added the names of the Wereth 11 to the 1949 report. The soldiers were all awarded posthumous Purple Hearts.