Tommy Prince: War Hero

German soldiers on the front line near Anzio, Italy, thought little of the peasant farmer weeding his field near their emplacement. The field had been torn up by shelling, the crops all but gone. The soldiers watched disinterestedly as the farmer slowly worked his way along the field, stopping once to tie his shoelaces. Finally, the farmer stopped his work, shook his fist at the Germans and then the Allies, and returned slowly to the farmhouse.

The seemingly innocuous farmer was actually a highly-trained Canadian soldier, a marksman and an expert at tracking and making his way unseen around the enemy. His name was Thomas George (Tommy) Prince and he'd gained many of his skills growing up on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation reserve, north of Winnipeg.

For Tommy, like most young men on Canadian reserves, World War II meant the chance for a job and three square meals a day. However, Indigenous people were routinely rejected, for health reasons but also because of their race. Tommy was turned down several times, despite more than meeting the requirements for recruitment. He persisted and was finally accepted on June 3, 1940. He was assigned to the 1st Field Park Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers. He accepted every challenge that came his way and excelled as a soldier.

Tommy Prince is Canada's most-decorated Aboriginal war veteran.

By 1942 Tommy was a Sergeant with the Canadian Parachute Battalion. He was posted to the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion and was among a select group of Canadian soldiers sent to train with an American unit to form a specialized 1600-man assault team. They became the 1st Special Service Force (1st SSF), known to the enemy as the "Devil's Brigade.” The name was adopted by Hollywood as the title of a 1968 portrayal of the elite unit. Tommy was portrayed as "Chief.”

The 1st SSF soon saw action. In Italy, Tommy volunteered to run a communications line 1400 m to an abandoned farmhouse less than 200 m from a German artillery emplacement. Tommy set up his observation post in the farmhouse and for three days reported on the activity in the German camp.

On February 8, 1944, shelling severed the wire. Tommy, disguised as a farmer, found and repaired the break in full view of the enemy, while pretending to tie his shoes. His courage resulted in the destruction of four German tanks that had been firing on Allied troops. He was awarded the Military Medal for "exceptional bravery in the field.”

Tommy continued to distinguish himself. In the summer of 1944, the 1st SSF entered Southern France. Tommy walked 70 km across rugged, mountainous terrain deep behind German lines near L'Escarene, going 72 hours without food or water, to locate an enemy bivouac area. He reported back to his unit and led the brigade to the encampment, resulting in the capture of over 1000 German soldiers. He earned the Silver Star, an American decoration for gallantry in action, as well as six service medals. Tommy was honorably discharged on June 15, 1945 and went home to Canada.

Tommy returned from fighting Nazi racism to a country that denied him the right to vote in federal elections and refused him the same benefits as other Canadian veterans. The business he'd entrusted to a friend failed in his absence. Facing unemployment and discrimination, Tommy re-enlisted and served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. During two tours of duty in the Korean War he won the Korean, Canadian Volunteer Service and United Nations Service medals. He was wounded in the knee, and was honourably discharged on October 28, 1953.

Tommy Prince is known as Canada's most-decorated Indigenous war veteran. He was also a brave and remarkable man with an impish sense of humour, a man who beat his own demons, including alcoholism. Tommy had a strong sense of civic duty and a fierce pride in his people. He said "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.” He dedicated himself to attaining increased educational and economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples.

Tommy died on November 25, 1977, at the age of 62.

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