Sgt. Tommy Prince, grandson of an Indian chief, won ten ribbons fighting Germans, Italians and Chinese. But now the blood of his ancestors demands he fight again to prove a man’s color doesn’t count on the warpath
EVERY HERO,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century American poet, “becomes a bore at last.” And that, according to some old sweats and some new ones, is precisely what has happened to Tommy Prince.
During World War Two, Prince, a Manitoba Indian, made a legendary reputation as a Canadian army scout. Last October, protesting strongly, he was posted home from Korea because “his legs had given out.”
Today Sergeant George Thomas Prince, MM, of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, is serving with palpable impatience on the staff of a Canadian Officer Candidate School in Ontario. Although he has ten ribbons on his chest, more than any other NCO in the Canadian Army, he still wants more.
Since 1940 Prince has taken air-borne training in England, jungle training in Maryland, mountain training in Vermont, amphibious training in Virginia and snow training in the Canadian north. In combat he’s chased Japanese out of the Aleutians, driven Germans out of Italy, booted Italians out of France, and kicked Chinese out of South Korea. Few other Canadian soldiers can lay claim to such widespread experience, yet Sergeant Prince has not had enough.
Camp Borden, his present station, is a vast tract of rolling pineland, surrounding a city of army huts, about sixty miles north of Toronto. It is also a crucible in which the Canadian General Staff melts down all manner of civilians and remolds them into engineers, signalers, medics, mechanics, gunners, tank men and “poor bloody infantry.”
Ageing warriors of thirty-five and more, looking for a cushy billet in which to await their pensions, sometimes say that a sergeant instructor’s appointment at Camp Borden, with its five-day week, white tablecloths, leather armchairs, swimming pool, movies, organized sports, beer and spirits, bed lamps and white sheets, is “just the job.” But Sergeant Prince longs to get back to the fighting, even though he is thirty-six and has an arthritic knee from too much crouching in slit trenches. He lets his wishes be known vociferously in the Sergeants’ Mess, respectfully in the Orderly Room, and bitterly, out of the corner of his mouth, when he delivers a case of “thunderfiash” fireworks to the young officer cadets so they can play at throwing hand grenades.
In general Sergeant Prince’s comrades find his gripe irritating. Most of his fellow instructors have had combat service too and accept with phlegmatic satisfaction the truism that their life in wrar was "ninety percent tedium and ten percent sheer hell.” None is afraid to admit that he’d have traded the hell for still more tedium. Yet here’s a man who should know better still demanding hell all the time. “Well,” says one sergeant, tongue in cheek, “I guess there just isn’t enough hell to go round.”
Most of the young officer cadets, of course, who’ve never been in action, glance at the Military Medal which Sergeant Prince received personally from King George VI and at the Silver Star which he got indirectly from President Roosevelt, and quiver with admiration.
But in the Sergeants' Mess there are NCOs who will tell you that Tommy Prince is “medals mad.” Prince is apt to remark that he missed the Croix de Guerre in France through a clerical error, as if to excuse a shortage of medals. And yet his “fruit salad” consists of the Military Medal, a coveted gallantry decoration, the U. S. Silver Star for conspicuous courage in action, the 1939-45 Star, the Italy Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal, Canadian Voluntary Service Medal, the Korea Medal for British Commonwealth troops and the United Nations Service Medal, given to all soldiers in the Korean theatre.
In any other man the sergeants of the Officer Candidate School might consider Prince’s dissatisfaction with such a show spurious. But they take one look at his thatch of jet-black hair, his dark glittering sloe eyes set in high red-brown cheekbones and his heavy supple bearlike frame and feel certain it is genuine. Their attitude toward him is one of good-humored toleration and affection.
Unlike many Indians Sergeant Prince is loquacious. When he is not talking about fighting he is talking about Indians. There comes a period, after a few beers, when these two subjects get all mixed up. “He lets you know,” says one sergeant, “that he has no inferiority complex about his color.”
Occasionally, as Prince admits himself, he “ties one on.” On one such occasion, long into the night, his comrades heard him muttering strange imprecations, sometimes in an Indian dialect, sometimes in English. The comprehensible passages were all related
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to injustices suffered by the Indian.
There was a time when Sergeant Prince showed every sign of turning into a crusading politician. He publicly threatened to take the unrequited wrongs of the Indians direct to King George VI. Then the ashes of an old dignity sputtered deep down in the quieter depths of his being. He turned his back on Ottawa and took to the warpath again. Perhaps the ghost of Peguis spoke to him in the night.
Peguis was that chief of the Saulteaux Indians, a branch of the Algonquin Nation, who, during the last century, fell upon the Sioux as they invested Lower Fort Garry and saved the embattled white garrison from a scalping. Peguis’ statue stands in St. Boniface, a suburb of Winnipeg, and when he goes home Prince stands and stares at that chiseled stone. Then something akin to stoicism and nobility sets in his massive features. Peguis was Prince’s great-grandfather and Prince was bom near the site of Peguis’ brave encounter.
But the St. Peter’s Reserve on the outskirts of Winnipeg was not the same in 1915, when Tommy Prince was bom, as it had been in 1871 when Queen Victoria, in a historic treaty, set it aside for his tribe in perpetuity.
The urban fringes of the burgeoning city were lapping at its limits, frightening away the game, polluting the fishing waters, and cramping the Saulteaux ever closer together.
By the early Twenties, when Tommy Prince first went to school, the familiar corrosions of Indian culture were almost complete. His father, no longer known as a chief but merely as spokesman of the tribe, still spoke an Algonkian dialect. But English came easily to Tommy, the fifth of eleven children. The Princes had taken their English name because they rated as highborn people among their own kind. Among the whites however they were merely dirt poor farmers.
Tommy Prince told his father he wanted to become a lawyer. His father explained that Indians had not enough money for such grandiose schemes. Prince went to an Indian industrial and agricultural school at Elkhorn, Man.
“I learned a bit about farming science and a bit about machinery,” he says. He also learned that there is one thing in which the white man makes no distinctions, and that is the color of the skin on the index finger of the right hand which takes the first pressure on the trigger of a Lee-Enfield Mark Three.
“I liked being in the cadets at Elkhorn,” he says. “As soon as I put on my uniform 1 felt a better man. 1 even tried to wear it in the classroom.”
At the age of sixteen, when he left school, he had only reached Grade Eight. But at one hundred yards he could put five bullets through an area as big as a playing card.
This skill served him well through the depression years when he wearied of looking for odd jobs. He could always go up north with an old gun and take a deer. He told of his prowess in the taverns. When he was thrown out of a beer parlor because he was an Indian he grew a mustache. “The waiters took me for a Frenchman,” he aays, “and I was never thrown out again.”
Other Indians who had served in World War One confirmed the notion he had developed at Elkhorn: that once a man gets into an army tunic nobody gives a brass button for his origins.
He resolved to belong to this chosen
fraternity. The infantry looked like the best place for an Indian to show his true worth and the autumn of 1939 seemed to present a golden opportunity. All through the last months of '39 he vainly tried to join. Many white men failed to get in too. But nobody could blame Prince for thinking that he was barred on account of his race.
Finally, early in 1940, he settled for the 1st Corps Field Park Engineers, a unit whose job would be far behind the lines. In August he sailed to England.
His soldiering consisted of working a lathe and guarding a dump.
For two years this monotony hung heavily on him. But his nights were lightened by the different attitude of the English toward his skin. In a pub, sooner or later, an Englishman would approach and say “Are you a real Red Indian?” Tommy would nod. The Englishman would add: “I’ve never met a real Red Indian before. My children would be awfully interested. Will you come to tea on Sunday?”
Few were as successful as Prince in England at the art of getting their feet under a table. But he tired of being a mere curiosity. While some men awaited the onset of battle with thin trickles of fear Prince’s main anxiety was that he’d never see it.
In the middle of 1942 Part One Orders called for volunteers for the paratroops and Prince was the first to step forward. He was one of nine out of a hundred in a student squad to win his wings from a British paratroop
! school at Ringway near Manchester.
During the assault exercises which followed “the drop” it was noticed that he had a natural instinct for ground. He could wriggle forward on his belly with the agility of P lizard and take advantage of a twelve-inch depression in an otherwise flat field to conceal himself completely from dew. He was a magnificent shot. He could live in the open as craftily as a wolf. “It was all bom in me,” he says. His bearing was so impressive that other men forgot his color and responded willingly to his leadership tests. But Prince never let them forget that he was an Indian. When mail arrived from his father he always used to say as a gag: “I’ve got a smoke signal from the chief.”
In Sept. 1942 he was flown back to Canada to join the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. By March 1943 he was a sergeant. When he visited reserves around Winnipeg wearing three stripes, wings and a maroon beret his tribe’s attitude toward him reflected pride and respect.
The Canadian Parachute Battalion was attached to the U. S. Special Force, an air-bome formation, and went into American uniforms. Jungle, mountain, amphibious and ski training followed in Canada and the U. S. A. Early in ’43 when Prince was briefed for a drop on Japanese who had occupied the small island of Kiska in the Aleutians he was exultant at the prospect of combat and I dejected on arrival to find the enemyhad withdrawn.
It seemed to him that he was never going to get a chance to test his courage.
“All my life,” he says, “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
His chance came in the fall of '43. Soon after the capture of Naples, Prince landed with his unit in Italy. Hitler was then holding the Gustave Line, an elaborately fortified defense work hinging on Cassino.
In the night attack on Monte Maggio, u steppingstone to Cassino, Prince saw for the first time men riddled by bullets from the Spandau light machine gun which fired so fast it sounded like a motorbike engine revving up. He learned to walk at the crouch whenever he heard the Nebelwerfer mortar softly coughing up nine
big bombs which came fluttering
through the air with no more sound than the beat of a bird’s wings, then burst around him with the loud flat report of slamming doors and tore men to pieces.
Before his astonished eyes antitank mines tossed a four-ton Bren gun carrier high into the air and crushed its crew; the antipersonnel mines sprang three feet up from the earth, exploded and discharged all around them a withering hail of old ball bearings; and the hideous little wooden shoe mines, at the touch of a boot, took off a man's leg below the knee so neatly and quickly that he stood there on his remaining limb, gaping in amazement at the bloody amputation spinning away like a Catherine wheel, before he screamed and collapsed.
Through that demonic night, lit by flares and gunfire, Prince heard men who had never been to church calling on their Maker, and saw men who had looked like lions turn into gibbering loons, and trod on sickly sweet tumescent puffballs that had once been men, and he “pressed on, regardless.”
When he got to the top of the mountain in the dawn, vaguely aware of the ragged line of staggering comrades on either side, and of green-faced Germans jumping out of holes and running away, his bursting lungs summoned the breath for a great exultant shout, for in this moment he had come to know the meaning of that ecstasy which unites infantrymen in beer parlors and to realize that on a twentieth-centurywarpath an Indian
brave can still be worth more than many a paleface.
Later, in fieldcraft, he proved superior to all his comrades because silent, swift and unseen movement came naturally to him. The battalion made him reconnaissance sergeant.
He would crawl out by night toward the enemy, sometimes alone, sometimes with » small patrol, listening to Germans murmuring, and estimating their number. He would crawl out by day and watch the enemy runners dodging among the olive groves, and fix their defensive positions. Before every attack he snaked around the battalion front and came back with information on a track that would take the jeep ambulances, a wood that would shelter the radio truck, or a gulley that would cover the approach of a platoon.
Sometimes he stayed out twenty-four hours with a sniper’s rifle picking off a man here and there to unnerve the enemy. Once he went out hunting a German sniper who had been harassing his own battalion, engaged him in a movielike shooting duel and brought him toppling down out of a tree like a big dead bird.
Prince’s most famous exploit took place at Anzio beachhead where he spent ninety days in the line in early 1944. Huge squat Royal Tiger tanks of the Germans were firing from two thousand yards, then changing position before the allied antitank gunners could spot them and take aim.
By night, carrying a field telephone, Prince wriggled eighteen hundred yards out in front of the battalion. At this time both Germans and Allies had ceased to use houses as cover because, being so obvious, they attracted fire. Knowing this Prince chose a shattered j house only two hundred yards from ; the Germans. He hoped they would never suspect they were being observed from a place so flagrantly under their noses, and his audacity paid off.
The next morning he heard a Royal i Tiger crashing through some trees and watched its ugly snout breathe flame.
‘ Calmly, over the telephone, he pinpointed its position. Within a minute Allied gunners had knocked it out. A few hours later, he helped bag a second
Around noon on the second day a small mortar shell whispered over his house, fell at the back, and cut his telephone wire.
Prince believed the Germans had suspected his presence and would go on shelling until they got him. If he withdrew' he would be mown down. Yet his presence w'as purposeless until the line was repaired. He decided to resolve all three problems immediately.
Hanging in the house were an old black Italian hat. black jacket and w'hite muffler. Prince put these on and ran into the open in imitation of those many excitable Italians who were often seen pitifully hanging onto their homes betw'een the opposing armies. He darted over to a chicken coop as if inspecting it for damage. Then he doubled round to the back, found the broken cable and repaired it.
Once more he did a little dervish dance for the Germans' benefit Then he went inside, took up his old position, and resumed contact with the battalion.
The ruse succeeded. No more mortar shells fell on the house. But by nightfall Prince’s forward observation work had claimed two more Royal Tigers. He returned to his lines after forty-eight
“You crazy fool,” said an officer. “If you’d been taken prisoner in those clothes you’d have been shot out of
Prince took part in the seizure of coastal islands during the invasion of Southern France, wrent on to the main-
land and advanced along the Riviera toward the northwest Italian frontier, where his unit was held up by natural mountainous defenses. On one occasion, with another man. Prince sneaked through the German front and scouted fifteen miles behind the enemy lines. They located the big German bivouac area they were looking for and started back to report. On the way they saw a skirmish taking place between a German platoon and a squad of FFI, Free French partisans. The FFI were being encircled by Germans. Prince and his comrade took up well concealed positions and began to pick off Germans from the rear. The German platoon commander was concentrating so heavily on the FFI he never became aware of the two Canadians.
Prince know-s for sure he killed six Germans and reckons he wounded many more who were eventually carried away. The Germans never fired back so the two Canadians might just as w-ell have been in a shooting gallery. Eventually the German officer, surprised and shaken by his high casualties, withdrew*.
Prince then made contact with the FFI. "Where is the rest of your company?” asked the FFI officer. “Here." said Prince, indicating the grinning private at his side. ”Mon
Dieu" said tue FFI officer, "I thought there were at least fifty of you!”
The FFI accompanied Prince back to the Canadian-American lines. Almost immediately Prince set off again, at the head of his battalion, and led them to a cleanout of the German bivouac area. Before that battle was over he had covered fifty miles on foot without rest. The Americans gave him the Silver Star and the French, he says, recommended him for the Croix de Guerre which he never got because of an oversight.
When the battle of Southern France was won Prince's unit was detached from the Americans and went into Canadian uniform again.
They returned to England where Prince was summoned to an investiture at Buckingham Palace. As the string orchestra of the Guards Brigade played soft music he walked up the long carpeted ramp, did o smart left turn, bowed, took two short paces forward, and faced the little figure in naval officer's uniform.
The King pinned the Military Medal on his chest and said: “I've seen you before." “Yes. sir." said Prince, "you spoke to me when you inspected my unit in Surrey three years ago.”
The King asked him about his service and about where he came from and about the Indians on the reserve in Manitoba. "He spoke to me for two minutes." says Prince, "but most of the others only got about thirtyseconds.''
Prince later tolunteered for the Far East. "I'd been trained for parachutes but nearly all my combat had been straight infantry stuff." he says. "I hoped that in the Far East I'd get a chance to do a fighting jump." He was returned to Canada late in '45 and. because of the Japanese collapse-, discharged.
Like many other returned veterans he found his home was not the same and got a divorce from his wife. His father had died w-hile he was overseas. He made his living cutting pulp wood and very soon he was just another Indian again. When he applied for a game warden's job and was refused on account of his race he w-as enraged.
He became Chairman of the Manitoba Indian Association, and went to Ottawa. Before a special parliamentary committee he complained about white encroachments on game and fishing rights. He asked for grants to Indian
veterans, financial assistance for the establishment of co-operative Indian farms: better schools for Indian children. and more teachers.
He was bewildered by the mass of legal verbiage in which he found himself involved and once, angry at his lack of progress, he said in an interview-; "If we can't make headway with them there is nothing for us to do but go right to His Majesty. After all the original treaties were made with Queen Victoria."
Some reforms in the Indian Act were made but not enough to satisfyPrince. The life of his people remained largely unchanged.
Once when a band of northern Manitoba Indians were in trouble for an infringement of hunting regulations Prince interceded successfully on their behalf.
Although he could easily have left the reserve and become an enfranchised Canadian he preferred to remain a Treaty Indian because “you never know when you might get a chance to do something for them.“
Prince is not very precise in what he wants for Indians but you can tell in his conversation that he is comparing their past with their present and is concerned largely with their prestige. Consciously or unconsciously he made a personal contribution to the Indians' good by his heroism. And this mayhave influenced him to re-enlist in 1950 when the government called for volunteers for Korea.
Five years is a long time in an infantryman's life. Although he took turns with a subaltern leading the platoon in Korea, and set his men an example of courageous calm when the Chinese prepared for attack with bugle blasts, whistles and shouting, it was noticed that the hill climbing exhausted
When finally he was cajoled into taking a medical examination the MOs found an arthritic condition of the knee that must have kept him in perpetual agony and seriously impaired his agility.
Last October he was shipped back to Canada against his will. At Camp Borden, as at all base depots, there is a lot of square bashing and even though Prince realizes as well as anyone else that herein lies the secret of armydiscipline he has no fondness for it.
“God knows though,” says one sergeant. "he tries hard enough. He is always well turned out. But he just isn't dapper.”
Others have noted that when Prince comes up to the salute the gesture is sometimes exaggerated by that tiny trifle that can make it absurd.
Nor is he brilliant at any instruction period save field craft. Then Prince
still comes into his own. But most of his time is spent distributing equipment for exercises and lectures, calling parades, posting up orders, inspecting billets and other duties of Administrative Sergeant.
One of his nicknames is “Medals." another. “Big Chief Pocahontas.”
There is one story about Prince told by a warrant officer which casts a glimmer of light into the troubled black well of his personality.
"Last Hallowe'en." says this man, "we had a dance. We were all sitting round haring a drink with our wives and girl friends. Prince was there, the only man without a girl. He was very well behaved, paying the ladies great respect. When we got talking about the dancing he said he would give us a surprise later on."
Toward the end of the evening the MC announced the company would now see a different kind of dancing. Then on came Sergeant Prince in full Indian regalia. He had no real braids of hair but he had laboriously plaited artificial ones out of army boor laces.
His war dance began. There were shouts and cheers and clapping of hands. The dance went on and on until it seemed as though Prince had forgotten his surroundings and the audience became restless. Then something happened which brought him to a sudden stop, and he walked off the
"What was the matter?” he was asked later.
Stonily he replied: "I was getting to the important part when they all started laughing at me."
Soon afterward he put in his application for a second tour of duty* in Korea. At this writing the application has not been granted. But Sergeant Prince's leg is getting better and one day soon it is possible he will be back in the Line trying to recover the longlost glory of his race.
As Havelock Ellis once wrote: "Those persons who are burning to displayheroism may rest assured that the course of social evolution will offer them every opportunity.” if