Remembering the Wereth 11 and black GIs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 10, 2013

As we are fast approaching Veterans Day, we should not wait until that day to remind ourselves of the sacrifices the American soldiers have made. It should be an ongoing process to remind us of our freedom, but as we focus on other events of today, we tend to forget about all the heroes who died giving us freedom.
During World War II, 260,000 African-Americans served in the European Theater. Seven of those were recipients of the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions. Most are more familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, or the 761st Tank Battalion, the Red Tails and the Red Ball Express. As their notarity rose, other events were forgotten.
The Wereth 11 is just one of those stories. Eleven black GIs from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion died in a horrible cowardly act by the Germans on Dec. 17, 1944. One reason this story escaped notoriety was because, on this same day, 80 American POWs were massacured by the Germans 1st SS Panzer Division during the Battle of the Bulge. This was later called the Malmedy massacre, and after the war a tribunal trial took place for the slaughter. Seventy former German soldiers were tried; 43 received the death sentence and 22 others a life sentence. Eight others received a lighter sentence. This trial overshadowed the story of the Wereth 11, but now the story of these brave soldiers has been revivied and is being told once more.
The battalion landed at Normandy in July 1944 and saw combat. Eventually they made their way to the village of Schonberg, Belgium, where they were partially overrun by Germans on Dec. 17. They withdrew to the west, fighting in Bastogne along the way and suffering heavy casualities. As the Germans controlled the escape routes, many Americans were killed or forced to surrender. But 11 men were still on the east side of the river and found refuge in Wereth, Belgium.
Mathias Langer owned one of nine field houses and was not a German supporter. Although his son Hermann was only 12 at the time, he and his father Mathias were able to feed and give warmth to the 11 black GIs. A local Nazi sympathizer found out about the 11 American soldiers and notified the SS. The 11 had only two rifles left in working condition and were tired and partially frozen from the heavy snow. About 4 p.m. on Dec. 17. a four-man SS patrol arrived at the house, and the 11 Americans surrendered. The SS made the Americans sit on the cold ground until dark, at which time they marched them down the road. Later, gunfire was heard, and in the morning, the villagers found the bodies of the 11 black American soldiers in a ditch at the end of a cow pasture.
Snow covered the bodies and the villagers were afraid to bury them because Germans were still in the area. So in January, after the Germans pulled out, villagers told members of the 99th Division about the bodies. Upon arrival, the 99th found the 11 men had been brutalized before being murdered. The case was turned over to the War Crimes Investigation unit, but without the names of the German soldiers they were unable to bring charges against them.
Herman Langer erected a small cross to mark the graves with their names. Seven of the soldiers were buried in the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapell, Belgium, and the other four were returned to their home states for burial. In 2001, three Belgium citizens completed a fitting memorial to honor these 11 brave GIs and all the other African-Americans who served in World War II. Herman Langer died in 2013.
This Veterans Day, remember all who fought. The enemy’s bullet was meant for all races, just as all races deserve respect for having served. Respect the uniform and give thanks for the person wearing it.
Rodney Cress is a veteran who lives in Salisbury.