MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Sometimes, you don’t need Black History Month to tell you about the bravery and dignity of people of color, T.J. Coleman says.
Sometimes, you just need history … period.
That’s why Hermann Langer kept smiling over at Coleman as the two broke bread in the dining room of the Langer family farmhouse in Wereth, Belgium three years ago.
It was the anniversary of the Battle of Bulge, and Langer, who died this past summer, was a little boy when that titanic tug-of-war between the Third Reich and the Allies ensued nearly 70 years ago.
On the surface, it would look like the host and his guest would have nothing in common. Coleman, a black man from Piedmont, Mineral County, was born nearly 20 years after the end of World War II.
Twenty years is also how long he served his country in the U.S. Air Force.
Langer and Coleman, however, did have something in common. They became instant friends because of it.
That’s because Coleman wasn’t the first black person from the little mountain town in West Virginia to dine at the Langer table.
On Dec. 17, 1944, another man did. His name was James Aubrey Stewart — and he was the U.S. Army infantryman who would come to be known as “Mr. Aubrey.”
Langer and Coleman have Mr. Aubrey, and 10 of his buddies from the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, in common.
War, in black and white
In the America of 1944, black people couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as whites. They couldn’t stay at the same hotels as whites, and they couldn’t sit next to whites in movie theaters.
But in the European Theater of War, sepia-toned units like the 333rd were fighting bravely against the lethal racism of the Third Reich, an ocean away from the war of another kind they were dealing with at home.
That December day was the second day of fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s all-out surprise assault on the Allies that would claim 75,000 American lives — including Mr. Aubrey and his 10 buddies in the 333rd.
In the America of 2014, a resolution is now working its way through Congress that would officially honor Mr. Aubrey.
Adam Curtis, Mager Bradley and George Davis, too.
And Thomas J. Forte, Robert Green, Jim Leatherwood and Nathaniel Moss.
George W. Moten, William Edward Prichett and Due W. Turner, also.
Together, the band of brothers would come to be known as the “Wereth 11.”
“Hermann Langer and a lot of good people in Belgium never forgot,” said Coleman, who grew up two blocks from Mr. Aubrey’s house on Erin Street in Piedmont. “Now we need to remember. This really is the Greatest Generation.”
A knock on the door
The 333rd was outnumbered and outgunned in the Battle of the Bulge. With just two rifles between them, Mr. Aubrey and the above soldiers became separated from their unit. They slogged through deep snow — until they couldn’t go any more.
They stumbled into Wereth, a tiny village of divided loyalties.
They gave a tentative rap on the door of the first farmhouse they saw. It was the home of the village burgermeister, Mathias Langer, Hermann’s father.
He looked around and welcomed 11 shivering soldiers inside.
Herr Langer didn’t care what color his guests were. They were Americans, and he was anti-Nazi.
He didn’t want Hermann, or another one of his teenaged sons, fighting and dying for the Third Reich.
In the hayloft of Langer’s barn were two other German soldiers who deserted.
Upstairs, an infant slept in his crib.
At the table, Langer served coffee, and warm bread and butter, to 11 grateful Americans. It was the only thing he had to offer. In turn, his guests proffered the only thing they could: A bar of soap.
Then, another knock.
Someone else had also been looking.
Langer opened the door to regard a different group of soldiers — these he didn’t want in his house.
A month later, Langer and others found 11 mutilated bodies in a nearby pasture when the snow started melting.
Sacrifice, not surrender
Rob Child is a Philadelphia filmmaker whose docudrama, “The Wereth 11,” tells the story of the events in the farmhouse that day.
He wrote the screenplay, in fact.
When the SS patrol showed up, Mr. Aubrey and the others simply put their hands in the air.
They actually outnumbered that patrol, Child said. And they still had the two rifles. Why didn’t they fight?
“They were in a house with two young children and a baby,” he told The Dominion Post earlier. “They wanted to protect the family. They knew when they walked out that door they were walking to their deaths.”
Hermann Langer watched through a side window as the Americans marched off, being taunted by their captors the whole way.
“This was a war about exterminating certain races,” Child said, “and they were black.”
In the aftermath, Mathias Langer saw what the soldiers had endured.
Their faces were slashed, and many of them had been stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. A finger of one of the 11 was partially amputated. Mr. Aubrey died of a fractured skull — in a blow that was likely delivered by a rifle butt.
Back home in Piedmont, his parents received a form letter telling them their son died in combat.
It was around 1996, when Hermann Langer, no longer a little boy, put up a cross in that field to mark the spot.
And the word started getting out.
A love story
Four years ago, Coleman and his cousin, Kip Price, who now lives in Fairmont, started the “Mister Aubrey Project,” to tell the story across James Aubrey Stewart’s home state of West Virginia.
Simple talks evolved into audio-visual presentations. Coleman and Price visited Belgium, where they were welcomed into the Langer house.
Just like that cross in that field, a white congressman who was touched by the movie of Mr. Aubrey and his buddies decided he wanted to square history with the record.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, whose Pennsylvania district takes in Child’s hometown of Philadelphia, introduced a resolution with fellow lawmaker, Rep. Chaka Fattah, which would finally, officially, tell the story the way the people of Wereth said it happened.
The resolution would correct the 1949 Senate Armed Forces Committee report to accurately detail the men’s deaths, including the circumstances in the farmhouse and in that pasture after they were marched off.
Gerlach, a history and World War II buff, saw “The Wereth 11” by chance on the Military Channel in December.
“Every now and then, it takes history a while to accurately reflect the monumental moments that have helped chart its course,” he said.
“That’s all we’ve ever wanted,” Coleman said. “It’s about respect for Mr. Aubrey and 10 other brave Americans. It’s about unconditional love, because that’s what they had.”