By Sarah Plummer
For more than two years, those involved in the Aubrey Stewart Project have been dedicated to remembering and sharing the lost story of a West Virginian World War II hero who, with the U.S. Army’s 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, sacrificed his own life to save others.
In a presentation Sunday by T.J. Coleman at Tamarack, Coleman explained that James Aubrey Stewart enlisted at the age of 36 and was one of 11 African-American soldiers to escape the German onslaught on the second day of the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 17, 1944.
The men, who are known in Belgium at the “Wereth Eleven,” found brief shelter in a Belgian town called Wereth at the Langer family farm.
At risk of their own lives, the Langers invited these soldiers into their home and fed them.
Soon SS officers discovered them and all 11 surrendered to save the Langer family from harm.
The Nazi soldiers marched the 11 men to a cow pasture where they were tortured and mutilated for hours and their bodies then left in the pasture for 56 days.
The fate of the 11 soldiers, including Piedmont native Stewart, remained unknown to their families and their files sealed by the U.S. government until the late 1990s.
Coleman said the men’s heroic stories were sealed because of their race.
While the story of these brave men is newly discovered in the United States, they have been celebrated and honored in Belgium for years.
At first only an old wooden cross from the Langer family cemetery stood in the cow pasture where the soldiers kept silent under torture to protect their benefactors.
Coleman honored Adda Rikken, president of the Wereth Memorial Fund in Belgium, who “worked so these men would no longer be invisible.”
In a video presentation, Rikken emotionally recalls how the Langer children would never forget the soldiers being led to the pasture to torture.
“They fought for freedom and gave us back our freedom,” Rikken said in the video interview.
The 11 soldiers were buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.
Today Stewart’s story lives on through Coleman and others involved in the Aubrey Stewart Project.
“We are very proud he was one of us and he still has relatives, friends and people who speak his name and remember his sacrifice,” Coleman said.
Under the guidance of the group, a four-mile section of W.Va. 46 between Keyser and Piedmont has been named Sgt. James Aubrey Stewart Memorial Highway.
In addition to traveling and telling the heroic and hard story of Stewart in schools, libraries, churches and theaters, the group hopes to turn his birthplace into a museum.
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