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Tommy Prince: Canada’s most decorated aboriginal soldier of WWII

December 2016

In Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park sits a monument to Sergeant Tommy Prince, dedicated by the officers and men of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.  Erected on 11 November 1989, it pays a long-overdue tribute to a man who many Canadian had mostly forgotten about, despite the fact that he is Canada’s most decorated aboriginal soldier of the Second World War.

Despite this status in Canadian military history, Sergeant Tommy Prince, MM, died penniless, homeless and an alcoholic, after having sold his war medals to survive. He may have been a hero during the war, on of almost 4000 aboriginal soldiers to serve in WWI, but his status as an aboriginal meant he was subject to overt discrimination once he took off his uniform.

Apparently in uniform, he was a “somebody”; but out of uniform, he was nothing.

During his lifetime, he was awarded ten medals, including the U.S. Silver Star for gallantry in action against an enemy and the Military Medal, a decoration awarded to personnel of the British and Commonwealth militares, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land.  He was posthumously awarded two additional medals that were created after his death.

Price was born on 25 October 1915, one of eleven children of Henry and Arabella Prince of the Brokenhead Ojibway Indian reserve near Scanterbry, Manitoba.  His great-great grandfather was the celebrated Chief Peguis, once the most powerful chief in the region, who had led his people from the Sault Ste. Marie area to the southern end of Lake Winnipeg in the late 1790s.

Growing up, Prince tracked and hunted wildlife, eventually became an expert marksman with a rifle.  He attended the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, where he completed grade eight, thus ending his scholastic career.

Prince then worked as a labourer and spent time with the Army cadets as a teenager.

With the outbreak of World War II, Prince attempted to enlist in the Canadian Army.  He was rejected several times until he was finally accepted on 3 June 1940.  He originally trained as a sapper with the Royal Canadian Engineers, but soon after volunteered for the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion sent to Manchester, England for parachute training at the 1st Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway.  The unit was designated as such for administrative purposes only as it didn’t actually exist.  The name was a cover for a special force to conduct covert sabotage and demolition work in Norway.

Prince was promoted to Lance Corporal in February 1941.

In September 1942, Prince returned to Canada and joined the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB) and was promoted to Sergeant.

Prince volunteered for the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion and was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia, where an American-Canadian unit was being formed, designated the First Special Service Force, also known as the “Devil’s Brigade” or the “Black Devils.” Soldiers received intense instruction in stealth tactics, hand-to-hand combat, the use of explosives for demolition, amphibious warfare, rock climbing and mountain fighting, and as ski troops. Prince became a “Reconnaissance Sergeant” or in the Force table of organization a “Scout”, responsible for moving into forward positions and reporting on the movements of the enemy.

The Special Service Force deployed to Italy in November 1943 and took part in the the Bernhard/Winter Line that was blocking the Allied advance on Rome.  After attacking and capturing Monte la difensa, Hill 720, Monte Majo, and Monte Vischiataro in December and January, they proceeded to Anzio.

It was on 8 February 1944, near Littoria, that Prince began a course of actions that would earn him the Military Medal.  Prince was sent forward, behind enemy lines, to observe and report the location of several German assembly points, including artillery positions. Taking up position in an abandoned farmhouse almost 700 feet from the German assembly area, Prince reported the location of the enemy’s emplacements using a radio phone and a 4,600 foot length of telephone wire.

An artillery battle ensued as Allies attempted to knock out the guns reported by Prince, with the Germans firing back in turn.   When one of these rounds cut the telephone wire, Prince walked out in plain view dressed as a farmer in a set of overalls that he found, along with a hat and hoe, pretending to be tending to the crops. After locating the damaged wires, he rejoined them while pretending to tie his shoelaces.  Playing the part perfectly, Prince even made a show of shaking his fist at the nearby Germans, then again toward the Allied lines.

Prince then returned to his lookout spot and continued sending reports back to the Allied lines.  By the next day four German artillery batteries had been destroyed.  For his actions, Prince received the Military Medal.

It was around this time that German soldiers began calling the Special Service Force the Devil’s Brigade or The Black Devils, due to their habit of paining their faces black before going out on night operations. The unit would leave their calling card on those they killed, often silently and only discovered later; a card that featured the red arrowhead insignia with “Das dicke ende kommt noch,” “The worst is yet to come.”

Prince was a natural for these types of stealth-attacks due to his natural ability to move silently, on his belly if needed, over any terrain.  Sometimes Prince would sneak into an enemy barracks and take a pair of shoes, a helmet, a jacket, or whatever he could while the soldiers slept as a calling card.

After leading the advancing U.S. Forces liberated Rome on 4 June 1944, the SSF went on to southern France as part of Operation Dragoon, where they assaulted the Hyeres Islands and then went ashore at Sylvabelle on the French Riviera. Then as a part of the 1st Airborne Task Force, the SSF pushed east towards the Italian border.

It was on 1 September 1944, near L’Escarène in southern France, that Prince and a private were sent forward behind enemy lines to scout the German lines and report on their positions.  Prince spotted a German reserve battalion camped and after making careful observations, the two began the long journey back to report.  It was on the way back to the unit that they came upon a German battalion battling a squad of French partisans.  Prince and the private with him started sniping the German soldiers, who eventually retreated.  Upon making contact with the partisans, their leader was surprised to learn that it was only Prince and the private who beat back the Germans, not a full platoon.

There is a suggestion that Prince was due to receive the Croix de Guerre from French President De Gaulle for his actions on that day, but the messenger delivering the recommendation was apparently killed trying to deliver the message.

On this scouting mission, Prince spent a total of three days behind enemy lines, without food, water or sleep for 72 hours and had walked over 70 km across rugged, mountainous terrain to achieve this objective.

After returning to SSF unit lines, Prince then led the unit back to the German encampment.  After the battle was over, an entire battalion of about 1000 men had been captured.

Prince would receive the U.S. Silver Star for his actions on those three days.

Despite the great success of The Devil’s Brigade, it was decided to disband the unit in December 1944.  All members were dispersed to regiments of their respective countries.

In the Devil’s Brigade’s short existence, the unit accounted for 12,000 German casualties and the capture of some 7,000 prisoners of war.

The Canadian troops specifically were so feared that it has been claimed that Joseph Goebbels is claimed to have uttered “If the Allies want to win the war all they have to do is give the Canadians a bottle of whiskey, a motorcycle, a 48 hour pass and declare Berlin off-limits.”

In the dying days of the war, Prince was formally presented with his Military Medal, which King George VI personally presented to him in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in February 1945 and with the Silver Star on 24 April 1945, one of only three people in military history to receive both medals.

The citation for the Silver Star read:

“So accurate was the report rendered by the patrol that Sergeant Prince’s regiment moved forward on 5 September 1944, occupied new heights and successfully wiped out the enemy bivouac [encampment] area. The keen sense of responsibility and devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant Prince is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the Allied Nations.”

After being demobilized on June 15, 1945, Prince returned to the Brokenhead Indian Reserve to no fanfare or gratitude for his service during the war.  Prince found work in logging camps and began drinking heavily.

Prince later moved to Winnipeg and with the assistance of Veterans Affairs, bought a truck and opened his own cleaning business.

Despite having served his country and being a bona-fide war hero, Prince still faced the discrimination that came with being an Indian, which included being denied the right to vote and have equal veterans benefits as a non-aboriginal.  Not even being a war hero made his life in Canada any better.  In the army he was an important person, but in civilian life, he was “just another Indian” who was told to go home and not make any trouble.

Prince fought to improve conditions for Aboriginals by getting elected as Chairman of the Manitoba Indian Association.

He left his cleaning business in the care of some trusted friends, but they eventually ran the company into bankruptcy, forcing Prince to return to working in the logging camps and a concrete factory.

When the Korean War began in June 1950, Prince re-joined the army and was re-appointed to his former rank of Sergeant.  He served with the 2nd Battalion, Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the first Canadian regiment to arrive in the war zone and a regiment that saw some of the fiercest battles of the war.

In February 1951, the PPCLI joined the 27th Commonwealth Brigade on the battlefield. Prince was made second in command of his rifle platoon.  One evening, Prince led an eight-man patrol on a “snatch patrol” into the enemy lines. The patrol returned with two captured machine guns.  Although Prince would lead several more successful raids, his CO eventually stopped assigning him patrols because he took too many risks with the soldiers under his command.

Prince was well known for being an effective and brutal fighter, but this was not just reserved for the enemy.  He once got a dressing-down for putting a Canadian sentry in a brutal sleeper after finding him sleeping on guard duty, just to teach him a lesson.

In April 1951, Prince and his regiment took part in the Battle of Kap’Yong, a 3-day battle that saw the regiment surrounded by Chinese regulars as the defended Hill 677.  The regiment fought day and night against overwhelming odds, sometimes in vicious hand to hand combat, and were able to survive in part due to precision air drop re-supply efforts by the RCAF.  The Chinese forces were so determined to take the hill that the PPCLI called in artillery fire on their own lines.

For their actions at Kap’Yong, the 2nd Battalion PPCLI won the United States Presidential Unit Citation for Valor and a unit Citation for Valor. The first and only time in the history of the awards that they have been given to a unit of another country; an honour that all past and present members of 2 PPCLI are entitled to wear.

A month later, Prince was hospitalized with arthritis and painful swelling of his knees, a condition that would eventually lead him to being sent back to Canada and put on administrative duties at Camp Borden.

By March 1952, his knees had improved so much that he volunteered for a second tour of duty in Korea.  In October 1952, he returned to Korea with the 3rd Battalion, PPCLI and was sent to a key location on the Sami-chon River, known as “the Hook”, to defend the rear position of the UN forces in that area.

During the fighting, five members of 3 PPCLI were killed and nine members were wounded, including Prince, who was shot in the leg.  It was during his hospitalization for these wounds and treatment on his knees that the armistice was singed, ending the hostilities Korea (although not the war, which technically is still active to this day).

Prince returned to Winnipeg, but remained in the army as an instructor at a recruit training camp in Winnipeg until 28 October 1953, when he was honourably discharged.  However, he continued to work at a personnel depot in Winnipeg until September 1954.

Prince once again found it difficult transition to civilian life.  By this time his arthritis had worsened and he was still facing the rampant discrimination faced by Aboriginals of his day.

Despite the difficulties he faced, Prince once again displayed great heroism when he saved a man from drowning at the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg in June 1955.

However, his life became increasingly difficult as his job prospects were slim and he continued to struggle with alcoholism.  Eventually he became estranged from his family and saw his children placed in foster homes.  His life continued to deteriorate over the next two decades.

Prince spent his final years living virtually alone, destitute and staying at the local Salvation Army hostel.

Sergeant Tommy Prince, war hero, died on 25 November 1977 at Deer Lodge Hospital in Winnipeg at the age of 62.  He was buried in Brookside Cemetery.

The medals that he sold years before his death changed hands several times before coming up for auction in London, Ontario.  His nephew, Jim Bear, was successful in raising the money required to purchase the medals and they currently reside in the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.

Decades after his death, Prince finally began to receive the recognition that he was so sadly denied in life.

In August 2011, the Sir Sam Steele Legion Branch in Winnipeg unveiled a large frame holding Prince’s picture, replica medals, service record and brief biography.  One of Prince’s sons, Tommy Prince Jr., was in attendance at the unveiling.

The following month, Prince was again honoured with a mural at the intersection of Sgt Tommy Prince Street and Selkirk Avenue, with Tommy Prince Jr. again in attendance.

These are just two of the monuments and honours to Tommy Prince around Manitoba.

Other honours to memory of Tommy Prince in Manitoba and throughout Canada:

A plaque and school named after him in Scanterbury, Manitoba.

A monument to him in Kildonan Park in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A street named after him in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A street named after him in Calgary, Alberta

A barracks named after him at 2nd Canadian Division Support Base Petawawa, Ontario.

A drill hall at 4th Canadian Division Training Centre Wainwright, Alberta.

The Sergeant Tommy Prince Training Initiative for aboriginal recruiting.

The Tommy Prince Award from the Assembly of First Nations.

A scholarship at Sault College in Sault Ste, Marie, Ontario.

The Sergeant Tommy Prince PPCLI Cadet Corps in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Sergeant Tommy Prince service record:

Length of Service

  • 3rd June, 1940 to 20th August, 1945
  • 14th August, 1950 to 28th October, 1953

Ranks

  • Sapper – 3rd June, 1940
  • Lance Corporal – 22nd February, 1941
  • Sergeant – 16th March, 1943
  • Sergeant – 14th August, 1950

Units and Regiments

  • 1st Corps Field Park Company, Royal Canadian Engineers
  • 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
  • 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion
  • 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry
  • 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry

Theatres of Service

Canada, Britain, United States of America, Aleutian Islands, Central Mediterranean Area, Southern France, Germany, Korea.

Sources:  https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/tommy-prince-native-canadian.html, http://www.badassoftheweek.com/prince.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Prince, http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/decorated-first-nations-vet-tommy-prince-embodied-triumph-darkness-of-war-1.2730680, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyvrBOGorNA, http://www.ictinc.ca/blog/tommy-george-prince-military-medal-silver-star-recipient, http://indigenouswarhero.org.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/tommy-prince-canadas-most-decorated-aboriginal-soldier-of-wwii/

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