Since long before Canada was a country, the Indigenous have been a part of our military campaigns. From the Beaver Wars, to the War of 1812, to the First World War and beyond, Indigenous soldiers have proven themselves again and again to be some of the best soldiers Canada has to offer.
Today on the podcast, I am looking at Tommy Prince, not only one of the greatest Indigenous soldiers, but one of Canada’s greatest soldiers ever.
Prince was born in Petersfield, Manitoba and was the great-great-grandson of Chief Peguis, who led his nation from Sault Ste. Marie to Lake Winnipeg in the 1790s.
As a young man, Prince proved himself to be an expert marksman and tracker, spending many days hunting around his Indigenous reserve.
Like so many Indigenous of his era, he was forced to attend residential school and was taken away from his parents without consent. He would attend the Elkhorn Residential School until grade eight, after which he was employed in manual labour jobs as a teenager. It was as a teenager that he would join the air cadets, which would lead him towards a legendary military career.
When the Second World War broke out, Prince was 25 and easily met the requirements for recruitment. Despite this, he was turned down repeatedly for enlistment, likely due to racism toward Indigenous recruits, until finally accepted on June 3, 1940. Originally, he was a member of the Royal Canadian Engineers, serving as a sapper. He would then volunteer for duty with a parachute unit in the Second Canadian Parachute Battalion. At the time, the United States and Canada were forming a special force of men to conduct sabotage in Norway and men were recruited into this unit called First Special Service Force, also known as The Devil’s Brigade. The men in this unit, like Prince, were still on the rosters of their other units and the unit they were really in didn’t technically exist. The special training to become a paratrooper was intense and only nine out of 100 finished the course, and Prince was one of them.
After attending parachute school near Manchester, Prince would be promoted to lance corporal in February in 1941.
Over a year later, in September of 1942, he came back to Canada, was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, while serving with the Devil’s Brigade. He was given the role of a scout, and was responsible for moving into forward positions and reporting movements of the enemy. In 1968, a movie about the Devil’s Brigade was made. In that movie, Prince was referred to only as Chief.
The unit would go to Italy in November of 1943, taking part in several attacks, capturing Monte La Dinfensa, Hill 720 and Monte Majo. On Feb. 8, 1944 near Littoria, Prince was sent ahead to report on German assembly points. Situated in an old farmhouse only 660 feet from the enemy assembly area, he reported the location of their emplacements using 4,600 feet of telephone wire. The Allies knocked out the guns reported by Prince, but also accidently destroyed the telephone wire. Prince walked out into the field, dressed as farmer, pretending to weed the crops. Under this ruse, he found the damaged wires and rejoined them while pretending to tie his shoelaces. He shook his first at the Germans and the Allies and then went back into the house and continued his reports. Thanks to his reports, four German batteries were taken out of action over the next few hours. He would spend three entire days behind enemy lines and for his service on those days, he was awarded the Military Medal. His citation would read:
Sergeant Prince’s courage and utter disregard for personal safety were an inspiration to his fellows and a marked credit to his unit.
His action on that day would be reenacted in the aforementioned movie The Devil’s Brigade.
In the summer of 1944, Prince moved with his unit to Southern France, taking part in Operation Dragoon. On Sept. 1, Prince and a private went forward toward German lines to scout positions. They would come across an encampment area of a reserve battalion of Germans. On the way back, Prince and the private came upon a battle between French and German forces and they started sniping the Germans who withdrew. Prince made contact with the leader of the French squad and he was asked where the company was located. Prince pointed to himself and the private and said “here”. Due to the expert fire of Prince and the private, the French commander had thought there were 50 men hidden in the woods. Prince would eventually reach his unit and lead them to the encampment, where an entire German battalion of 1,000 men were captured. Over this entire sequence of events, Prince had not had food, water or sleep for 72 hours and had walked over 70 kilometres. He was awarded the Silver Star from the Americans for his service.
His citation read:
“So accurate was the report rendered by the patrol that Sgt. Prince’s regiment moved forward on Sept. 5, 1944, occupied new heights and successfully wiped out the enemy 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.”
Jack Fergusson, who knew Prince, would say of the man:
After the unit was disbanded, Prince was sent to the United Kingdom. On Feb. 12, 1945, he was summoned to Buckingham Palace where King George VI presented him with his Military Medal. On April 24, 1945, Brigadier General E.F. Koenig would present Prince with his Silver Star. During the entire Second World War, only 59 Canadians, including Prince, were awarded the Silver Star. Only three Canadians received both the Silver Star and Military Medal. In addition, he received another six service medals for his time in Italy and North West Europe during the war. His other medals include the 1939-1945 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal and the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with Clasp and the War Medal.
On June 15, 1945, Prince was discharged honourably and returned home to Canada to work at a pulpwood camp. With money from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Prince would build a prosperous cleaning service. He would marry Verna Sinclair and have five children with her. Beginning in 1946, he was elected the chair of the Manitoba Indian Association and he would spend his time working to improve the conditions for the Indigenous people of the province, including lobbying Ottawa for changes in the Indian Act. He would put together a report with recommendations for the Canadian government but very few of the requests were implemented. While the government ignored most of the report, the National Indian Brotherhood showed their thanks to Prince by creating the Heroes of Our Time Native Scholarship series in his honour.
Frustrated, he returned home to find his business was folded by friends he had entrusted it to. They had crashed the truck and sold it for scrap metal. Prince would have to work at a concrete factory and lumber yard to make ends meet.
In August 1950, Prince returned to the army and was sent over to the Korean War. He would say putting on the uniform made him feel like a better man. Serving with the Second Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, he would lead an eight-man evening snatch patrol into enemy encampments. They patrol would return with two captured machine guns during one patrol. Prince was also part of the Battle of Kapyong, which I talked about two weeks ago, and was part of the unit awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation.
Years of putting his body on the line in war would begin to take its toll on Prince during the Korean War and he would be hospitalized in May of 1951 and put on administrative duty and returned to Canada. His knees and arthritis improved in Canada and he then volunteered to go back to Korea in 1952, and would sail with the Third Battalion Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry. He would be wounded in November of that year, taking several weeks to recover and the war would end in that time.
He would remain in the army for another year, serving as an instructor for new recruits. During his time in Korea, he would receive the Korean and Canadian Volunteer Service Medals and the United Nations Service Medal.
Going back to civilian life was not easy and with his knees getting worse, his ability to make a living was compromised. In addition, as an Indigenous man and despite his exemplary war record, he was not allowed to vote in federal elections and was refused the same benefits given to other Canadian veterans. Despite this, he would once again return to the headlines with his bravery when in June of 1955 he saved a man from drowning at the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg.
He would devote himself to increasing educational and economic activities for Indigenous people, feeling a deep pride in his Indigenous heritage. He would say:
“All my life I had wanted to do something to help my people recover their good name. I wanted to show they were as good as any white man.”
Despite this, his health began to go downhill, his family unit fell apart and he fell into alcoholism, spending his final years alone in a Salvation Army hostel. He would overcome alcohol but his body had been through too much by the 1970s. It is likely he was dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but in the 1950s the issue was not addressed as it is today. He would be forced to sell his medals to support himself and would die in 1977 at the Deer Lodge Centre, a health care facility, in Winnipeg. A delegation of his comrades from the Princess Patricia’s served as his pallbearers and the men from his First Nation chanted Death of a Warrior song as he was lowered into the grave. Despite the hard times and loneliness he felt in his final years, the Lt. Governor of Manitoba, as well as consuls from France, Italy and the United States attended his funeral. At the time of his death, he was one of the most decorated Indigenous war veterans in Canadian history.
His nephew, Jim Bear, would organize a pledge drive to purchase the medals back during an auction, and then gave them to the Manitoba Museum.
The character of Prince is shown in his reluctance to boast about his accomplishments. When asked by the media about his war record he responded that his fellow soldiers were “a great bunch of guys. I’m here because they kept me safe and brought me home.”
Prince has been honoured extensively since his death. A street in Winnipeg is named for him, as is a school in Scanterbury. A barracks and drill hall are named for him, and two scholarships exist in his name. A road in Calgary and another in Petersfield are named for him as well. In 2005, Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute about Prince.
In June of 2020, Prince emerged as one of the front runners to get his face on the new five dollar bill. A monument to Prince rests at Kildonan Park in Winnipeg.
If you would like to sign the petition to have Tommy Prince on the $5 bill, you can go to http://www.honourtommyprince.ca
Information comes from Valour.ca, Canadian Encyclopedia, Veterans Affairs, Wikipedia, Hands Across The Meridian, Winnipeg Free Press, Scholastic.ca, CBC, Global News