By John Blankenship
For The Register-Herald
They are known as the Wereth Eleven. Eleven African-American soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion who found themselves face to face with the German Army on the most decisive European battle of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.
Eleven soldiers, separated from their unit, trying to rejoin American forces to fight again, soldiers who found themselves in the small hamlet of Wereth in Belgium.
Hunger, cold and fatigue plagued the men as they hiked for miles in snow until they reached the close-knit community surrounded by mountains on all sides, where they were taken in by a family and hidden from the Germans.
Then a few days later, they were discovered, tortured and murdered by SS German troops in a snowy field just outside the tiny village.
Now the story of the Wereth Eleven is being told by a fellow West Virginian, T.J. Coleman of Piedmont, in what has become the James Aubrey Stewart Project, a presentation and video honoring the men who died in the Belgium winter many years ago.
The program titled “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” will be presented at 1 p.m. today at Tamarack in Beckley. The public is invited.
“His (Stewart’s) story was hidden for more than 50 years,” explained Coleman, who has written a book about the soldier and will host today’s program. “Yet in Belgium, these men have been honored as heroes.”
Coleman, a retired Navy veteran, noted, “This production seeks to bring to light the heroic deeds and tragic end of 11 African-American soldiers who were ruthlessly murdered by the Nazi SS during the Battle of the Bulge.”
By telling the story of James Aubrey Stewart, a sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, Coleman hopes that future generations will remember the 11 soldiers who gave their lives for their country during one of the bloodiest battles in history.
Stewart was born in Piedmont, W.Va., in 1906. His father was the first black employee at the local Westvaco Paper Mill, and following high school Stewart also went to work at the mill. For more than two decades he also pitched semi-pro baseball with the Piedmont Colored Giants, an all-black team that played against other notable regional squads during the 1920s and ’30s.
Then, in 1942, despite being 36 years old, Stewart volunteered for military service. He was inducted by the U.S. Army, training with the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-black outfit and crack offensive unit.
In the winter of 1944, the battalion was in the Ardennes area of Belgium and faced the full brunt of the German offensive that was launched in December of that year.
Cut off from Allied forces on the second day of what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the men walked 10 miles in deep snow and freezing conditions before reaching the apparent safety of a farmhouse in the vicinity of Wereth.
The cottage was owned by the mayor of Wereth, Mathias Langer, who gladly took the American soldiers in and fed them.
But someone in town, a Nazi sympathizer, tipped off the nearby German forces. An hour later a four-man SS patrol pulled up and the 11 Americans were marched into a cow pasture where they were executed.
For two months, the bodies of 37-year-old James Aubrey Stewart and his comrades lay in the snow until villagers directed a unit of the U.S. 99th Infantry Division to the site. Army autopsies later showed signs of torture with broken bones and bayonet wounds inflicted upon the American soldiers. A year later, the men became known as the Wereth Eleven.
In May 2004, a memorial was dedicated at the site where the massacre took place, and a sign now stands in Piedmont honoring Stewart, who was buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.
On Dec. 7, 1944, Sgt. Stewart wrote a letter to family and friends in the close-knit Mineral County town of Piedmont, sending Christmas wishes from the mud and cold of Belgium.
“I suppose everyone there is getting ready for Christmas,” Stewart wrote to his father. “Well, all I can say is hope you all have a nice one. Wish I could be there with you again this year.”
The sergeant would not make it home for Christmas. Ten days later, German soldiers crushed his skull with a rifle butt and left his body with the bodies of the 10 other soldiers.
But Stewart didn’t have to join the Army. A renowned left-handed pitcher for his hometown baseball team, Stewart volunteered to join a segregated military in which many white officers didn’t believe black men belonged.
Stewart was assigned to the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-black unit sent to Europe following the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy and stationed in Belgium. The unit’s performance was exemplary, but when Hitler sprang his surprise counterattack on Dec. 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, Stewart and his unit found themselves 11 miles behind enemy lines.
Outnumbered and overrun, Stewart and his fellow artillerymen made their way to the Belgian village, where the farmer hid them in a barn near the farmhouse.
A neighbor, sympathetic to the Germans, found out about the men and informed the Germans. Early on Dec. 17, Stewart and the other 10 artillery soldiers surrendered.
The Germans tortured the soldiers in an effort to get them to talk, but no one did. They were beaten with rifle butts, bayoneted and shot, then left in a ditch. Army investigators later found the men had been mutilated; several had their faces slashed, and one man’s finger was nearly cut from his hand.
More than 50 years later, Langer’s daughter Maria told an American television reporter that the soldiers’ silence saved the lives of the family, and possibly the rest of the town.
In Belgium, the artillery soldiers became known as the Wereth Eleven, and are regarded as heroes. Members of Langer’s family erected a monument for the fallen men and tended Stewart’s grave.
In January 1945, Stewart’s parents received a curt and businesslike letter from the War Department confirming that Stewart was missing in action. Not long afterward, they were told he had been killed.
But no one in the Stewart family was told how Stewart and the other soldiers died. Though Army researchers confirmed the men had been massacred and mutilated, officials did not recommend the incident for follow-up.
Coleman, a family friend, wrote a book about Stewart and the massacre of the Wereth Eleven.
“I decided to take on the task of telling the story of how Stewart and his fellow artillerymen died,” Coleman explained. “It became my calling. God gave me the vision to honor Mr. Stewart and all the other soldiers. I hope the story will help bring people together in unity and in faith.”