Pontotoc County seeking to honor black WWII soldier

By David Helms/The Pontotoc Progress

Sixty-seven years after Army Pfc Jimmy Lee Leatherwood and 10 other black U.S. soldiers were tortured and murdered by German SS troops, Pontotoc County residents are hoping to erect a service monument in recognition of maybe the only African-American soldier from Pontotoc County to have been killed in World War II.

Leatherwood’s daughter, 68-year-old Jimmie Mae Leatherwood Taylor, met with members of the Pontotoc County Historical Society and Bill Wardlaw, Pontotoc County Veterans Service Officer, last Friday and verified that her father was buried in College Hill Cemetery, about eight miles east of Pontotoc.

According to the November 20, 1947, edition of The Pontotoc Progress, Jimmy Lee Leatherwood was buried in College Hill Cemetery on Sunday, November 16, 1947.

However, earlier efforts to locate his grave site were unsuccessful because no headstone was ever erected.

Jimmie Mae Leatherwood Taylor, who now lives in Tupelo, walked the grounds of the 137-year-old cemetery with the group last week and showed the proximity of where her daddy was buried.

“The historical society is honored to play a small part in locating Mr. Leatherwood’s resting place and to help tell his story and ultimate sacrifice along with countless others in World War II ,” said Martha Jo Coleman, secretary for the Pontotoc County Historical Society.

Coleman said the historical society voted Saturday to erect a memorial service monument at the cemetery honoring Leatherwood.

“We’re working with the Leatherwood family in finalizing plans for the monument and hope to have it in place soon,” Coleman said.

Jimmy Lee Leatherwood was born March 16, 1920, in Tippah County, but shortly thereafter his family moved to the College Hill Community in Pontotoc County where he was raised, his daughter said.

Leatherwood was inducted into the U.S. Army in March 1942 and was assigned to the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion.

The 333rd Battalion landed at Utah Beach on June 29,1944 as part of the Normandy Invasion.

On December 16,1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German Army began shelling the village of Schonberg, Belgium and Leatherwood’s unit was overrun.

Leatherwood and 10 other black soldiers eluded capture and walked 10 miles through the deep snow in hopes of reaching American lines.

On the afternoon of December 17 the exhausted soldiers reached the rural hamlet of Wereth, Belgium, where a farm family tried to hide them.

But a short time later a Nazi sympathizer notified German SS troops that American soldiers were hiding in the house, which belonged to the Mathius Langer family.

When the German soldiers arrived, the Americans, armed with only two rifles between them, surrendered.

The 11 soldiers were marched down the road to a ditch where they were maimed, shot and mutilated by the German soldiers.

Afraid of the German soldiers, the villagers did not touch the dead American soldiers, whose bodies were covered by snow.

In January when American troops retook Wereth, villagers directed U.S. troops to the site of the murdered soldiers.

Seven of the soldiers remain buried in the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, but after the war the bodies of Leatherwood and three others were returned to their families for burial.

“The Wereth Eleven,” a 60-minute film docudrama which chronicles the capture, torture and killing of the 11 black soldiers was released in 2011.

The film, written and directed by Rob Child and produced by Joseph Small, was honored with the Founder’s Choice Award at the 2011 GI Film Festival in Washington.

Genealogist Steve Cole, a native of Leflore County who now lives in Collierville, TN, became intrigued by the “Wereth Eleven,” and initiated the search for Leatherwood’s grave site more than seven months ago.

When he could not find the grave, Cole turned to the historical society for assistance.

“ I thought it would be easy, but it didn’t turn out that way at all, but now it’s going to have a successful ending and I’m really happy for the Leatherwood family,” Cole said.

Cole said the “Wereth Eleven” filmmakers have commissioned a special showing of the film at the Pontotoc County Library on Tuesday night, February 21, beginning at 7 p.m.

Jimmy Mae Leatherwood Taylor, whose son Steve lives in Amory, said she’s thankful for the efforts to memorialize her father.

Taylor said her father’s Purple Heart Medal was lost years ago when her purse was stolen.

Sadly, she said that a replacement Purple Heart Medal (along with other medals) was lost when a fire destroyed her apartment in 2000.

She said the few pictures she had of her father were also lost in the fire.

Bill Wardlaw said his office is going through the proper channels to see if replacement medals can be awarded.

Wardlaw said he has also contacted the Army Archives to see if any photographs of Pfc Leatherwood can be found.

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