In the winter of 1944-1945, within Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, better known as the launching pad of the Battle of the Bulge, two war crimes were committed. The better known one—the “Malmedy Massacre”—resulted in the deaths of at least 85 defenseless GIs who surrendered. They were herded into a snow-covered field near Baugnez and machine gunned to death. Then the perpetrators walked among survivors, calmly shooting them again at point-blank range. This atrocity made worldwide headlines. One month later, a second, lesser known mass execution occurred. This one, known as the Wereth 11 Massacre, took place at Wereth and involved 11 GIs from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. It led to a two-year U. S. Army investigation, from February 1945-February 1947. The Army’s conclusion: Shut the case down, close it up, and keep it, literally, top secret for decades.
Why such a discrepancy in investigating two major war crimes? The first, the Malmedy Massacre, involved all white GIs. The second, known as the Wereth 11 Massacre, involved 11 black GIs. Would the words “white” and “black” have any meaning here? Or were some other factors involved?
The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion got its start on paper on August 5, 1942. A month later it was established at Camp Gruber in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The Army determined the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion would be equipped with M-114 155mm “Long Tom” howitzers and be manned by “colored” troops, according to the Army’s classification at the time.
Camp Gruber reflected America’s racial tensions and attitudes common to that era. The camp was 18 miles outside Muskogee and 61 miles southeast of Tulsa. As the future members of the 333rd filtered into camp they were well aware of “Jim Crow” laws that dictated every facet of African American life, especially in the deep Southern states.
With Oklahoma being more of a border state, the black soldiers were hopeful that they would not be subject to the Jim Crow traditions. Culturally and heritage-wise, the soldiers were two generations removed from slavery. But perhaps they were unaware of an event that had occurred 21 years earlier in Tulsa, in a neighborhood known as Greenwood—an economically thriving, predominantly African American district of private, commercial, and professional businesses.
On May 31, 1921, under exaggerated, grossly out of control half-truths, an African American man was arrested. The purported charge was that he had offended or molested a white woman. Within 24 hours, a gang of white Tulsa residents burned nearly 40 blocks of the Greenwood neighborhood and killed 300 of that neighborhood’s citizens.
Tulsa, along with the help of the State of Oklahoma, acted quickly to minimize and restrict news of the horrific incident, so it did not get much notice in the national press. Twenty-one years following that murderous rampage, many of those arriving at Camp Gruber had no idea the event had occurred.
Two infantry divisions—the 42nd “Rainbow” and the 88th “Blue Devils”—were also activated at Camp Gruber, as it could house 35,000 military residents. When the raw recruits who would form the basis of the 333rd began arriving, they found three swimming pools, a lake for fishing, 10 baseball diamonds, and facilities for basketball, boxing, volleyball, weightlifting, and football. They also found the sentiments of a racially divided region; most of the facilities were segregated. Still, training had to proceed.
This story focuses on 11 trainees in particular. Tech. Sgt. William Pritchett was from Wilcox County, Alabama. He was born May 5, 1922. He may never have married but was known to have had a daughter. Corporal Mager Bradley, an enlistee, was born April 21, 1917, in Bolivar County, Mississippi. On December 2, 1943, he married 20-year-old Eva Marie James in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Jimmie Lee Leatherwood was born March 15, 1922, in Tupelo, Mississippi. While living in Texas, he married and the couple had one daughter who would never meet her father. Other members of the 11 were Georgia-born Corporal Robert Green, Private Nathaniel Moss from Texas, and Curtis Adams, a 32-year-old medic from Columbia, South Carolina. He was a newly married GI upon arrival at Camp Gruber and a new father.
At age 36, Tech. Sgt. James Aubrey Stewart was a more seasoned GI. Born in 1906, he had nearly 20 years of pitching baseballs for the Piedmont, West Virginia, semi-pro team, the Piedmont Colored Giants. Many who knew him openly wondered why he never moved forward with the professional Negro Baseball League. He enlisted in the Army in December 1942. His baseball skills were highly prized at Camp Gruber.
Private First Class George Davis was short in stature and was lovingly known by his comrades as “Li’l Georgie.” He was born in 1922 and drafted in May 1942. Before leaving home, Davis took a newspaper picture of Jesse Owens from the 1936 Olympics as an inspiration. Private First Class Due W. Turner was born in Columbia County, Arkansas, on March 11, 1922, but little else is known about him.
Another, more senior veteran soldier was Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Forte who was a cook in the 333rd; he was born in 1915 in Hinds County, Mississippi. Prior to joining the 333rd he had a simple, impoverished wedding on January 19, 1942, in Louisiana. All he could afford was a tin wedding ring. The farthest he got in school was completing grammar school. The last of these 11 was Pfc. George W. Motten, who was born in Texas, but other biographical information is lacking.
These 11 joined 540 other GIs to make up the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion.
A World War II 155mm howitzer battalion, at least according to the manual, consisted of 550 enlisted soldiers and 30 officers. Considering the demands of war, that number sometimes fluctuated.
This structure was divided into five batteries of four guns, or “tubes,” each: Able (A), Baker (B), Charley (C), Service Battery, and Headquarters Battery. According to the Table of Authorization, it took 120 soldiers to fill in a battery and 11 soldiers to efficiently operate a 155mm howitzer that weighed 12,000 pounds. Most typically, a lieutenant colonel commanded a battalion. The 333rd’s commander was 49-year-old Lt. Col. Harmon S. Kelsey from San Bruno, California—a veteran artillery officer who had served in World War I.
As with all African American units in the segregated Army the officers were predominately white. Kelsey, as was also usual, was not happy commanding a mostly black battalion. The overwhelming philosophy for the Jim Crow-era army was that African Americans were inept, undereducated soldiers, incapable of mastering the finer skills and demands of soldiering, and were generally worthless in combat.
Most white officers posted to lead black units found it a dead-end career path. None felt that such a unit, regardless of service and arms, would ever see actual combat. That is where Kelsey stood, and he had no qualms about expressing those sentiments. In regard to the 333rd personnel, he saw them in two colors; green and colored. He told them the only way to get out of the 333rd would be to be killed. In his mind, that would never happen. He was convinced the 333rd would never see combat. In due time this lieutenant colonel would have a major reversal of beliefs about his soldiers.
Most of the 333rd’s other 29 officers were white. The most influential of these junior officers was 21-year-old, Oklahoma-born Captain William Gene McLeod, son of a World War I veteran. At age 16, McLeod joined the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division, which used to the older style French 75mm howitzer from World War I. He became a sergeant, was eventually accepted into Officer Candidate School, and became a lieutenant in the artillery. In terms of personality, he was every bit the opposite of Kelsey.
One incident stands out. Curtis Adams, the black medic, was visited by his wife, Catherine, and their newborn son. Kelsey avoided the child, refusing to hold the infant. He told the parents an Army camp was no place for a baby, or a mother. But McLeod had no hesitations in cuddling the baby. McLeod saw the privileges of being white, but he stood by his trainees at every step of their training. He believed in his men, and they came to believe in him. Soldiers preferred to approach him over any other officer.
When German prisoners of war arrived at Camp Gruber, Tech. Sgt. William Edward Pritchett was compelled to deliver a concern to his captain. The men of the 333rd noticed the POWs were fed better than the 333rd and that white GIs showed more courtesy and respect for the Germans than to their fellow black comrades. McLeod forwarded those remarks to Kelsey, but they were shooed aside.