When I was your age,
We’d walk miles, uphill, both ways,
Just to fight Nazis.
Remembrance Day is tomorrow, so it seems only proper to dedicate the next few posts to related topics. So let’s start with Tommy Prince, the most decorated First Nations soldier in Canadian history.
Tommy Prince was born in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba in 1915. A significant chunk of his youth was spent developing master-level outdoors skills. Tracking? Check. Shooting? Check. Knocking down a tree? Check. Trust me when I say that these became very relevant in his future career.
Which was… Soldier! On account of World War II breaking out in his prime. Now, given the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada (I love my country, but we’ve done some shit), Prince would have been 100% justified in ignoring the whole thing and carrying on with his life. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the Canadian Army. Repeatedly. Because that organization apparently had a tough time recognizing an awesome recruit if they didn’t have the correct amount of melanin. He did eventually get in as a sapper. Then he volunteered for the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion.
Which didn’t actually exist, because surprise, bitches, it was a cover for recruitment for the First Special Service Force, a joint Canadian-American unit comprised of badasses and precursor to the Green Berets. (Other names for the unit: The Devil’s Brigade, The Black Devils.) Prince and his fellows were chosen specifically for outdoor experience (such as the hunting and tree bothering business I mentioned), and then received a whole heck more training for skiing, rock climbing, demolitions, parachuting, killing men with their bare hands, and other fun things. The original purpose of the unit was to go bother Nazis in Norway (hence the skiing), but that didn’t wind up happening. Instead, the FSSF wound up in Italy in November 1943.
At this time, Prince held the position of Reconnaissance Sergeant / Scout, which entailed going on ahead and checking out what the enemy was doing. During the Anzio campaign, this came into play when he set up shop in an abandoned farmhouse, reporting back to his side on the location of German emplacements by means of telephone wire. When Allied artillery accidentally knocked that wire out, Prince dressed up as a farmer, meandered out, fixed up the wire while pretending to weed, and shook his fists at both sides. Yeah, he got a medal for this.
After Anzio and liberating Rome (hurrah!), the FSSF got to join in on Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France. During this, he got recommended for the Croix de Guerre after he and a private scared off a pack of Germans who’d set upon a pack of French partisanship (alas, the courier sent off with the rec to Charles de Gaulle was killed en route), and won a Silver Star after he and his unit captured a whole danged battalion. When he’d been without sleep, food, and water for three days. Then the FSSF was disbanded and King George VI gave him another medal.
(And here I’ll mention that my Grandpa Ivan, another member of the FSSF, used to carry his pack while they were tromping about France.)
After the war, Prince returned to Manitoba, starting up a cleaning service and getting married. He became chairman on the Manitoba Indian Association, and proceeded to lobby Ottawa to not be so shit towards First Nations people, and the politicians totally listened to this brave war hero and made some serious changes… Well, no, they didn’t. And Prince’s friends back home ruined his cleaning business. Goddamn.
So he re-enlisted when the Korean War broke out, a sergeant once more. During this conflict (as a member of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry), he participated in several raids, as well as the Battle of Kapyong. Shockingly, a life filled with combat didn’t do his body any favors, and he had to bow out for a spell when crippling arthritis in his knees struck. He returned to action as soon as he could, got wounded, got treated… Then had to stay in treatment for the damned knees again. Then there was armistice and Prince got a bunch more medals.
Life did not treat him kindly thereafter. The knees never improved, limiting his job prospects, and he became afflicted with alcoholism, irreparably damaging his relations with family. He had to sell his medals to survive. (Fortunately, in later years, they were purchased and donated to the Manitoba Museum through the efforts of his nephew, Jim Bear.) He died in Winnipeg in 1977.
It’s too damned sad a fate for someone who worked so hard and braved so much.