Forgotten Massacre: The Story of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion and the Wereth 11
On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their last great offensive against the Western Allies through the Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium. It would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Three German Armies attacked a long a 50-mile front. American troops manning the line were thrown into confusion. Even the high command was stunned. Stabilizing the line was first priority and many of the units available were African American. One of them was the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion.
From the battle emerged a multitude of heroes and villains. The brutality rivaled that of the Eastern Front; no quarter was given. Incidents like the Malmedy Massacre became well-known. On the afternoon of December 17, 1944, over 80 GIs who had been taken prisoner were gunned down by men of the 1st SS Panzer Division. Some escaped to spread the story, which led to a steely resolve on the part of American troops. But later that night another massacre occurred that received little attention during or after the war.
Eleven men from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion were taken prisoner after taking refuge in a Belgian village. They surrendered peacefully to a squad from the 1st SS, and marched out of the village. Upon arriving in a large field along the main road, the men were beaten and finally executed. After the battle, the massacre was investigated but in the whirlwind of post-war politics, it was quickly forgotten. Why was such a horrific act brushed aside? Was it race? All of the men were black. Was it Cold War politics? Taking revenge might anger our former enemies. The reasons are many but when one goes back to examine the massacre, a light begins to shine on the much forgotten role of African American troops during the conflict.
The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (155mm), like most African-American artillery battalions in the segregated Army, was a non-divisional unit under the command of its Army Corps, in this case, VIII Corps. Two or three of those battalions would be configured into a “Group.” By coincidence, the 333rd’s group was also called the 333rd. It had at various times, both white and black units. At the start of the battle, the group also consisted of the 969th FAB (African American) and the 771st FAB (white). The role of the Corps artillery was as supplemental fire support for the infantry divisions who had their own organic artillery battalions as well. Most of the corps units in the European Theater of Operations used the 155mm howitzer (& Long Tom version), 8 inch howitzer or 4.5 inch gun.
Situated along the Andler-Schonberg Road, east of St. Vith, Beligum, the 333rd FAB had been in position since early October. After the departure of the 2nd Infantry Division the first week of December, it was nominally attached to the 106th Infantry Division who had replaced the 2nd in the sector. The 106th’s infantry regiments were spread out along the Schnee Eifel ridge a few miles east and south of the 333rd. Two observation teams were posted in and around the German village of Bleialf. A liaison officer, Captain John P. Horn, had been assigned to the neighboring 590th Field Artillery of the 106th Infantry Division.
The 333rd had something many of their neighboring units did not have: combat experience. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harmon Kelsey, a white officer, the Battalion had been in the field since late June ’44, when it landed at Utah Beach. It fired its first shots just hours after arriving. After helping to chase the Germans out of France all summer, it arrived on the German border in late September.
The Battalion’s main gun was the standard M114 155mm howitzer (towed), and it had the standard table of organization, with three firing batteries along with a headquarters battery and service battery. Despite the segregation of the era, some of its junior officers were black. The Battalion had an impressive record, once firing 1500 rounds in a 24 hour period and later capturing a village in France. And for once, a black unit received some recognition when Yank Magazine ran an article devoted entirely to the Battalion in the fall of 1944.
African-American units played a significant role within the Corps artillery structure. There were nine non-divisional black artillery battalions along with four black Group Headquarters in the ETO scattered among several army corps. Many of these were with VIII Corps or would serve sometime under its command in the coming months. Black artillerymen were as highly trained as their white counterparts, and by December 1944, they had become some of the most experienced units in the US Army. Units were shifted according to the needs of a particular battle, so those four black Group HQs, ended up controlling both white and black battalions as the situations demanded.
The other Corps artillery units which had been in the vicinity for some time, such as the black 578th and the white 740th, along with those in the 333rd group, had built up their positions so well that almost every GI was billeted in a log cabin, house, or well-insulated tent. The 578th, down at Burg Reuland, had a bowling alley built and regular visits from the Red Cross Clubmobiles. Regular leave was instituted to either Paris or cities in Belgium. For African-American soldiers in a segregated army, morale was high and conditions mirrored that of their white counterparts.
On the 16th, with the scope of the Battle still unknown and weather worsening, Corps ordered A and B Battery to displace west of the Our river with the rest of their group, eventually moving south into Bastogne. C Battery along with Service Battery and the Battalion HQ staff were to remain in place for now at the request of General McMahon, the division artillery officer of the 106th. He believed their fire support would be needed in case of a withdrawal.
As shells flew over the river, and some falling just in front of their positions off and on all morning, C Battery began receiving calls from the observers in Bleialf for support, which they were able to provide almost immediately. The Germans expected to take the village by noon. C Battery and its commander, Captain George MacCloud, were to play a large part in the defense of the Schnee Eifel this first day of the battle, helping to deny the Germans a permanent foothold in Bleialf. It would take the Germans another 24 hours to finally expel the Americans and cross the Our River, which lay just 4 miles away.
MacCloud, an Oklahoma native, had one of the toughest jobs an officer could have in a segregated Army. He was a white officer in command of black troops. Not only did he need to relate to his men, whose life experiences were polar opposites of his own, but he had to earn the respect of other white officers who often looked down on those in his position. MacCloud certainly had the respect of his men. Newark, New Jersey native Sergeant George Schomo, called MacCloud a great commander, a man’s man and someone he would have followed anywhere.
There was no immediate concern about encirclement. Being fairly close to the river and its heavy, stone bridges would enable them to get out quickly if needed. With its other batteries already on the move, they assumed it would be only a matter of time before the orders came down to move out.
Other Corps artillery units were given march orders within hours, although in some cases, they first had to stand and fight. The men of the 578th, whose batteries were well forward, had to pick up M-1 Garands and fight as infantry to hold off the onslaught, taking 12 prisoners. Despite the stern defense, by nightfall these units had to continue their preparations to displace and move out as fast as possible. Time was of the essence. The growing traffic jam on the road to St. Vith was starting to become a crisis.
Down at Bleialf, the two forward observer groups from the 333rd FAB had their outposts on the edge of the village and held their ground. One was led by Lieutenant Reginald Gibson, and the other by Lieutenant Elmer King. Whenever communication allowed, they kept identifying targets for any artillery battery that would listen. Both groups managed to stay at their posts until 0600 the next day. It was a remarkable achievement considering they were almost completely surrounded by the enemy for nearly 24 hours.
On the early morning of the 17th, uncertainty reigned. Before first light, the men of C Battery tried to have some breakfast while the sound of tank treads and small arms fire echoed everywhere. Fog obscured observation. Their radios were filled with frantic calls from the infantry. The Germans seemed to be everywhere. Still the men were waiting on word from Corps to displace. It was too late. At 1000 hours German armor appeared along the Andler Road in front of C battery. German infantry began pouring out of the woods. It was every man for himself. Most had no time to escape. A few groups managed to make it into the woods. Roaming around the dark woods of the Ardennes with its muddy paths and steep, slippery hills slowed them down considerably.
A small band headed south toward Schonberg, but the Germans were already there. After seizing the village, the Germans were waiting for any Americans trying to cross the bridge. The 333rd survivors had made to the east bank of the Our River and made their way out of the village. As they trekked up the road, they encountered a convoy from the 589th Field Artillery (106th ID) and warned the drivers that there were Germans all over the village. They were ignored. As the Americans made their way over the bridge, a German tank opened fire. Two trucks were hit and several men killed. The men tried to scatter but were forced to surrender soon after.
A few other survivors kept moving east, deciding to link up with the 106th’s infantry regiments scattered in the hills. By the evening of the 19th, they too were prisoners as were most of the 422nd and 423rd infantry regiments of the 106th.
But a small group from Service Battery and C Battery headed west over the Our, trying to reach American lines, which were still within reach. It was bitter cold and they were soaked from the freezing rain that fell most of the day. They tried to stay just inside the tree line, keeping their eyes and ears open for any sounds of Americans; none appeared. After six hours of marching and with darkness approaching, the men were left with no other choice. They decided to ask for help. In the early evening of the 17th, the eleven men made it to the tiny village of Wereth, just northeast of St. Vith where they were taken in by Mathias and Maria Langer. Unfortunately, it was no safe haven.
A German sympathizer in the village informed on them. Sometime later, a patrol from the 1st SS approached the house, and the GIs surrendered peacefully. They were led out of the village to a small, muddy field. Over the next several hours, all eleven were tortured, beaten and shot dead. In January, a patrol from the 99th Infantry Division was directed to the site by villagers. What they found was horrific. Legs had been broken. Many had bayonet wounds to the head. Skulls crushed. Even some of their fingers were cut off. Army investigators were called to the site along with signal corps cameramen to record the grisly find.
The following soldiers were murdered at Wereth:
- Private Curtis Adams
- Corporal Mager Bradley
- Private George Davis
- Staff Sergeant Thomas Forte
- Tech Corporal Robert Green
- Private James Leatherwood
- Private Nathaniel Moss
- Tech Sergeant William Pritchett
- Tech Sergeant James Aubrey
- Private Due Turner
- Private George Molten
May they rest in peace.
No one was ever brought to justice for these crimes. Coming on the heels of the Malmedy Massacre, it went largely undocumented except for a couple of grainy photographs taken by Army investigators. During the investigation into Malmedy after the war, the Army did review the incident at Wereth again. They determined that too much time had gone by to find the perpetrators who had most likely been either killed during the remaining months of the war or been discharged from U.S. custody since surrendering. The case was officially closed in 1947. In an added insult, most of the perpetrators of Malmedy escaped serious punishment too. Their death sentences and life sentences were commuted. By the mid-1950s almost all had been released. As the Cold War ramped up, it was necessary to placate the German public.
Remarkably, the Langers escaped any reprisal from the SS.Some have speculated that in exchange for the information, the person who betrayed the Langers may have extracted a promise from the Germans not to take any retribution. The Langers apparently knew who gave them away, but in a remarkable act of forgiveness never revealed the person’s name. The Germans also may have felt a sort of ethnic kinship with the locals. The Ardennes region of Belgium had been part of Germany up until the end of World War I. It was lost in the Treaty of Versailles.
For many years, the events surrounding the 333rd were largely forgotten. But the Langer family, and other devoted historians would not forget. Dr. Norman Lichtenfeld, the son of a 106th veteran, and the Langer children helped form the U.S. Wereth Memorial Fund. The organization hoped to raise funds for a memorial. Their dreams were realized on May 23, 2004, when a memorial to the “Wereth 11” was formally dedicated near the location of the massacre. It is a simple symbol of sacrifice, placed where the bodies were found. The men have finally gotten their due. Recognition continues to come. Dr. Lichtenfeld is writing the first comprehensive book not only on the 333rd, but on the 969th as well. A TV movie about the massacre premiered in 2011. The increased media attention will definitely help spark interest in a subject that has been neglected way too long.
The 333rd’s A and B battery made it to Bastogne. They joined their fellow segregated unit, the 969th, and contributed mightily to that historic defense. While supporting the 101st Airborne Division, they suffered the highest casualty rate of any artillery unit in the VIII Corps during the siege with six officers and 222 men killed.
One glaring weakness in the American war machine came to the fore during the Battle: a shortage of manpower. The Army suffered over 80,000 casualties during the six weeks of brutal fighting. That’s the equivalent over just over 5 divisions. Getting timely replacements turned out to be a very difficult proposition. Overconfidence in the fall led to many qualified personnel resources going to other theaters and services throughout late 1944. At the start of the 1945, the replacement situation became grave.
This had an unexpected result: some infantry companies became desegregated, if only for a month or two. Towards the end of the battle in late January, “fifth platoons” were formed, made up of black volunteers, mostly from service units and attached to white infantry companies. It was the commander of the Service of Supply Corps (“COMZ”), General John C. Lee, who championed the use of black troops throughout his wartime service. Lee was devoutly religious, and believed in giving African American troops equal rights. He gladly allowed the troops under his command to volunteer for front line duty.
The standard infantry company at the time had four platoons; hence the term fifth platoon. They were given rudimentary retraining to make sure they remembered how to fire an M-1 Garand. Most had been using the M-1 carbine, so it was a big change. Some had heavy weapons training, and there was some instruction on tactics; then off they went. Of course, they had white officers leading them. By war’s end, black platoons were used in ten armored and infantry divisions in the European Theater including the 106th as well as the famous 1st Infantry Division. After the war the use of black platoons was evaluated. Interviews were conducted with the white officers they served under along with the assessments of their battalion commanders. All gave them high grades. It became a leading factor in desegregating the Army, which finally occurred in 1948.
World War II became an impetus for social change in the United States. Women got the chance to work in highly technical fields, the average American was able to travel the world and most importantly, a large group of Americans who had been marginalized by the majority finally received some recognition for their contributions. This well-earned respect paid dividends when they came home. Within ten years the Civil Rights movement had begun and many of the men who paved the way were veterans. Icons like Jackie Robinson and Ralph Abernathy had to deal with much injustice while in the Army. But the inner strength they found to deal with those indignities was incalculable in breaking down racial barriers in postwar America. The men at Wereth had a lot to do with that. They did not live to see themselves truly free, but by remembering their sacrifice we add them to the long list of those who died for freedom.
Astor, Gerald. The Right To Fight. Presidio Press, 1998.
Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops. 1965 (part of the Green Series)
Smith, Graham. When Jim Crow Met John Bull. IB Tauris. 1987
After The Battle Magazine (Jean Pallud, publisher and primary editor) – Highly recommend publication. I also recommend Mr. Pallud’s book Battle of the Bulge: Then and Now.
Carl Wouters’ website: http://106thinfantry.webs.com/.