One of 11 First Nations children, Tommy Prince was born in a canvas tent on a cold day Oct. 25, 1915 to Henry and Arabella Prince of the Manitoba Brokenhead Reserve.
A true son of the First Nations people, Tommy’s legacy — as a brave soldier who fought in the Second World War and the Korean War — will never be forgotten in the pages of Canadian history.
As a teenager, he joined the army cadets and perfected his skill with a rifle until he could put five bullets through a target the size of a playing card at 100 metres (110 yards).
When war broke out in Europe Sept. 3, 1939, Tommy — at the age of 24 — tried to enlist several times and was finally accepted June 3, 1940 — with the Royal Canadian Engineers, as a sapper who is trained to dig tunnels, ditches, and set up road mines.
He also volunteered for airborne duty training in the United Kingdom at Ringway, England. He was promoted to lance corporal in February 1941.
In 1942, Prince returned to Canada, joined the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, and was promoted to sergeant. He next featured with the First Special Service, which was comprised of 1,600 of the toughest soldiers found in Canada and the United States.
It was named the Devils’ Brigade by the enemy — because of its dare-devil tactics, hand-to-hand combat, and rugged, and vicious outdoor training. In one daring exploit, on the Anzio Beachhead (the Battle of Anzio took place during the Italian campaign from January 22, 1944 to June 5, 1944), they fought in the front lines for 90 days with no relief.
Tommy was next selected as a forward observation sergeant. Near Littoria, Italy he was sent forward to report on German artillery positions. Stealthily, he set up as a farmer in an abandoned farmhouse about 200 metres beside enemy lines with about 140 metres of communicating lines back to the Allies.
He could now observe enemy troops and artillery actions not seen by the Allies and wire back their exact locations to his unit. An artillery duel followed and one of the rounds cut Tommy’s wire back line. The duel now died down. Tommy donned civilian clothes, grabbed a hoe — and in the full view of the enemy, acted like a farmer angry at his crop being destroyed, shaking his fist, and shouting at the Allied lines, then at the German line.
He slowly followed the radio’s line to where it was broken. Pretending to tie his shoelaces, he spliced the line together. Then, still pretending to hoe his field, he worked his way back to the farmhouse. With the Allies again aware of enemy positions, the Germans withdrew. Tommy’s actions resulted in the destruction of four enemy tanks that were shelling the Allies.
Prince’s unit was now moved to southern France. On Sept. 1, 1944 Tommy and a private were sent to locate an enemy camp. They walked for miles over rugged mountainous terrain behind many lines, for days without food or water. They came upon a battle between a Germany battalion getting the better of a French squad and started sniping off German soldiers, which withdrew.
When the French commander made contact with Tommy and the private, he asked Prince where his company was located. Prince pointed to the private and said, “right here.” The commander exclaimed, “I thought there were 50.” The commander recommended Prince for a French medal, but the messenger was killed on the way and the message never did reach the chief, Commander Charles de Gaulle.
When Tommy and the private returned to the unit, they led it back to the German battalion and joined in the battle. It resulted in the capture of the battalion’s 1,000 soldiers and their equipment.
Prince and the private had now been without food, water, and sleep for 72 hours — and had walked more than 70 kilometres over rugged mountain country. So accurate was Prince’s report in capturing the German battalion — he was awarded the Silver Star.
When the fighting in southern France ended, Tommy was summoned to Buckingham Place where King George VI presented him with a military medal and the Silver Star. The European war ended, while Tommy was a in England. He returned to Canada and was honourably discharged June 15, 1945.
Tommy then returned to the Brokenhead Reserve. One night at a dance, a woman attacked him with a broken beer bottle and badly cut his right cheek. Sixty-four stitches were needed to close it. This was a turning point in Tommy’s life. He left the reserve and made his way south to Winnipeg. With help from Veterans Affairs, he purchased a half-ton truck and cleaning supplies and prospered for a time. He married Verna Sinclair and they had five children.
In 1946, he was elected as chair of an association, leaving his business with friends, as he tried to improve conditions for First Nations people.
Frustrated by Ottawa and red tape, he returned home. The cleaning business he had left with friends had failed and they had crashed his truck.
In 1950, at age 50, disgusted with civilian life, he enlisted with the United Nations to fight in the Korean War with his previous rank of sergeant. With his daring deeds rising the lives of fellow soldiers, his commanding officers had to assign him fewer and more cautious patrols. He received a Korean medal, a Canadian service medal, and a United Nations service medal.
Tommy was one of 59 Canadians awarded the Silver Star. Prince also held the title for the most worn by an Aboriginal soldier at that time. He was discharged from service with a small pension.
Returning to civilian life was not easy. Out of uniform with no respected rank, unskilled for civilian life. Unable to fit in the post-war boom and being First Nations, he was only able to obtain menial jobs. Being Indigenous, he was scorned and discriminated against by employers and other workers ignorant of his brave deeds to preserve his country’s freedom.
When not needed, he was cast aside by the very society he had fought and risked his life for. Often he just quit his jobs. With worn-out knees from army life and discrimination of First Nations people, his life deteriorated. He became an alcoholic, separated from his family, and sold his medals to support himself. He ended up alone in a Salvation Army hostel.
In 1977, at the age of 62, Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal war hero passed away at Winnipeg Deer Lodge Centre and was buried in Brookside Cemetery.
He is now gone and almost forgotten. All that remains of his valourous deeds and honourary awards are his medals. Prince’s medals changed hands a number of times, until his neighbour arranged to purchase them and entrust them to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.