The Dominion Post
FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — This is the story of Mr. Aubrey and his brothers in arms.
A story of how 11 black soldiers in World War II sacrificed themselves to save the German family that took them in – a collective act of courage that may have even spared a whole village.
And, of how those soldiers were subsequently tortured, then murdered, just as much for the hue of their pigment as the insignias on their shoulders, most likely.
Along the way, this story also touches on a group of people from Mr. Aubrey's Mineral County hometown who decided they were going to look back with love – not hatred, anger or bitterness – to simply acknowledge the debt.
The story isn't exactly original, since a group of people on a former battlefield an ocean away has been marking the soldiers' death for the past 65 years.
Mr. Aubrey is Aubrey Stewart, of Piedmont, Mineral County, and this is how the story begins. Mr. Aubrey joined up in Dec. 1944, Germany was well on its way to losing the war – but Adolph Hitler wasn't hearing of it.
He launched one final, massive assault against the Allies: a wall of tanks and bullets known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Allies didn't give in but 75,000 Americans paid with their lives. Among them were Mr. Aubrey and 10 buddies who didn't get their due recognition for generations.
In 1944, the U.S. Army was still radically segregated, but this was war.
All-black units – whose soldiers otherwise had to drink from different water fountains – were being called to the front, to take the same bullets, and bleed the same blood, as the war roiled and raged.
One of those units was the 333rd Field Artillery out of Oklahoma and on its roster was a soft-spoken sergeant with an easy smile, who, technically, didn't have to be there: Aubrey Stewart. Mr. Aubrey.
That was mainly because of the date on his birth certificate. He was 36 in 1942, the year he joined up. The cutoff for the draft was 28. Stewart was on the threshold of middle age, yet he walked down to the induction center to take his oath.
Mr. Aubrey – that's how the people who are working to tell his story have come to call him – graduated from Piedmont's all-black Howard High School and proved himself to be pretty fierce on the pitcher's mound as an ace lefthander in the old Negro baseball leagues around the region.
PERSON OF COLOR
When it was time to go to work, he knocked it out of the park. He landed a job at the paper mill in Piedmont, which was plum employment for anyone in Mineral County in the 1920s and '30s – and especially so for a person of color.
Then the war broke out. He listened to the reports on the radio, saw the newsreels and thought about it. A lot.
And traded his paper mill coveralls in for Army khakis. Breaking bread – and keeping a secret, just after New Year's Day in 1944, the 333rd went overseas; and Mr. Aubrey helped man the giant Howitzers that pounded the Germans from afar.
Then came Dec. 17, the second day of the Battle of the Bulge. The 333rd, like every other American outfit, was getting just as much as it was giving. In the fighting, 11 soldiers, including Mr. Aubrey, got separated from the unit.
With German bullets whizzing through the air and just two rifles between them, they double-timed it to catch up. They cut across the war-scarred farmlands of rural Belgium, and when they were too tired to take another step, they tentatively knocked on the door of the first farmhouse they saw.
BAR OF SOAP
They were in the tiny village of Wereth and Mathius Langer welcomed them and offered the only thing his family could spare: slices of warm bread for each, with butter.
In return, the 11 soldiers of the 333rd proffered the only thing they could: a bar of soap.
During the course of the meal, the soldiers learned that Langer was a sympathizer to the Allies. In his barn were two German soldiers who deserted and Langer's teenage son, whom his father was hiding out, to keep him from being yanked into the Nazi SS.
A neighbor tipped off a nearby German unit and when they knocked on Langer's door, 11 soldiers exchanged glances, and acted as one. They surrendered, gambling their lives to save those of Langer's family – and those of the German soldiers and Langer's son hiding nearby.
The next day, Langer found their bodies in a snow-covered field behind his farmhouse. Arms and legs of some of the soldiers were broken.
Others had bayonet wounds and the fingers of one the soldiers were partially severed.
Mr. Aubrey died of a fractured skull – from a blow to the back of his head. Frau Rikken rails against history. “Man, I'll tell you what – I tear up every time I see that,” Kip Price said recently, from the media room of his house on Benoni Avenue, in Fairmont.
TORTURED AND MURDERED
The room is a celebration of black achievement in the arts, with its framed, autographed pictures of Richard Pryor, B.B. King and Chuck Berry collaborator Johnnie Johnson – the boogie-woogie piano player and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member from Fairmont said to be the inspiration for Berry's “Johnnie B. Goode.”
On his computer monitor, though, is a white, stout, elderly woman speaking in heavily accented English about Mr. Aubrey and the others of the 333rd who were taunted, then tortured and murdered by German soldiers that night in 1944.
“Such brave men,” said Adda Rikken, who died this past January. “Such brave Americans. Every rule of the Geneva Convention was violated that day.”
Rikken had served as president of the Wereth Memorial Foundation, which every year honors Mr. Aubrey and the others who are simply known there as the “Wereth 11.”
The soldiers' quick act of surrender, she said on that video, resulted in their suffering and deaths but it saved the family and most likely kept other sympathizers in the then pro-Nazi town from being rounded up and executed.
That no one in the States, or Piedmont, knew for decades was galling, Price's cousin, T.J. Coleman, said.
Mr. Aubrey's relatives in West Virginia and elsewhere learned the history 15 years ago from a television news report in Washington, D.C. – but little has been done here since to remember the soldiers.
And Mr. Aubrey is buried in an American cemetery in Belgium, which means no one here can pay respects each Memorial Day.
That's now changing, Coleman said.
Several months ago, Coleman, Price and a handful of others in Piedmont formed the “Aubrey Stewart Project” a group determined to soldier the stories of Mr. Aubrey and the others who died that day in Wereth.
Two months ago, the group staged a “Unity Day”celebration and unveiled a sign that now tells visitors that Piedmont is the home of “World War II and Battle of the Bulge Hero Aubrey Stewart.”
“It's a start,” said Coleman, who, like Mr. Aubrey, is a black man who served his country.
He retired from the U.S. Air Force, and says he's now ready to take off on a mission telling the next generation of young blacks not just about the circumstance of a unit in the Battle of the Bulge but, rather, how one group of people remained steadfast and positive in the face of racism.
“The young people coming up don't seem to want to know what it was like and what the people did for them,” he said. “When I joined the military, I went in as an equal and it was because of people like Mr. Aubrey and everyone else who went before me.”
It was about people In Piedmont, the old Howard High isn't around anymore, and neither is Piedmont High, which closed to consolidation in the 1970s.
But the house Mr. Aubrey grew up in still stands on Erin Street and the Aubrey Stewart Project wants to eventually make it a museum honoring the Wereth 11.
A community center bearing Stewart's name would be nice, too, Price said.
“It's about our town and our young people,” said Price, who never lost touch with his hometown, even though he now lives and works in Fairmont as a materials technician with Allegheny Power.
“We've got a lot of things we want to get done,” Price said, “and I think we can make it happen.”
In death, Price said, Mr. Aubrey can still offer up a lot of life-lessons for a generation of young blacks, that, like his cousin Coleman, he feels are on their way to being lost.
“It's about the way Mr. Aubrey carried himself,” he said. “And it's about what the people of Wereth have been doing since the war. In that farmhouse that night, it wasn't about ‘black’ and ‘white’ – it was about people.”