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James Aubrey Stewart

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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James Aubrey Stewart
1906-1944

“I am from and of a time and place—Piedmont, West Virginia—and that’s a world apart, a world of difference.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Army T/4 James Aubrey Stewart was born in Mineral County, West Virginia, on September 6, 1906 (although military records state his birth year as 1907), the son of James H. and Emma B. Stewart. It was a Stewart family tradition to call the children by their middle names (possibly because a family member already had the given name, as was the case of James Aubrey’s father), so James became known as “Aubrey,” and, as he grew older, “Mr. Aubrey.” Aubrey was the youngest sibling in a family that included brothers Harry and Leslie and sisters Mary Magnolia (usually called “Magnolia”), Fanchion, and Isabel.

James Aubrey Stewart’s early life was probably little different from that of his peers growing up in the small town of Piedmont, West Virginia. He attended Howard High School, the intellectual and social focus of the community. He joined the Waldon M.E. Church. And, as a young man, Mr. Aubrey received some acclaim as a pitcher for the Piedmont Giants Negro baseball team.
James Aubrey Stewart
James Aubrey Stewart
Courtesy T. J. Coleman.

By the time he volunteered for service in World War II, though, Aubrey was eighteen years into his career with the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company in Luke, Maryland. The paper mill was the place he and most of his friends would expect to work when they finished high school, and perhaps Aubrey was more likely than the others to become a respected employee of the company. According to TJ Coleman, a historian working on The Aubrey Stewart Project, James H. Stewart was the first black employee at the Westvaco Paper Mill, hired by Mr. Luke himself. Aubrey’s father became a skilled bricklayer and master carpenter at the mill, where most African American men were destined to work the loading docks.

James Aubrey Stewart and soldiers
Group of Piedmont soldiers.
Front row, L-R: unknown, Joe Majors, and Bryson Cole. Back row: Carl Fisher, Herman Thompson, Aubrey Stewart, and unknown.
Courtesy T. J. Coleman.
Mr. Aubrey was inducted into the Army at Clarksburg, West Virginia, on December 7, 1942. He trained at Camp Gruber and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was sent overseas in January 1944 as part of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. Though he never married and had no children, Mr. Aubrey was a devoted family man. In a lengthy letter to his mother, dated October 11, 1944, from “somewhere in Belgium,” he inquires about her health and tells her not to worry: “You should’nt want for a thing that’s what a send the money for to use as you see fit.” He makes light of the situation in which he finds himself, poking fun at his living conditions: “You should see our house—a hole with logs and dirt on top a big can for a stove & a radio. Its very comfortable Smile. Tell Fan & Doris Ill build them one. very cheap. ha ha.”

His last letter—written to his father—was dated December 7. His handwriting is strong and his tone, chatty. He talks about the weather being cold and the mail being slow. Aubrey asks his father to tell his niece Doris that he “saw a good USO show the other day feautreing Marlene Dietrich it was very good.” He talks about sending the family a box, which they probably won’t get in time for Christmas, but “better late than never.”

Technical Sergeant Stewart was reported missing on December 17, 1944, the day after the Germans launched their bitter winter counteroffensive in Belgium (now known as “The Battle of the Bulge”), and his death was confirmed on January 6, 1945. (More on the Battle of the Bulge can be found at http://www.army.mil/botb/ or http://worldwar2history.info/Bulge/. A detailed account of this military campaign is Hugh M. Cole’s online book The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge.)

Though the facts of the separation from their unit, their shelter in the rural village of Wereth, Belgium, and the eventual betrayal of Stewart and his fellow soldiers were obscured for some time, recent media attention has made the incredible saga of his small group more accessible. Disconnected from their unit, Mr. Aubrey and ten others stopped at a Wereth farmhouse, where initially they had the good fortune to be taken in by the family of Mathias Langer, a sympathizer to the Allies. After being given a meal of what food Mathias could spare, they were hidden in a barn with two deserting German soldiers and Mathias’ teenage son, also in hiding to keep from being conscripted by the Nazis. But the luck of the men (who came to be known as “The Wereth 11”) did not hold, as a neighbor informed a nearby German unit. Rather than jeopardize Langer’s family, the eleven surrendered, and the next day they were found hideously murdered in a snow-covered field behind Mathias’ farmhouse. The Wereth 11’s act of heroism likely spared not only the Langer family but also other sympathizers to the Allies in the pro-Nazi village. For his part in the action, Aubrey was awarded the Purple Heart. In February 2011 the National Geographic Channel featured a documentary film rendering of the full story—The Wereth 11.

Tech Sergeant Stewart was the uncle of four nephews serving in the armed forces (including Staff Sgt. Harry N. Stewart, serving in Luxembourg; Cpl. William Stewart, serving in India; and Pfc. James M. Stewart, serving in France); the fourth, Sgt. Clarence “Robert” Stewart (like William, serving in India) also lost his life in World War II. Mr. Aubrey is interred in Plot C, Row 11, Grave 2, in the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium. In Piedmont, a VFW post named for Aubrey Stewart has been disbanded.
James Aubrey Stewart
James Aubrey Stewart grave marker
Courtesy T. J. Coleman.

While much factual material has been amassed on James Aubrey Stewart—Mr. Aubrey—many questions remain. Why would someone closing in on middle age (Mr. Aubrey was in his late thirties when he volunteered), someone in a solid career with his company, risk all? As an African American soldier in the racially segregated U.S. Army of World War II, why would he be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice while at the same time not being able to fully participate in the society he left behind? A group of friends and relatives, determined to tell his remarkable story, think they may have some of the answers. TJ Coleman (a military veteran himself) and Kip Price (also a Piedmont native) co-founded The Aubrey Stewart Project in an effort to keep Mr. Aubrey’s memory alive. Among their many projects are restoring the Aubrey family home on Erin Street in Piedmont; founding a museum that reflects life in Piedmont as it was when Mr. Aubrey was growing up; and providing scholarships for deserving young people who have exhibited citizenship, community service, and selflessness in their high school careers. The project co-founders have taken the Aubrey Stewart story on the road, talking to elementary, middle, high school, and college audiences, as well as civic groups and senior citizens; spreading the word about this modest but courageous man; and inspiring young people. Coleman expects to publish his book Aubrey Stewart: One of the Wereth 11—One of Us in 2011.

Although Price and Coleman never met Mr. Aubrey, they think they know him. They describe him as a well-respected man, much loved by his family. This love was reciprocated in his letters and gifts to his nieces and nephews from places he passed through in the European campaign. He talked a lot about his battalion, and his letters demonstrated he liked to tell funny stories. Above all, they say, he never complained. Pictures of Mr. Aubrey, both civilian and military, show a humble man with a half smile. But it is his eyes that tell the story. They show the character of a caring man.

Information contributed by TJ Coleman, Kip Price, and Charles Stewart (now deceased, nephew of Aubrey Stewart).
Article by Patricia Richards McClure.

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