Tommy Prince

Last updated
Tommy Prince
Tommy Prince (Cropped).jpeg
Prince in 1945
Nickname(s)Prince of the Brigade
Born(1915-10-15)October 15, 1915
Scanterbury, Manitoba, Canada
DiedNovember 25, 1977(1977-11-25) (aged 62)
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Service/branch Canadian Army
Years of service1940–1945
Rank Sergeant
Battles/wars World War II
Korean War
Awards Military Medal
Silver Star (United States)

Thomas George Prince MM (October 25, 1915 – November 25, 1977) was an Indigenous Canadian war hero and Canada's most decorated First Nations soldier, serving in World War II and the Korean War. He was the most decorated soldier in the First Special Service Force or Devil's Brigade during World War II.


Early life

Born in Petersfield, Manitoba, he was one of 11 children of Henry and Arabella Prince of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation near Scanterbury, Manitoba. He was the great-great-grandson of the Indigenous Chief, Peguis, [1] who had led his nation from Sault Ste. Marie to the southern end of Lake Winnipeg in the late 1790s, keeping their French name, the Saulteaux. [2]

Growing up, Prince became a superb marksman with exceptional tracking skills learned from countless days spent hunting in the wilderness around his Indigenous reserve. He attended Elkhorn Residential School, completing grade eight. After leaving school he was employed at a variety of manual-labor positions but primarily as a tree feller. He joined the army cadets while a teenager.

Military career

World War II

At the start of World War II Prince volunteered to fight with the Canadian Army and, although he easily met the requirements for recruitment, he was turned down several times before he was finally accepted on June 3, 1940. [3] He was originally a member of the Royal Canadian Engineers, trained as a sapper. He volunteered for duty with a parachute unit designated the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion. [2] This designation was used to disguise the true reason for the recruitment of parachute volunteers in the UK at that time: the United States and Canada had begun the formation of a special force to conduct sabotage in Norway. Men were recruited in Canada and the overseas army for this unit dubbed the First Special Service Force. The Canadians involved with this training continued to be on the rosters of their prior units. Although later dubbed the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion for administrative purposes, the unit did not actually exist. Prince then reported to the UK's parachute school at RAF Ringway, near Manchester. He was promoted to lance corporal in February 1941.

In September 1942 he returned to Canada and joined the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB), and was promoted to sergeant. He volunteered for the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion and proceeded to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they were forming. The Canadians were well below strength due to injuries in training and washouts. They agreed to bolster the 1st Special Service Force (known as the "Devil's Brigade") commando unit by allowing men to volunteer. The modern American and Canadian special operations forces trace their heritage to this unit. Prince and the other men of this unit were originally chosen for their rugged outdoor backgrounds and received rigorous training, often under live fire. All members of this elite commando force received intense instruction in stealth tactics, hand-to-hand combat, the use of explosives for demolition, amphibious warfare, rock climbing and mountain fighting and as ski troops. Prince became a "Reconnaissance Sergeant"—or, in the Force table of organization, a "Scout"—responsible for moving into forward positions and reporting on the movements of the enemy.

The SSF moved to Italy in November 1943. They would take part in the clearing of the Bernhard or Winter Line preventing the Allied push towards Rome. They attacked and captured Monte la Difensa, Hill 720, Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro in December and January.

The taking of Monte Majo was assigned to the Canadian contingent of the Devil's Brigade, and was an almost insurmountable problem. German artillery and machine-gun emplacements had been arranged in layers on the steep slopes. An attack on any one of them would alert the other defenses and also the main German positions on the summit. Any assaulting force would be met with withering fire. Prince, whose ability to move in complete silence wearing traditional moccasins had become known among the senior officers, was assigned to move at night and eliminate the gun emplacements on the slopes without making a sound. This would allow an assault by the Force to follow immediately and climb up the steep mountain side. Under cover of darkness, Prince led a patrol partway up the slopes, and, leaving his men behind as a supporting group, he single-handedly approached and entered the successive German gun emplacements one after another, dispatching all of the gunners with complete silence. Prince's commanding officer stated that the scout "moved just like a shadow", and had done "a beautiful job". [4] This extraordinary feat of arms enabled the daring assault by the Brigade on Monte Majo to proceed, the enemy taken by complete surprise. The Canadian contingent of the 1st Special Service Force was awarded the Battle Honour "Mount Majo" for this action. Unaccountably, Tommy Prince did not receive any individual medal for his astounding and essential contribution to the successful outcome. [5]

After breaking through the German Bernhard Line, the 1st Special Service Force was then moved to Anzio, where a U.S. and Allied landing had been contained and was heavily under attack. On February 8, 1944, near Littoria, Prince was sent forward to report the location of several German assembly points, including artillery positions. From an abandoned farmhouse about 200 metres (660 ft) from the enemy assembly area, he could report the location of their emplacements using 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) of telephone wire. An artillery duel followed as the Allies attempted to knock out the guns reported by Prince, and one of these rounds cut the telephone wire. Prince walked out dressed as a farmer weeding the crops; locating the damaged wires, he rejoined them while pretending to tie his shoelaces. [2] He made a show of shaking his fist at the nearby Germans, then again toward the Allied lines. [3] [6] Returning to his lookout spot he continued his reports, and over the next 24 hours four German batteries were knocked out of action. [2] In all he spent three days behind enemy lines. For this action he was awarded the Military Medal, his citation reading (in part) "Sergeant Prince's courage and utter disregard for personal safety were an inspiration to his fellows and a marked credit to his unit." [2]

During the Anzio campaign, Prince would wear moccasins while on patrol to silence his movements. He would allegedly sneak past German security guards at night and enter enemy sleeping locations, leaving messages or warnings, stealing boots, and sometimes using his knife to dispatch an enemy soldier. [7] These psychological warfare attacks earned the nickname of "geist" or "devil" from the German soldiers.

After being the vanguard of the US forces liberating Rome on 4 June 1944, the SSF was moved to southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. First they would assault the Hyères Islands before going ashore at Sylvabelle on the French Riviera. There the force was ordered, as part of the 1st Airborne Task Force, to push eastward toward the Franco-Italian border. On September 1 Prince and a private were sent forward through the German lines to scout their positions near L'Escarène and came across an encampment area of an enemy reserve battalion. On the way back to report, Prince and the private came upon a battle between some Germans and a squad of French partisans. They started sniping the Germans from behind, killing about 12 of them, and the startled Germans eventually withdrew. Prince made contact with the French leader, who asked Prince where the rest of his company was located. When Prince pointed to the private and said "Here," the French commander exclaimed that he thought that there had been about 50 men involved in his relief. The French commander recommended Prince for the Croix de Guerre, but the courier was killed en route and the message never reached the French Commander-in-Chief, Charles de Gaulle. [8]

Prince continued on to his unit. He then led it back to the encampment of the German reserve forces and joined in the battle, which resulted in the capture of the entire battalion of about 1000 men. From start to end Prince had been without food, water or sleep for 72 hours and had walked over 70 km across rugged, mountainous terrain. Afterwards he was recommended for the American Silver Star, his citation reading:

So accurate was the report rendered by the patrol that Sergeant Prince's regiment moved forward on 5 September 1944, occupied new heights and successfully wiped out the enemy bivouac [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. [2]

After it was determined that both US and Canadian personnel would be better suited if they were dispersed to units in their own forces, the 1st Special Service Force was disbanded in December 1944. After returning to the UK, Prince was summoned to Buckingham Palace on February 12, 1945, where King George VI presented him with his Military Medal. Prince would later receive his Silver Star from US Brigadier-General E.F. Koenig (on behalf of the American President) on April 24, 1945; [9] he was one of 59 Canadians to receive this award during the war, and one of only three to receive the Silver Star and Military Medal. [2] In addition to the two Decorations, he received six service medals for his service in the Italian and North West Europe theatres of war, The 1939-1945 Star, The Italy Star, The France and Germany Star, The Defence Medal, The Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with Overseas Clasp, and The War Medal 1939-1945. The war in Europe ended while he was in England. [2]

Post World War

Prince was honorably discharged on June 15, 1945, [10] and returned to his home on the Brokenhead Reserve, working in a pulpwood camp. In 1946 a woman attacked him at a dance and cut his cheek with a beer bottle, requiring 64 stitches. [8] After this incident he left the reserve and moved to Winnipeg.

Using funding from the Department of Veteran's Affairs, Prince began a small but relatively prosperous cleaning service. He married Verna Sinclair, with whom he had five children.

In 1946 he was elected chairman of the Manitoba Indian Association. Entrusting his business to friends, Prince devoted his time to working with the government to improve the conditions for Native peoples. He worked with the association to lobby Ottawa for changes to the Indian Act. While some revisions were made, little actual improvement followed. Frustrated with the red tape of Ottawa, he returned to Winnipeg to discover that his cleaning business had folded in his absence because the friends running it had crashed the truck and sold the parts as scrap metal. [8] Prince worked in lumber camps and a concrete factory to make ends meet.

Korean War

In August 1950 Prince returned to the Canadian Army to fight with the United Nations troops in the Korean War. As he later commented, "As soon as I put on my uniform I felt a better man." [2] Re-instated to his previous rank of sergeant, Prince was now a member of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI), the first Canadian regiment to arrive in the war zone.

In February 1951 the Patricias joined the 27th Commonwealth Brigade on the battlefield. Prince was second in command of his rifle platoon, and shortly after arrival in Korea he led an eight-man evening "snatch patrol" into an enemy encampment. The successful patrol returned with two captured machine guns and Prince went on to lead several more raids. However, his CO eventually avoided assigning him patrols because he believed that Prince took risks with the lives of his soldiers. [11]

Prince held a prominent role with the 2 PPCLI when it became the first Canadian unit awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for distinguished service in the Battle of Kapyong on April 24–25, 1951. The battalion defended an important strategic position on Hill 677 despite heavy assault from Chinese forces. [11] The Kapyong Valley provided a potential route for the enemy to encircle the U.S. forces in Korea. The Canadian 2 PPCLI, consisting of about 700 infantrymen and several machine guns, was opposed in the Kapyong River valley by a full Chinese division of 20,000 soldiers. Supporting UN forces consisted of a Royal Australian Regiment infantry battalion and elements of two companies of U.S. artillery. From US IX Corps came a battery of 105-millimetre (4.1 in) howitzers as well as the US 213th Field Artillery Battalion. In addition, the U.S. forces contributed the twelve 4.2-inch (110 mm) M2 mortars of B Company, 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion. However, the Australians were hurriedly withdrawn from the Kapyong battlefield after a fierce firefight with the attacking Chinese, who chased the Australians in hot pursuit. The American artillery forces simply fled without firing a single round, abandoning their big guns and mortars, equipment and vehicles to the enemy. Some American tanks fired upon the Canadians, wounding one man, before retreating from the battlefield. Neither the Australians nor the Americans notified the Canadian forces of their sudden retreat, which left the Canadians alone in a two-day siege to hold the key position. Tommy Prince was credited with steadying and motivating some of the nervous young Canadians who voiced a desire to run in the face of overwhelming odds of about 30 to 1. [12] The fighting was fierce and often hand-to-hand with bayonets, the Canadians running low on ammunition. The Canadian unit would twice dig in to ground and call in supporting artillery fire on top of their own positions when they were overrun by mass attacks of Chinese soldiers. The 2 PCCI, with their ammunition and supplies exhausted, managed to repel the attacks and the Chinese division withdrew before UN relief forces arrived.

Prince's wartime duty was taking a toll on his body, and his knees were subject to painful swelling and premature arthritis. He was hospitalized after a medical examination in May 1951, and was later put on administrative duties and returned to Canada, where he served as a platoon sergeant at The Officer Candidate School Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario. Here his knees improved, so in March 1952 he volunteered for a second tour of duty in the Far East. He sailed for Korea that October with the 3rd Battalion PPCLI.

Though the battalion was officially still training in November 1952, when Chinese forces attacked a vital sector on the Sami-chon River known as "the Hook" the 3rd PPCLI was called to defend the rear of the UN forces in the Second Battle of the Hook. The Patricia's had five members killed, but was able to recapture the post by November 19. Prince was among the nine wounded in the battalion, with some shrapnel wounds to his legs. Although he recovered from these injuries, he was hospitalized for several weeks in early 1953 for treatment on his knees. [11] The armistice was signed during this period.

Prince received the Korea Medal (Canadian version) and the United Nations Korea Medal for his service. He was also entitled, posthumously, to the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for Korea after it was created in 1991. Following the Korean Armistice Agreement, he remained in the army, working as an instructor of new recruits in Winnipeg, Manitoba, until his honorable discharge on October 28, 1953. [10] He continued to work at a personnel depot in Winnipeg until September 1954. [10]

Post War and later life

Monument to Tommy Prince, Kildonan Park, Winnipeg, just a few steps from the monument to his ancestor Peguis Tommy Prince Kildonan Park.jpg
Monument to Tommy Prince, Kildonan Park, Winnipeg, just a few steps from the monument to his ancestor Peguis

Adjusting to civilian life was not easy for Prince after World War II and Korea, and with painfully arthritic knees as a result of the long, harsh conditions during his military service, his capabilities were limited. As a First Nations member, Prince did not qualify for any Canadian armed forces veteran benefits, pensions, or educational support. [13] Coupled with the discrimination against Native people at the time, his life became increasingly difficult, ultimately ending in his estrangement from his family and the placement of his children in foster homes. Unlike other famous Canadian war heroes who also struggled in their civilian lives after the war ended, Prince was not assisted by well-off friends or offered positions by the government.

In June 1955 Tommy Prince made the news for his heroism in saving a man from drowning at the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg. However, he spiraled into a depression, and like many war veterans, he experienced post battle stress symptoms and combat nightmares. His personal life continued to deteriorate and alcoholism overtook him. Winnipeg police officers knew him and his war service, and would refuse to hold him for intoxication. His final years were spent virtually alone, living in a Salvation Army hostel. He eventually overcame his alcoholism. In order to support himself, he sold off his medals. He died in 1977 at Winnipeg's Deer Lodge Centre, a health care facility specializing in geriatric care and treatment of veterans, and was interred in Brookside Cemetery, Winnipeg.

Prince's medals changed hands several times before coming up for auction in London, Ontario. His nephew, Jim Bear, organized a pledge drive and purchased the medals, entrusting them to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.

Since his passing, a number of honors have been bestowed in his name. Some of them are:

In 1968, a major Hollywood film entitled "The Devil's Brigade" was produced, although Tommy Prince, the most decorated member of the Brigade, was not represented in the story line. Early in the film, an American soldier was featured in a soldier gambling scene, whose nickname was "Chief", perhaps a weak reference to Prince and his royal ancestry.

In 2005 Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute on Prince.

On February 10, 2010, it was announced that Canadian actor Adam Beach would portray the Canadian war hero in an upcoming movie about his life. According to Bay Film Studios, the movie will be a "true account of Canada's most highly decorated First Nations soldier". Beach, 37, said he is honoured to play Prince, calling him a positive role model for all First Nations. [14]

In 2013, the United States Congress passed a bill to award the 1st Special Service Force the Congressional Gold Medal. [15]

In June 2020, a group of Conservative Party of Canada Members of Parliament started a petition [16] and sent a letter to Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem advocating for Prince's face to be displayed on the Canadian $5 bill. [17]

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  1. Lackenbauer, P. Whitney (Spring 2007). ""A Hell of a Warrior": Remembering Sergeant Thomas George Prince" (PDF). Journal of Historical Biography. 1: 27–78.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Tommy Prince" . Retrieved 11 November 2021 via
  3. 1 2 "Tommy Prince, one of Canada's Greatest Heroes". Archived from the original on November 25, 2015.
  4. A Perfect Hell, John Nadler. ASIN: 0891418679 Presidio Press (March 28 2006), P. 151.
  5. Mount Majo.
  6. "Thomas Prince: Canada's Forgotten Aboriginal War Hero". Retrieved 2017-05-11.
  7. Canada’s Most Famous & Forgotten Indigenous War Hero.
  8. 1 2 3 "Thomas Prince: Canada's Forgotten Aboriginal War Hero" . Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  9. Yank Medals For Canucks, Canadian Army Newsreel No 71
  10. 1 2 3 "Home - Historica Canada". Archived from the original on 4 December 2011. Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  11. 1 2 3 Prince Returns to Action
  12. Lackenbauer, P. Whitney (January 2007). ""A Hell of a Warrior": Remembering Sergeant Thomas George Prince" via ResearchGate.
  14. "Adam Beach calls Tommy Prince a 'hero' role" . Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  15. "Devil's Brigade granted top U.S. honours - The World Daily".
  16. "HONOUR SERGEANT TOMMY PRINCE". Honour Tommy Prince. Tom Kmiec . Retrieved 5 July 2020.
  17. Rollason, Kevin (June 28, 2020). "Sgt. Tommy Prince touted for new $5 bill Tory contingent seeks to honour Canada's most decorated Indigenous veteran". Winnipeg Free Press . Retrieved 5 July 2020.

Further reading