WERETH, Belgium --
"Staff Sergeant Forte."
"Staff Sergeant Forte!"
"Staff Sergeant Thomas J. Forte!!!"
The voices belong to Airmen serving in today's Air Force, while the names belong to Soldiers killed half a century before the Airmen were born.
But the reason tying them together for one moment centered on recognizing the fallen for their sacrifice and the example they gave to millions who later followed them.
More than 20 Airmen assigned to Spangdahlem Air Base conducted a roll call ceremony at the Wereth 11 Memorial site in Wereth, Belgium, Feb. 28.
The site honors 11 African-American Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army's segregated 333rd Field Artillery Battalion murdered in December 1944.
"Today, we gather here to not only acknowledge the Wereth 11 but all black service members of the United States who served during World War II," said Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Michael Lee, 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron superintendent and event guest speaker. "It was through the sacrifices of the Wereth 11 and others like them that we thrive today. Let us never forget that honor, bravery and loyalty are not defined by the color of one's skin or whether one serves in a military force, but by the actions one takes."
Nearly 70 years ago, the 11 Soldiers became separated from their group during action in the Battle of the Bulge. The Soldiers had no food, fought exhaustion and kept on the run from enemy forces before finding shelter and sustenance from a Belgian farmer's family in the village of Wereth.
But while they were eating, enemy forces arrived at the house - presenting the Soldiers with a fateful decision.
"Although they were separated from their battalion and trying to make their way back to American lines, they realized had they resisted the German forces, it could have possibly resulted in the death of the people who helped them out when they most needed it," Lee said. "That was not something I believe they wanted to do, and, to ensure their safety, they surrendered without any resistance to make sure no one was harmed or killed."
Enemy forces walked the men from the house to a nearby field where they tortured and eventually murdered them. U.S. Infantrymen later discovered the bodies of the men - later dubbed the "Wereth 11" - weeks later as part of the expanding military campaign.
On the site of the massacre, a Belgian private organization acquired the land where the Wereth 11's bodies were recovered and developed a memorial not only to their memory but all African-Americans who served in World War II.
"The Wereth 11 are indicative of the invisible soldiers of World War II," Lee said. "They were part of a segregated unit that fought as well as any other unit in the Allied forces, but, due to circumstances beyond their control, were largely unacknowledged if not forgotten."
During a roll call ceremony, a first sergeant will call out the names of flight members.
When called upon, members are expected to say they are present. If no reply is first given, the first sergeant will call out the member's name once more followed by their full name and rank.
For this ceremony, 11 Spangdahlem Airmen served as a member of the Wereth 11 to state that their representing Soldier was not present for roll call.
With all members acknowledged as unaccounted for, ceremony members played a recording of a ceremonial volley followed by a bugler playing Taps to signify the loss of the fallen Soldiers and that the memory of their loss endured.
"As far as I'm concerned, they're American heroes," Lee said. "Regardless of the fact that history may have forgotten them or if we may not hear more about them, they are heroes in every sense of the word."
Anne-Marie Noël-Simon, president of the Wereth memorial organization and one of the ceremony's attendees, echoed Lee's sentiments about the significance of remembering the Wereth 11.
"It is important to thank these men, because they gave their lives for us and for freedom, just like you all do now," said Noël-Simon, while thanking the Airmen. "Freedom is not free."
The Wereth 11
Tech. Sgt. William E. Pritchett
Tech. Sgt. James A. Stewart
Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Forte
Corporal Mager Bradley
Corporal Robert Green
Private First Class George Davis
Private First Class James Leatherwood
Private First Class George W. Moten
Private First Class Due W. Turner
Private Curtis Adams
Private Nathaniel Moss
For more photos of the ceremony, visit the following link to the Spangdahlem Flickr photo set