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In December 1944 German forces surged through the Ardennes region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg in what was to be their penultimate major offensive against the Allies in Western Europe. Adolf Hitler masterminded Rhein (Operation Watch on the Rhine). Americans would come Unternehmen Wacht am to know it as the Battle of the Bulge. With little more to lose in the war, the Germans put everything they had behind the attempt to split Allied forces, capture Antwerp, Belgium, and force a negotiated peace.

Hitler reportedly issued verbal instructions that the Germans were to take no prisoners during the offensive, an order that led Waffen-SS troops in particular to commit horrific atrocities against captured Allied soldiers. The Dec. 17, 1944, Malmedy massacre—the murder of 80 captured Americans by elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division—is among the most widely publicized of the war crimes committed during the Ardennes campaign. But on the same day, 10 miles to the southeast and just outside the nine-house hamlet of Wereth, 11 black American prisoners of war were tortured and murdered after the Germans overran their position.

The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the U.S. VIII Corps was a black unit in the then-segregated Army. Having formed and trained at Camp Gruber, Okla., in 1942, the 333rd first saw combat in Normandy in 1944 and fought without a break to the Belgian-German border. Positioned on the Andler-Schönberg road, the battalion was using its 155mm howitzers to provide fire support to several infantry divisions.

Early on Dec. 16, 1944, German artillery opened up along the border, and soon the Sixth Panzer Army, led by SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich and spearheaded by the 1st SS Panzer Division, rolled toward the battalion’s flank as infantry swarmed the Americans’ position. Though stunned by the attack, the 333rd was able to hold out until the late afternoon, when Batteries A and B were told to withdraw beyond the Our River. Battery C and Service Battery were instructed to hold their positions to support the 106th Infantry Division to the rear. Going without food or sleep for nearly 24 hours, the men of the batteries stood their ground until overrun by the Germans on the morning of the 17th. It was then every man for himself.

As the weather turned to freezing rain and snow, 11 soldiers of Battery C and Service Battery banded together. Staying off the main roads, the men trudged northwest through deep snow, hoping to reach the American lines at St. Vith. After wandering for nearly six hours, they arrived in Wereth, approached a farmhouse and asked for shelter. When the Langer family welcomed the men into their home and fed them, the soldiers believed they were safe. It was a vain hope, however, for a local Nazi sympathizer had betrayed their location.

Late that afternoon a patrol from the 1st SS Panzer Division arrived at the Langer home, demanding the American soldiers come forth and surrender. Offering no resistance, the men filed out and lined up against the exterior of the farmhouse. As darkness fell, their captors marched the men out of the village. Once they reached a cow pasture out of view of the houses, the SS troops tortured, maimed and shot all 11 of the Americans, leaving them unburied in a ditch. The next spring, following the snowmelt, the Langer family discovered the bodies, which bore bayonet wounds, missing fingers, broken legs, crushed skulls and other signs of sadistic brutality. Although investigators documented the massacre and photographed the bodies, no one ever faced a war crimes tribunal.

Today a small memorial [] marks the location of the massacre. Descendants of the Langer family had initially placed a simple wooden cross on the site, but now memorial bronze plaques and a stone crucifix inscribed with the names of the Wereth 11 stand where their torn bodies were found. It is believed to be the only memorial in Europe dedicated to black American troops who served in World War II.


Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.