Narrow Escapes of WWII
Military Channel 13 episodes, now airing
The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion was one of the U.S. Army’s few African American frontline units, though its officers were white. But officers and men alike were green in 1944 when they started fighting across Europe. The battlefield honed their skills: they mastered zeroing their 155mm howitzers in on German tanks a mile off. That winter, they settled into the Ardennes. When the Wehrmacht launched the counterattack known as the Battle of the Bulge, two 333rd batteries were left to cover the 106th Infantry Division.
The 333rd’s artillery support proved crucial to holding the line, but the unit was surrounded and down to its last rounds when it was finally overrun. Eleven men escaped, and were hidden by a farmer near the tiny hamlet of Wereth. Their refuge in this German-speaking region of Belgium held for less than a day; a Nazi sympathizer fingered them to the 1st SS Division. Surrounded again, the Americans surrendered. When darkness fell, they were marched to a nearby field where they were tortured, maimed, and shot. Their bodies were left untouched, frozen in horrific positions beneath blankets of fresh white snow.
There was a subsequent U.S. Army investigation into their deaths, but it was buried with them. Nearly half a century later, the farmer’s son erected a small monument on the site. Now there is an official memorial, the only one in Europe dedicated to African American troops.
Welcome to Narrow Escapes, an offbeat and often-absorbing new series. Its theme: the hopeless to near-hopeless situations that are war’s most implacable face. Such as Colonel James Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Tokyo, with astronomical odds against its crews reaching friendly China after dropping their bombs; those found by the Japanese were tortured and killed. Or General Orde Wingate’s 1943 forays into Burma. An eccentric Brit who trained Jewish commandos in 1930s Palestine and liked to greet visitors naked, Wingate helped pioneer modern long-range penetration warfare. But his Chindit guerrillas, after wreaking behind-the-lines havoc, were encircled in Burma by the Japanese; one third died, the rest fled back to India.
Good footage, moving witnesses, and solid commentary.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.