Southold filmmaker focuses on WW2 heroes

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Joseph Small watches one of the interviews from the film at his Southold home on Tuesday.

On Dec. 17, 1944, 11 African American soldiers were tortured and killed by German troops in a snowy field in Wereth, Belgium.

Joseph Small of Southold, 49, a World War II buff, grew up listening to his uncle Bill Mehary of Rockville Centre tell tales about the war.

“I’ve always had a fascination with World War II,” said Mr. Small, who read everything he could about the topic. In 2008, he embarked on what he called “the trip of a lifetime” with his wife, Mary Jane, to visit European battlefields.

During that trip, he “stumbled across Wereth and jotted it down in my journal,” he said. “Something really struck me. I wanted to find out who they were, who they left behind and whose hearts they’d broken,” he said of the 11 who perished there.

“It’s just a story that needed to be told,” Mr. Small said.

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, Mr. Small’s film “Caught by the SS: The Wereth Eleven” will premiere on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. Three days later, it will be shown at the World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The film features African American veterans of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated Army unit that landed at Normandy in July 1944 and was later cut off from the American advance into Belgium near the village of Wereth. Mr. Small found the survivors, now in their 90s, all around the country.

The hour-long film includes war footage interspersed with re-enactments and interviews with the veterans.

Mr. Small had never made a film before, but on his return to the United States, he wrote a five-page pitch and sent it to various film producers. He initially got no takers, but some encouraged him to try elsewhere. National Geographic finally opted to back the film and scheduled its showing for Black History Month.

Mr. Small, who is the executive producer, hired a crew and a researcher and got started. A part owner of Tempo Instrument Inc., a defense contractor in Commack, he wouldn’t say what the film cost him. He did say it took a lot of time away from his family.

“I disappeared for a couple of years,” he said about the traveling and attention the film demanded.

He appears in the documentary, but much of the tale is told by the veterans. Perhaps the most moving is former staff sergeant George Shomo, who Mr. Small found in New Jersey.

“As a black soldier in the United States Army, you weren’t as good as a dog,” Mr. Shomo says in the film. Troops in his battalion were continually on the front lines, he says.

“I was really moved and saddened by this story,” Mr. Small said. “I thought the men’s dignity was taken away from them.”

He was determined to make sure Americans and Europeans would recognize their sacrifice. “What I wanted to do was introduce these men to the world and say that they were heroes,” he said.

There’s a memorial to the Wereth Eleven on the field where they died, after having been captured in a farmhouse where they’d taken refuge. The Germans ordered the men to sit in the frozen field, where they were tortured and shot and where their bodies, with severed fingers and broken bones, were later found. The site looks idyllic in the film, with spinning wind turbines nearby.
Watching the film in his Southold home last week, Mr. Small uttered one word as the re-enacted massacre scenes appeared on screen: “Bastards.”

Mr. Small is wrapping up a second film on the story of the USS Franklin, one of the most heavily damaged aircraft carriers during World War II. He’s hoping it will be picked up by the National Geographic Channel, too. He’s also working on a two-hour World War II film he hopes will be distributed in theaters.

But whatever happens with his new film career, “Caught by the SS: The Wereth Eleven” leaves him feeling that he has completed an important mission. “It has been the most rewarding experience of my life,” he said.

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