The Hinsons Trip to Europe
Summary of Saturday, May 23, 1998
By Fred Hinson
On December 17, 1944 eleven men of a Black artillery unit (the 333rd/3rd Army) operating in eastern Belgium near the German border was in the unenviable position of being one of the American combat units at the point of the initial all out German assault through the Ardennes Forest which later would be termed "The Battle of the Bulge".
Faced with being imminently overrun, they pulled back from their position - becoming part of the general retreat of American forces during the early hours of the German onslaught.
Coming upon a small hamlet in the mountains of the region called Wereth - exhausted, freezing and hungry and believing the hamlet to be already occupied by the enemy (seeing strong indications that they were cut off from Americans lives) they approached the town in order to surrender.
The hamlet had not yet been occupied by the Nazis, however, and local towns people took them in, gave them food and allowed them to rest.
Enemy troops did enter the hamlet shortly thereafter and demanded to know where the "nigger" soldiers were, having been tipped by sympathizers that they were in the area. The town's people denied any knowledge of their whereabouts or giving any aid or comfort to them. (Eye witnesses related [during our visit] that the GIs were told to make a run for it. But they were still too exhausted to attempt any further evasion).
All eleven voluntarily surrendered to the German forces in that area - to become more of the several thousand American POWs taken during those early hours of the general attack.
The Nazis forced them to sit on the freezing ground for hours. Then, under cover of darkness, hideously tortured all eleven men for hours (from autopsy reports) before executing them and leaving them to rot in a roadside ditch.
Subsequent inquiries into the atrocity by American forces, having yielded no positive identification of the perpetrators, were closed and never mentioned again by the military.
The incident would never have come to light were it not for accounts being leaked to the news media over 50 years later - as was reported by WJLA - DC Channel 7 news in 1996.
The inhabitants of the little hamlet of Wereth have remembered the sacrifices of those 11 Black GIs however. Having suffered heavy collateral battle damage and destruction of their homes and losses of loved ones during the heavy fighting, they non-the-less suffered no reprisals for giving aid to the GIs from the Nazis.
As brutal reprisals against civilians were the Nazis standard mode of operation, the hamlet of Wereth knew that even though they were tortured gruesomely - the 11 GIs must not have revealed the identity of those households who gave them aid.
Through all the 53 years since that horrendous day the hamlet of Wereth, Belgium has remembered those GIs in their hearts and in annual memorial services in recognition of their sacrifice.
On Saturday, May 23, 1998 - Fred Hinson, Sr., a Black GI who had served with the 4198/312 Quartermaster Battalion (3rd Army) during the "Battle of the Bulge" happened to be back in Belgium on holiday - after 53 years, visiting a number of areas of service during his combat tour in the war. He was accompanied by his son Fred Hinson, Jr.
He was invited among many others to attend the annual Memorial Day services held at the Ardennes American War Memorial where a number of old veterans (identifying each other primarily by the amount of gray and white hair) recognized others who had been through that terrific struggle. They would reminisce across the decades with each other - often finishing each other's sentences - as if they were young GIs again.
Later Hinson, Sr. and his small party visited the memorial site honoring the massacre of over 80 American POWs by the Nazis in the area of the Belgium town of Malmade - a more widly known atrocity committed by the Nazis during the war.
The highlight of the trip, and according to Hinson, Jr., the entire European tour was when they arrived in that little hamlet of Wereth. The Hinsons coincidently were in Europe during the time of traditional memorial day observances. Through the network of memorial organizations, Wereth learned that a Black American World War II veteran who had served in the area would be within driving distance of their little hamlet on the day they would be observing the memorial to these 11 Black GIs.
Arrangements were made and on the afternoon of Saturday, May 23rd, Fred Hinson, Sr. and Jr. along with his daughter (an American diplomat serving in Belgium) as well as several other Belgium citizens and retired military arrived at the Wereth Memorial. Many of the hamlet's residents including members of each household were present; the hamlet's Burgermiester as well.
The heart felt warmth and appreciation for American deliverance during the war and especially the sacrifice of those 11 Black GIs was very emotional for all parties present - even after 53 years.
Fred Hinson, Sr. was honored to have laid a wreath at the base of the stone cross erected some years later. The American and Belgium national anthems were played and a Belgium honor guard of veterans and Town's citizens saluted with flags at the end of the solemn ceremony.
Later at the hamlet's only pub, the Burgermiester and many witnesses to the event and the Hinson party gathered for a toast and to reminisce their war stories. It was fascinating to hear the different perspectives in which the war was experienced by those who were there, said Hinson, Jr. Sobering too when they were shown the actual forests, fields and mountains through which the Germans launched their all out assault as a last ditch effort to gain the advantage during the war. Young Hinson commented that the areas looked startlingly similar to the Blue ridge and Massonutten mountains and valley areas of the Shenandoah.
Eye witness accounts of the Wereth massacre, the actual site where the 11 Black GIs were found and aged photographs of their mutilated corpses were emotionally wrenching for many in attendance.
Gifts were exchanged, toasts were made and hugs were shared. By the time the Hinson party was ready to leave a bond of genuine friendship had been formed across racial and national boundaries among those who had shared the experience of the war and among those who had merely witnessed the reverence, gratitude and warmth shared that day in that small Belgium hamlet.
Hinson, Jr. relayed that he came away with a feeling that he had been extremely privileged to be at this place at this time to witness such an occasion. At 75 years of age Hinson, Sr. was usually in the lead through airports, train stations and on field tours with Hinson, Jr. following along often at an embarrassing distant rear. "I can only hope I have my father's health genes" Hinson, Jr. said.
Thank God for such a wonderful opportunity to experience this tour with my father and my sister and her husband who both arranged it all.
Fred Hinson, Jr.