An Honorable Man:
PFC Jimmie Lee Leatherwood (Pontotoc County)
Died December 17, 1944 in Wereth, Belgium
"My beloved grandfather, you are an honorable man."
quote from Dalton S. Leatherwood on his grandfather's headstone.
It seems like such a simple statement from a grandson to a grandfather he never knew: "you are an honorable man". But when you hear the full story of Jimmie Lee Leatherwood, you realize that the short five word tribute is full of meaning.
Jimmie Lee Leatherwood was born in Tippah County, Mississippi. His family moved to Pontotoc County and he grew up there most of his life. At the age of 22, he found himself in the U.S. Army's 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, a regiment of African-American soldiers in what was then a segregated military. His battalion was known for its marksmanship with their big guns, once hitting a target dead on from over 9 miles away. What the Tuskegee Airmen were to the army Air Corps, the 333rd were to the Army's artillery division. December 1944 found the 333rd positioned in the middle of the American line in a region of Belgium called the Ardennes. With one of the coldest winters on record settling in, the Allied armies felt confident that the German army was content to regroup on its side of the border, poised for a spring offensive.
But that assumption was wrong and the morning of December 16, 1944 the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion found itself at the point of the spear. German units smashed right through their lines, overrunning the Americans, including PFC Jimmie Lee Leatherwood and his fellow soldiers. Through a series of confusing and chaotic events, eleven African-American soldiers found themselves separated from their unit and behind the rapidly advancing German lines. Not sure of which way to go in order to slip back behind the American line, the eleven men journeyed northward through thick snow and subfreezing temperatures all night long. They finally arrived at the tiny village of Wereth, Belgium where a local farmer took them into his home and hid them.
A local resident sympathetic to the German cause tipped off the authorities, and Nazi SS officers apprehended the Americans. Although the Americans surrendered willingly, the SS proceeded to march them just outside the village where all eleven men were tortured, mutilated, and then shot. Their bodies were left in the snow and the villagers warned not to touch them. When the Americans finally pushed the Germans back again a month later, the eleven men's bodies still lay frozen in the snow. They were buried in a small cemetery in Wereth, then moved to the Henri-Chappelle military cemetery after the war.
The group of men became known as the Wereth Eleven.
Unfortunately, even in death their suffering was not over. In the official report put together by a U.S. Senate subcommittee on German attrocities, the Wereth Eleven's story was entirely ommitted. After suffering the dishonor of dying so brutally at the hands of the enemy, they suffered the double dishonor of being forgotten by their own country. It wasn't until the early 2000s that the story of the Wereth Eleven became widely known.
Today, a memorial stands in their honor on the spot of their murders in Wereth, Belgium. Across the Atlantic, a new memorial stands in the College Hill cemetery in eastern Pontotoc County marking forever the heroic contribution of Jimmie Lee Leatherwood. It took 67 years for his country to say "thank you" in a proper way and agree with his grandson that Jimmie Lee Leatherwood was in fact "an honorable man". The truth be told, he had been one all along. He served his country in a far more honorable way in life than his country served him in death.