Emerging from history: Massacre of 11 black soldiers
Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
By the time Army Capt. William Everett examined the 11 bodies, they had been on the frozen ground for more than a month, covered only by a shroud of snow.
“On 15 February 1945, I personally examined the bodies of the American Negro soldiers listed below,” Everett wrote. In a single-spaced, one-page memo, the assistant regimental surgeon chronicled their wounds. Most had been killed by blows to the head with a blunt instrument, probably a rifle stock. They had been stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. The finger of one man was almost completely severed. The soldiers had been shot multiple times.
There was little time to pursue justice. The Allies were advancing on Germany, and the European war was drawing to a close. “The perpetrators were undoubtedly SS enlisted men, but available testimony is insufficient to establish definite unit identification,” the report concluded. The investigation was closed and marked secret.
Back in the USA, the wives and parents of the 11 soldiers received letters saying their husband or son had died in combat. Most went to their graves believing that.
Nearly 70 years later, as another Veterans Day approaches Monday, the mystery of what happened to the 11 men in Wereth, Belgium, is unraveling, revealing a remarkable tale that has shed new light on the contribution of black Americans in World War II’s European theater. The story of the 11 men would probably have remained buried in a dusty file in the National Archives if not for the efforts of a Belgian man who was a 12-year-old boy when he saw the 11 Americans marched out of the tiny hamlet by a handful of SS soldiers. Unable to forget that image, in 1994, he quietly placed a cross on the site where the black Americans were brutally murdered. From there, a network of amateur historians, relatives of the soldiers and military officers worked to uncover what had taken place.
Thanks to those efforts, families have learned for the first time that their relatives were killed in a war crime. “It was overwhelming to know,” said Renna Leatherwood, who is married to the grandson of Jimmie Leatherwood, one of the men killed at Wereth.
Regina Benjamin, the former U.S. surgeon general, whose uncle was a member of the same battalion and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, said, “These 11 guys deserve to be remembered.”