Every November we pause to remember those who served, in war and peace, and those who paid the ultimate price for our collective freedoms. This year, as a minuscule but genuinely heartfelt gesture of reconciliation, our Remembrance post honours Tommy Prince, one of Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldiers. This proud Anishinaabe served in World War II as well as in the Korean War.
First Nations’ Son
Tommy Prince, was born in a canvas tent in 1915, in Petersfield, Manitoba. He was the great-great-grandson of Peguis, the Salteaux Chief, who lead his Nation from Sault Ste.Marie to the southern end of Lake Winnipeg in the 1790’s.
When he was five, Tommy’s family moved to the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Northeast of Winnipeg. At around the same age, Tommy was taken away from his family and forced to attend the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, located 400 kms from home. There, efforts were made to erase Tommy’s language, culture and identity.
Second World War
Despite being an excellent tracker and marksman, Prince’s application to the Canadian Forces was repeatedly rejected due to widespread discrimination and systemic racism in the Forces’ recruiting practices. In 1940, as war was raging in Europe and more soldiers were needed, Prince was finally accepted within the ranks of the Royal Canadian Engineers. Six weeks later, he was sent to England.
In 1942, Prince joined the Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was attached to a United States Special Force. This US/Canadian Commando was known as the “Devil’s Brigade”.
Prince was well-suited for this elite Special Force, having learned to live off the land, track his prays, and move without a making a sound or getting detected. Carrying a pair of moccasins in his rucksack, Prince was known to slip away at night, without telling anyone, to cross enemy lines and sentry points. There in Nazy trenches, this Anishinaabe daredevil would steal items, sometimes even boots of someone’s feet, leaving “calling cards” for soldiers to know that he had walked amongst them and warning them that the worst was to come.
In the winter of 1944, in Anzio, Italy, he volunteered to run a 1,400-metre communication line to an abandoned farmhouse which sat just 200 metres from a Nazy artillery position. There, he set up an observation post and, for 3 days, relayed important strategic enemy information. When the line was severed by enemy shelling, he disguised himself as a local farmer with clothes found at the farm, and walked the line, pretending to weed his crops. Once he found where the line was cut, he fixed it, pretending to tie his shoe, in enemy’s plain view. He then returned to his hideout, shaking his fist at both the Nazis and the Allies. This ruse allowed him to continue to relay precious strategic information, which resulted in 4 enemy tanks being destroyed.
In France, in the summer of 1944, Prince travelled without food or water for 72 hours, across rugged terrain to locate an enemy camp. With this information, he lead the brigade to this enemy hideout, resulting in the capture of more than 1,000 combatants.
When the fighting ended in France, Prince was called to Buckingham Palace where King George VI decorated him with the Military Medal and, on behalf of the American President, the Silver Star. Prince was awarded a total of 11 medals for his “courage and utter disregard for personal safety”. Prince was one of only 59 Canadians to have received the American Silver Star during the Second World War and one of only three to have also received the Military Medal.
Times were tough at home
Times were tough at home for Prince. After having fought for Canada, the country turned its back on him and on the other First Nations soldiers. Like too many, he faced racism, rejection and prejudice. Prince was not allowed to vote in federal elections and was refused benefits which were afforded to other non-Indigenous Veterans.
Finding work was also difficult in a country comfortable with systemic racism and colonialism. He worked as a lumberjack, in a cement plant and as a janitor. A first marriage ended in divorce and his subsequent common-law relationship ended in separation. Prince’s children were removed by the state and placed in foster homes, perpetuating the harm caused by the Indian Residential Schools.
Facing unemployment and discrimination, Prince re-enlisted in 1950 to fight in the Korean war, where he served two tours of duty. On his second tour, Prince was injured multiple times, forcing him to spend several weeks in hospital before his return home.
Prince was awarded the Korean, the Canadian Volunteer Service and the United Nations Service medals.
A forgotten hero
Fallen, broken and alone, one of Canada’s hero lived the last years of his life at a Salvation Army shelter in Winnipeg, battling his injuries and PTSD demons with alcohol. Eventually, he sold his medals to get by.
Tommy Prince died, homeless, at Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Centre on November 25, 1977, at the age of 62.
At his funeral, Prince was honoured by First Nations, the province of Manitoba, the governments of France, Italy and the United States. As his casket was lowered, men from his First Nation chanted the “Death of a Warrior” song.
Since his passing, Tommy Prince has been recognized for his service. A statue of him sits in a park on the Brokenhead Nation. The Canadian Forces have named various sites, barracks and drill halls after him.
In 2000, his medals turned up at an auction in London (Ontario) where they were purchased by a group of individuals to be given back to Prince’s family. In 2001, his medals were placed on permanent display at the Manitoba Museum.
Remember Tommy Prince. Say his name out loud. Lest we forget him and his peers.
100th anniversary of the Poppy
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Remembrance Poppy. For one hundred years, the Poppy Trust Fund has been used to provide financial assistance and support to veterans and their families in need. This fund helps with food, heating, shelter, prescriptions, medical equipment, transportation, accessibility modifications to homes and much more.
This year again, the pandemic risks having a devastating impact on the Poppy fundraising campaign. For this reason, we encourage all of our readers to get their virtual poppy and post it online. You can access the virtual poppy platform by following this link or by clicking on our Digital Poppy on this page.
You can also support the Canadian Legion by visiting their online store. Have a look at their poppy displaying face mask and other proudly Canadian gifts.
On the 11 hour, of the 11 day of the 11 month, we will pause to remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow.
Lest we forget.