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December 16th, 2017

Insight

Saving Private Turner

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 29, 2014

Pfc. Due W. Turner is no longer the unknown soldier of Columbia County, Arkansas.

At last his name has been added to the monument dedicated to the country's veterans on the courthouse square in Magnolia, Arkansas.

That empty space on the list of Columbia County's veterans of World War II had stood waiting to be filled all these years, like a silent sentinel. The committee in charge of the monument, once it learned that one of the county's own had been overlooked all these years, did its duty -- just as Private Turner had done his. At long last, it is an honor to report, his name has been engraved alongside those of his comrades in arms. America does not forget its own, and neither does this largely rural county in South Arkansas.

To appreciate, and apprehend, the saga of this one American soldier, you'd have to go back to the wartime year 1944 -- to Christmas of 1944. That was months after the Allied landings at Normandy had mesmerized the world as the greatest armada in history hit the beaches and breached Hitler's Fortress Europa.

That series of siege guns, pre- sighted targets, bunkers, and obstacles of every kind had been four years in the steel-and-concrete making, complete with barbed wire, mines, and anything else German thoroughness, precision and ingenuity could produce. It was supposed to be impregnable. Until June 6, 1944, now better known as D-Day.

As that terrible year drew to its end among all the casualty reports, and the flood of dreaded telegrams from the War Department with the worst possible news arrived back home, bright hope now shone with the Christmas lights. Having finally broken out of the hedgerows in France, encountered bridges too far, made advances that had to be turned into retreats, the Allied armies were poised on the edge of victory. It lay just across the Rhine, waiting to be seized. Hopes soared. The boys could be home by Christmas! And then....

The last great German offensive of the war was launched, taking the Allies completely by surprise. Whole divisions of the Wehrmacht had been called back from the Eastern front to stem the Allied advance in the West -- and suddenly panzers were everywhere. The bulge in the Allied lines had erupted, the Germans were breaking through everywhere, and the outcome of the war was suddenly in doubt.

The Battle of the Bulge had begun and, with it, the horrors of war returned. One of them, called Malmedy, would make every American swear vengeance. It was near that village in Belgium that a lightly armed American convoy trying to escape the rout was captured by the SS, the GIs collected in an open field, and then ... mowed down by machine-gun fire.

When American forces regained the initiative and returned a month later, they would find 84 frozen bodies under the snow. But word of the atrocity had spread within hours of the massacre. And so did the rage. All along Allied lines. And back home. The mask of the enemy had been torn away, the evil underneath it revealed again. It wasn't necessary to put the order in writing: Take no prisoners. A fever for revenge took hold, and would have to run its course before it abated. For who could forget Malmedy?

But who remembered Wereth? That's the little hamlet in Belgium where a small detachment of the redoubtable 333rd Field Artillery Battalion had taken refuge. The 333rd, an all-black outfit in those Jim Crow days, had fought its way across northern Europe since D-Day, only to be caught in the Bulge along with the rest of VIII Corps. The detachment had been part of two batteries left behind to cover the American retreat when the front collapsed, and the trap had closed on them.

Mathias and Maria Langer hid the fleeing Americans in their farmhouse, but an informant told the SS about them. The 11 exhausted Americans were taken prisoner and marched off at double time. To a small, muddy field where they were killed, but not before being tortured and maimed. Legs were broken, skulls crushed, fingers cut off. Their ordeal must have lasted for the better part of a day; the Americans had become playthings to be torn apart for the amusement of sadists. When the U.S. 99th Infantry Division returned a month later, it would find only what was left of their remains.

Then the Wereth Eleven were forgotten, as if they had disappeared from history. Till half a century later. That's when Hermann Langer, the son of Mathias and Maria, would put up a cross at the site of the Forgotten Massacre in 1994. His sister Tina said he was haunted by the memory of the black GIs emerging from the farmhouse to be taken away, and was determined to commemorate the massacre. A decade later, a stone monument would be erected on the site. The Belgians had remembered.

They had come from all over the South, the Wereth Eleven -- from Mississippi and Texas and South Carolina and West Virginia and Texas and Alabama ... and one of them was from Arkansas:

PFC Due W. Turner, Service No. 38383369, who now lies buried at Henri-Chapelle, Plot F Row 5 Grave 9. He's officially listed as a native of Columbia County, Arkansas, but back home he was represented only in absentia by that empty space on the county's war memorial ... like a witness waiting to testify.

But now that monument bears one more name, thanks in large part to the efforts of Pam Ravenscraft, the Columbia County veterans service officer who played a leading role in rectifying this old, old oversight. Contributions in memory of Private Turner may be sent to Veterans Service Office, 101 South Court Square, Magnolia, AR 71753.

Welcome home, Private Turner. For one more name now appears on that monument:

Due W. Turner

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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