By Hiroko Sato
WINCHENDON -- Christian de Marcken remembers hearing bullets fly over his house in Belgium in December 1944. Bombs exploded just yards away.
De Marcken knew he would be killed if he was caught. German soldiers were known for their brutality. And they had just ambushed the Allied troops and decimated their ranks in Adolf Hitler's last-ditch effort to regain control.
To put the gravity of the Battle of the Bulge in perspective, said John McAuliffe, a Worcester veteran, 83,000 soldiers were wounded and 20,000 killed just in six weeks. William "Woody" Ford, a Tewksbury veteran, also saw countless wounded soldiers carried into a field hospital where he worked. But Ford said he never doubted American troops would overwhelm the Germans in the end.
That's because American servicemen -- including black soldiers who "couldn't serve alongside of other fellow soldiers" because of the segregation policy -- were willing to do anything to fight for their country, said Coleman Nee, state secretary of veterans' services. Among them were the 11 black soldiers known as the "Wereth 11," who were tortured and massacred by the Germans in Wereth, Belgium.
On Friday afternoon, members of the Central Massachusetts Chapter 22 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and state legislators marked the 70th anniversary of that sacrifice by rededicating the Battle of the Bulge and Wereth 11 memorials at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon.
De Marcken has made it his mission to honor the 11 black soldiers along with all American troops who fought in the battle, the Germans' last major offensive of World War II.
"We were liberated by the Americans. (This) is to say thank you to the veterans," de Marcken said.
"We have to honor every soldier who sacrificed his life, but more so for those who were persecuted," Ford said.
According to de Marcken, a Battle of the Bulge historian from West Boylston, the memorial that he and his wife worked to have installed in 2006 is the only one exclusively dedicated to the Wereth 11 in the United States.
Those who are known as the Wereth 11 were members of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. Residents in Wereth took them in after they escaped the German attacks. German SS troops arrived in Wereth shortly thereafter, and brutally killed the 11 men, who were later found with wounds to their heads and fingers cut off. Because villagers feared the SS, they left the bodies untouched until they emerged from the snow two months later. The incident was reported to the U.S. government, which marked it "secret," according to state legislators.
All 11 soldiers were from the South, according to de Marcken, who has been working to raise public awareness about these heroes. After hearing the Wereth 11 story and the project to rededicate the country's only memorial for the men located in Massachusetts from Shirley veteran Joe Landry, state Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, rallied around fellow legislators to make the ceremony a reality.
"It's been a missing page of the history," Harrington said of the Wereth 11 story. "But it shouldn't be missing from our memory."
State lawmakers who worked on the project included Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg; Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg; Rep. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer; Rep. Jon Zlotnik, D-Gardner; and Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston.
Fox, who is the sole black female representative in the House, said she was glad to know that people of Wereth took care of the 11 men who "looked like me." And she is grateful to the 11 soldiers for giving their lives to the country so that she and her grandchildren and their grandchildren could enjoy freedom.
Nee praised the 11 men's bravery and called their story "awe-inspiring."
Before the ceremony, Landry said he remembers driving a truck known as the Red Bullet Express that carried troops and supplies through 2-foot-snow during the Battle of the Bulge. Those trucks often carried many black soldiers who were regarded more expendable, said Marydith Tuitt, a U.S. Navy veteran and a state Status of Women commissioner.
Because of segregation, black soldiers rode in their own tanks, said John McAuliffe, founder and president of Central Massachusetts Chapter 22 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.
"They supported us," McAuliffe said of black soldiers.
Those who attended the ceremony said they were glad to be able to recognize those who did not receive medals or awards for their sacrifice.
Central Massachusetts Chapter 22 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge now has about 40 members, down from 200 it once had. Though World War II veterans are aging and dying off, some remain to tell their stories, McAuliffe said.
"This is the greatest country in the world," Ford said after helping rededicate the monument.