Resolution working its way through Congress to recognize massacred soldiers
By RUSTY MARKS | The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. | Published: February 9, 2014
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two U.S. congressmen from Pennsylvania have submitted a resolution to correct the historic record about a group of black artillerymen -- including one West Virginian -- massacred by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Tech. Sgt. James Aubrey Stewart, of Piedmont in Mineral County, was among the 11 black soldiers tortured and killed near the town of Wereth, Belgium, on Dec. 17, 1944. The men have come to be known as the Wereth 11.
Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach and Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah introduced a resolution in December to formally honor the men who died in Wereth and to amend a 1949 Armed Services Committee report that omitted the Wereth massacre from a list of atrocities committed by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
"I just think it's appropriate that we do that," said Gerlach, a six-term congressman who stumbled upon the story of the Wereth 11 while watching a documentary about the battle.
"It struck me as patently unfair that these servicemen were not properly recognized by the Armed Services Committee at that time," Gerlach said.
Although none of the 11 soldiers killed at Wereth were from Pennsylvania, Gerlach said it was important to correct the historic record and remember the artillerymen who gave their lives there.
Stewart, 37 at the time of his death, was assigned to the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion when the Germans began a surprise offensive on Dec. 16, 1944 that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Stewart and 10 comrades found themselves outnumbered and overrun, 11 miles behind enemy lines.
The group made their way to Wereth, where a Belgian farmer hid them in a barn. But the Germans found out, and Stewart and the others surrendered early on the morning of Dec. 17.
The 11 soldiers refused to divulge who had hidden them, and were beaten with rifle butts, stabbed with bayonets, shot and left to die in a Belgian ditch.
Members of the Belgian family who sheltered the artillerymen considered the men heroes and erected a monument to the Wereth 11, but the story of the massacre remained virtually unknown in the United States until recently. Army researchers knew of the massacre at the time, but did not recommend the incident for follow-up investigation.
Gerlach said commemorative resolutions do not usually make it to the floor of the House of Representatives, but said the resolution on the Wereth 11 is different, because it asks for official action by the Armed Services Committee.
"I think there's strong interest in doing it," he said. "We've been working with House leadership to get it onto the floor for consideration, hopefully sometime in the next week or two."
Kip Price, who grew up with Stewart's family, said he and Stewart's relatives are happy with the congressional action. For the past four years, Price has been working with the Aubrey Stewart Project, a group of friends and relatives who have made it their mission to spread Stewart's story around the state.
"It means the world to me personally," Price said. "It's never too late to make amends and honor these soldiers."
Price expects a similar resolution to be introduced in the U.S. Senate.