The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion
On August 5,1942, the 333rd Field Artillery Regiment was organised as a segregated coloured unit at Camp Gruber in Muskogee, Oklahoma. On March 10, 1943, the regiment was reorganized into the 333rd Field Artillery Group, the 1st Battalion became the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, and the 2nd Battalion became the 969th Field Artillery Battalion. The two Battalions consisted of mostly African-American soldiers. At the time, less than 3% of the men fighting in the US Army were coloured troops, most of which were active in labour and service roles, all in segregated units, commanded by white officers. The need for more troops led to the US Army utilising African-American soldiers and using a small number of them in front line roles. These African-American troops were training to fight against a racist ideology, when the the country they were fighting for had extreme racial attitudes and much of American's southern states were segregated by Jim Crow Laws. As a result, they frequently experienced extreme racism from their own side.
After one year of training, the men of the 333rd, were given charge of operating M1 155mm howitzers. The gunners of the 333rd arrived in England in February 1944. Assigned to supporting units of Major. General Middleton's VIII Corps, they landed on Utah Beach, on the Normandy coast, a few weeks after the D-Day Landings. It would not take long for the 333rd to showed their worth. They took out a German sniper nest, located in a church tower at Pont-L'Abbe, firing 2 shots from a distance of 3 miles and with four rounds, they took out a Tiger Tank, located near La-Haye-du-Puits, from 9 miles away. At the Siege of Brest in September, the battalion fired 1,500 rounds in a twenty-four hour period. The accuracy and skill that was required in these events helped to solidify their ability and by the time Paris was liberated the 333rd would be known as some of the most highly skilled and highly effective artillery units in the US Army.
The Allied forces had begun to push their way across France and Belgium, to the Siegfried line of the German Border. As a result, in October 1944, the 333rd were assigned to what they referred to as the ‘ghost front’, on the German-Belgian boarder in the Ardennes forest, in the village of Schoenberg, near St. Vith, around 40miles from Bastogne. Initially the men were in support of the 2nd Infantry Division, but by December, the Service battery was located to the west of the River Our, while the A, B and C batteries were on the east side of the river in support of the 106th Infantry Division. The Ardennes were not destined to remain the ‘quiet sector’ or ‘ghost front’ for much longer. In December 1944, in what would become known as The Battle of the Bulge, Adolph Hitler pushed four of his armies, with the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies via the Ardennes, across the western front and on through Belgium. The aim of the German advance was to cross the Meuse river, take the vital Allied controlled port of Antwerp and effectively, split the Allied forces in two. The scale of the attack that was about to hit was unknown to the Allied forces waiting on the German border.
On 16th December, German troops, tanks and artillery descended on the Ardennes. They began a 48hr barrage of artillery of the Allied front line. At the forefront would be the men of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion and they were at a disadvantage from the opening of battle. They were supporting an inexperienced division, they were covering, along with the 106th, 26 miles of the Allied lines and were therefore far too thinly spread. They were also facing the Waffen-SS, the highly indoctrinated military wing of the Nazi Party. The 6th Panzer Army, had been split into four and, heading for the 333rd was the strike force of the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Panzer Division, led by celebrated Waffen-SS commander, Joachim Peiper. Peiper's Division would become known for the murders, massacres and atrocities that it committed so much so that one of the battalions in Peiper's Division had earned the nickname of 'Blow Torch Battalion' after burning down two villages and killing the inhabitants on the eastern front.
The Allies forces had no air support due to the extreme weather conditions, which meant no supplies and no ammunition. There would also be no further ground support, as all units were tied up in heavy fighting along the line. Against four US Divisions in the Ardennes, consisting of some 80,000 men, were 400,00 men of the two German Panzer Divisions. Two of the US. 6th Divisions three regiments, surrendered to the Germans immediately. It was the biggest US surrender of the war. By the 17th December, the 333rd had been overrun by the Waffen-SS and soon many of the troops had been either killed or they had had been captured. The 106th were ordered to counter-attack and attempt the re-capture the bridge at
Schoenberg but soon showed their inexperience. Panic stricken the men of the 106th were thrown into confusion, so much so that in some cases men of the 333rd picked up rifles and fought alongside the infantry. Schoenberg was soon captured and the 106th and some 333rd were ordered to pull out. Battery C and Service Battery were ordered to remain behind and provide coving fire for the rest of the retreating battalions. They were struggling and despite putting up a hard fight against the Waffen-SS, with scarce amounts of rations and ammunition, the decision was made to surrender. These men had now become POWs, along with some of the 106th, and where now in the hands of the SS troops. The Waffen-SS used the African-American gunners as tools for propaganda by announcing that they had captured columns of black American troops. These men were taken to railway stations and marched on to camps, where their fate awaited them. On the way, they were marched through villages and town, as propaganda, and they were beaten and starved. Many of the men of the 333rd would die in the prison camps.
Some of the retreating 333rd made it to Allied lines, some were captured and some were left behind in the freezing conditions. Eleven gunners were lost in the dense forest of the Ardennes. The soldiers had walked 10 miles to the small town of Wereth where they received shelter at the farmhouse of a man named Mathias Langer. Putting himself in danger, Langer gave these men food, warmth and attempted to help them. They were soon given up by a local Nazi sympathiser and four men of an SS scouting party rounded up the eleven gunners. The men were marched back into the forest, what happened to these men would not be discovered until several weeks later.
Around 300 men of the 333rd that had retreated, had made it to American lines at where they joined the 969th F.A unit, at Bastogne, which would soon become the centre of one of the biggest battles in U.S history. Bastogne was key town within the Ardennes with six road in and six roads out, which the Panzer Lehr Division, supported by the 47th Panzer Corps, aimed to take in order to move rapidly through the forest. The town would be held by the 101st Airborne Division but when both supplies began to run low, 101st Commander General McAuliffe, ordered the 333rd to attack the rapidly encircling Germans around Bastogne. Once again, the 333rd showed how good they were with exceptional speed and accuracy but with few supplies and no air support the U.S forces were struggling and by the 20th December, the German forces had encircled Bastogne. The German General von Luttwitz offered to accept a US surrender. General McAuliffe’s official response was simply, ‘NUTS’. On 23rd December, the weather turned in the Allies favour and Airborne drops allowed for more supplies and ammunition for the US forces around Bastogne, including the 333rd and for US bombers attacks on Germans forces on the ground. Finally, on 26th December, General Patton’s 4th Armoured Division arrived and Bastogne remained in US hands. It signified the beginning of the end of the Battle of the Bulge. The men of the 333rd would later be given a Presidential Unit Citation for their skill and courage at Bastogne.
The frozen bodies of the eleven men who had been captured in Wereth were discovered after the siege of Bastogne, some six weeks after they had been marched into the forests. These eleven men were savagely and brutally tortured before being murdered by the Waffen-SS. They had multiple broken bones including broken legs, they were run over, their fingers had been severed off, they were beaten with rifle butts and bayonetted. The murder of these men was not the only such occurrence during the Battle of the Bulge. After the battle, eighty, white, US soldiers had been murdered at Melmedy, by the Nazis.
Tragically, the murders of the eleven brave men of the 333rd was ignored. At the war crimes trials at Dachau, 70 SS officers were convicted of the brutal murders of the eighty US soldiers at Melmedy. The murders of the men of the 333rd was dismissed due to lack of evidence as to who the murderers were, although it has been disputed that the dismissed was based on race. Again in 1949, a subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Armed Services conducted a full review of Nazi murders and atrocities during the Battle of the Bulge, the murders of these eleven African- Americans were completely left out.
In 1994, Herman Langer, the son of Mathais, erected a memorial in Wereth, to the eleven African-American soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. The Langer family helped to finally discover and identify the names of the men that had been murdered and the memorial became a dedicated, permanent memorial in 2004. It would take until 2017 for U.S congress to officially recognise the dedicated service, bravery and sacrifice of the ‘Wereth Eleven’. Seven of the men were buried in the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, and four were returned to their families for burial at the end of the war.
The names of the 11 brave soldiers murdered near Wereth in December 1944 are:
· Private Curtis Adams of South Carolina
· Corporal Mager Bradley of Mississippi
· Private George Davis Jr. of Alabama
· Staff Sargent Thomas Forte of Mississippi
· Technical Corporal Robert Green of Georgia
· Private James Leatherwood of Mississippi
· Private Nathaniel Moss of Texas
· Private George Moten of Texas
· Technical Sergeant William Pritchett of Alabama
· Technical Sergeant James Stewart of West Virginia
· Private Due Turner of Arkansas.
THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE: THE GERMAN ARDENNES OFFENSIVE DECEMBER 1944 - JANUARY 1945. | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)