Filmmaker Robert Child speaks to the Binghamton University Forum about his Emmy-nominated movie "The Wereth Eleven" during a breakfast session at the Riverwalk Hotel on Nov. 14.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Forum looks back to discover ‘Wereth Eleven’Tweet
Filmmaker Robert Child provided the Binghamton University Forum with a glimpse into World War II heroism on Nov. 14 when he discussed “The Wereth Eleven: An Untold War Crime.”
Child used clips from his 2011 Emmy-nominated docudrama “The Wereth Eleven” to help tell the largely unknown story of 11 African-American GIs who were tortured and killed by the Germans at the start of the Battle of the Bulge.
“Sometimes films can make a difference,” Child told Forum members at Riverwalk Hotel in Binghamton. “Wereth is about awareness – making people aware of this story.”
The 11 GIs were members of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion and saw their position overrun by the Germans on Dec. 17, 1944. The 11 traveled 10 miles in freezing temperatures to Wereth, Belgium, a small town near the German border that consisted of nine houses. One of the town residents, a farmer named Martin Langer, took the GIs in and gave them food and water. Langer urged the 11 to keep moving, but the men could barely stand after their travels.
“The Langer family was taking a great risk sheltering 11 GIs – especially African-Americans,” Child said.
Unfortunately for the GIs, six of the nine houses in Wereth were loyal to the Germans, and a woman soon tipped the SS on the whereabouts of the 11. The Germans arrived, ordered the men into a field and brutally tortured and killed them. Their bodies would not be discovered for another month.
The U.S. Army soon sent an investigative unit, Child said, but closed the case after two years.
“You can imagine the racial climate at the time,” he said. “They did not put a lot of effort into it.”
Child, a producer and director, who has made military-history films such as “Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom,” learned about Wereth from an Alabama surgeon named Norman Lichtenfeld. He runs an American fund for the Wereth Eleven memorial in Belgium and urged Child to make a movie about the experience.
Lichtenfeld was then contacted by a World War II enthusiast—Joseph Small—who was traveling through Europe and visited Wereth. When Small was told of Child’s possible involvement, he vowed to provide $500,000 to fund the film.
“I never expected this film to be funded,” Child said. “Thank goodness for Joe and his vision. He is a great man.”
While both heroic and tragic, “The Wereth Eleven” is also shocking: The atrocities were not even listed as Battle of the Bulge war crimes in a 1949 report.
“When Joe discovered this, it was just unbelievable to us,” Child said. “That was what made us decide to take on the mission of making this film.”
“The Wereth Eleven” debuted at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and was screened to a nationwide audience on the National Geographic Channel in February 2011. It would go on to receive the top honor (Founder’s Choice Award) at the GI Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2012. The movie is now out on DVD and will soon be seen on the Military Channel.
The public is slowly learning the story of the Wereth Eleven and the only memorial in Europe dedicated to the service of African-American soldiers in World War II. Child said that Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is a descendant of one of the 11 GIs and has given a copy of the movie to President Obama. Child also provided a DVD of the film to actor Morgan Freeman, who he met at the Emmy Awards. Freeman has been trying to make a movie about the 761st tank battalion in World War II for the past several years.
“This film has taken on a life of its own,” Child said. “People are discovering more about it and making efforts to honor and remember these men. I think this film is just the platform for people to go into action.”