The Battle of the Bulge was a massive Nazi offensive launched on an 80-mile front against a lightly defended American sector in Belgium’s Ardennes region during the later stages of World War II. In a last-ditch effort to avoid total defeat, the Germans intended to swiftly punch through the thin American lines, retake Belgium, capture the port at Antwerp, and potentially conclude the war on the Western Front on terms favorable to Germany.
The attack involved more than 400,000 German troops and was led by the cream of the German panzer (tank) divisions on the Western front. The scale and scope of the attack surprised the defenders. The Germans eventually penetrated as far as 50 miles behind the original American lines. Some pockets of resistance (such as the one at Bastogne, Belgium) held out against all odds allowing time for reinforcements to arrive, stave off a strategic defeat, and eventually push the Germans back to their original positions. The month-long battle inflicted about 80,000 American casualties, including some 19,000 dead, making it the bloodiest American battle of WWII.
The Battle Of The Bulge Tour In 2018
In November 2018, I was on a short holiday in Paris coincidentally at the same time as the centennial festivities commemorating the armistice ending World War I. It was the perfect opportunity for a side trip to Bastogne, Belgium for a one-day tour of some of the sites during the Battle of the Bulge. I had a long-standing interest in the battle and at one time knew a fair amount about its major engagements from books, movies, TV shows, and an Avalon-Hill Battle of the Bulge board game that was a gift I received as a teen. Visiting the Ardennes region on the borders between Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg was a good way to refresh my memory and see places that were just points on the map of the board game I’d often played many years ago.
Through online research I secured the services of Henri Mignon as guide for a private tour. He is a retired Belgian Army officer who at age nine witnessed portions of the battle from his home near Houffalize, Belgium. One of the first stops on our tour was the Heinz Barracks in Bastogne. The barracks, which remains an active Belgian Army post, served as the headquarters of the U.S. 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagles) Division during the battle.
The area that served as the 101st HQ is now a museum containing photos, dioramas, exhibits, and displays related to combat during the battle and HQ operations. Photos of two women civilians contrasted with the military setting and begged for further investigation.
I knew of Renée Lemaire. She had been long celebrated as the Angel (singular) of Bastogne, a Belgian civilian nurse who attended American casualties in Bastogne. Renée was mentioned in many accounts of the battle and was featured in an episode of Band of Brothers, the 2001 TV war drama produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-selling book that dramatizes the history of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) from training in the United States through end of World War II.
The other picture was someone I’d never heard of. Henri identified her as Augusta Chiwy. She was also a nurse who helped an American doctor in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The Band of Brothers episode on Bastogne that focuses on Renée Lemaire mentions in passing a small Black nurse from the Congo named “Anna.” But no such nurse was identified in any accounts I’d read and seemed to be a fictional character. In reality, Anna was Augusta Chiwy whose considerable efforts in assisting American forces was never widely acknowledged and recognized until almost 70 years after the war.
Augusta Chiwy (pronounced CHEE-wee) was born on June 6, 1921 in Mubavu, in the Belgian Congo (now Burundi) to a Congolese woman and a white veterinarian from Bastogne, Belgium. Apparently, Augusta never knew her mother who’s fate is unknown. At age nine Augusta moved to Bastogne with her father and brother, Charles, where she was raised with the help of her aunt. Her father and uncle, a Bastogne physician, encouraged Augusta to become a nurse. At age 19 she left Bastogne to began nursing school in Leuven, Belgium (Louvain in French) in 1940. After qualifying as a registered nurse in 1943, she became employed at St. Elizabeth General Hospital in the same city.
On December 16, 1944, Augusta journeyed from Leuven to Bastogne to be with her family during the Christmas holidays. Augusta had a difficult time making the 100-mile trip and had to use several forms of transportation. (That is the only part of Augusta’s story I can remotely relate to. In 2018, my route from Paris to Bastogne, a distance of only 200 miles as the crow flies, took almost eight hours and involved changing trains to get to Brussels, a third train from Brussels to a small town near Bastogne, a 40-minute ride on a public bus to the Bastogne South Bus Station, and a half-mile hike with luggage to, Hotel Giorgi, just off Bastogne’s town square.)
Depending on your point of view, Augusta was very fortunate or very unlucky. December 16 was the day the Germans launched their Ardennes Offensive. Two days after she arrived, the Nazis had Bastogne completely surrounded and under constant fire from heavy artillery. Augusta, a mixed race civilian who was 23 years old and only 152 cm (5 ft) tall was about to become an unsung heroine in one of the most desperate and important battles of WWII.
John “Jack” T. Prior, MD
In December 1944, Jack Prior was a assigned to the Medical Battalion of the 10th Armored Division. At 27 years of age, he couldn’t have been more than a year or two out of medical school. He was barely old enough to have finished an internship much less a residency. Most doctors are at least 26 years old when they graduate from medical school.
On December 14, he was detached to the Division’s 20th Armored Infantry Battalion as its surgeon to replace another physician who had been evacuated with pneumonia. On December 19, his unit was in Noville, Belgium seven kilometers northeast of Bastogne. It was part of Combat Team Desobry, a conglomeration of a tank battalion, an engineer platoon, a reconnaissance squadron, and the 20th Armored Infantry. Team Desobry was part of the 10th Armored Division Combat Command B.
On the morning of the 19th, tanks from the 2nd Panzer Division unleashed a ferocious attack. Team Desobry suffered heavy casualties and was forced to fall back under fire toward Bastogne. Prior and the remnants of the combat team were spared from being killed or captured when a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division arrived and halted the German advance. Team Desobry completed the retreat to Bastogne arriving on December 20.
The Siege Of Bastogne
Bastogne was a crossroads town that was crucial to the success of the Nazi offensive. The Americans were determined to hold it at all costs. The 101st Airborne Division was rushed into the line at Bastogne from a rear area before it was properly outfitted with equipment, ammunition, and winter clothing. The 101st, 10th Armored Division Combat Command B, and elements of other units including the all Black 969th Field Artillery Battalion held on stubbornly even though they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. The city and its defenders were subject to constant ground attacks, artillery bombardment, and nightly air attacks by German bombers. Bastogne had no electricity or running water. Food and medical supplies were in very short supply.
In 1972, Dr. Prior published an account of his time in Bastogne in The Bulletin of the Onondaga County Medical Society. I recommend reading it.
In the medical society publication, Prior describes the conditions he worked under in Bastogne:
My Aid Station was initially in a garage on one of the main streets. Two days later I had to move into a larger area in a private three story home as the casualties increased and because I could not heat the garage adequately – the weather was very cold and there was about a foot of snow on the ground. My diary indicates we worked twenty-four hours a day in the Aid Station, that the plasma froze and would not run, that we had no medical supplies and that the town was continually shelled. It was a major decision whether to run up the street a block to the Battalion Command Post.
Now, in regard to the care of the wounded in Bastogne, I have always believed and still do that this did not constitute a bright page in the history of the Army Medical Department. I operated the only Aid Station for the Armored Division Combat Command although there were at least three other Battalion Surgeons with the Armor. I was holding over one hundred patients, of whom about thirty were very seriously injured litter patients. The patients who had head, chest and abdominal wounds could only face certain slow death since there was no chance of surgical procedures – we had no surgical talent among us and there was not so much as a can of ether or a scalpel to be had in the city. The extremity wounds were irrigated with a preciously low supply of hydrogen peroxide in an attempt to prevent gas infection. I attempted to turn my litter bearers into bedside nursing personnel – they were assisted by the arrival at our station December 21st of two registered female civilian nurses. One of these nurses, Renee Lemaire, volunteered her services and the other girl was black, a native of the Belgian Congo. She was “willed” to me by her father and when we eventually left Bastogne he was most distraught with me for refusing to take her along. They played different roles among the dying – Renee shrank away from the fresh, gory trauma, while the Congo girl was always in the thick of the splinting, dressing, and hemorrhage control. Renee preferred to circulate among the litter patients, sponging, feeding them, and distributing the few medications we had (sulfa pills and plasma). The presence of these two girls was a morale factor of the highest order. This decaying medical situation was worsening – with no hope for the surgical candidates, and even the superficial wounds were beginning to develop gas infection. (Emphasis Added)
Christmas Eve 1944
Augusta and Renée had been working with Dr. Prior for only three days when tragedy struck. Renée Lemaire was killed along with 20 – 30 wounded when a German bomber scored a direct hit on the aid station with a 500 lb. bomb. Prior wrote:
December 24th was another day of constant shelling. General McAuliffe sent his famous Christmas message to the troops asking them, “What’s merry about this Christmas?” He added that they were cold and hungry and not at home, but that they had stopped four Panzer divisions, two infantry divisions and one Parachute division. He concluded his message saying that we were giving our loved ones at home a Merry Christmas and that we were all privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms. At 8:30 p.m. Christmas Eve, I was in a building next to my hospital preparing to go next door and write a letter for a young lieutenant to his wife. The lieutenant was dying of a chest wound. As I was about to step out the door for the hospital one of me men asked if I knew what day it was, pointing out that on Christmas Eve we should open a Champagne bottle. As the two of us filled our cups, the room, which was well blackened out, became as bright as an arc welders torch. Within a second or two we heard the screeching sound of the first bomb we had ever heard. Every bomb as it descends seems to be pointed right at you. We hit the floor as a terrible explosion next door rocked our building. I ran outside to discover that the three-story apartment serving as my hospital was a flaming pile of debris about six feet high. The night was brighter than day from the magnesium flares the German bomber pilot had dropped. My men and I raced to the top of the debris and began flinging burning timber aside looking for the wounded, some of whom were shrieking for help. At this juncture the German bomber, seeing the action, dropped down to strafe us with his machine guns. We slid under some vehicles and he repeated this maneuver several times before leaving the area. Our team headquarters about a block away also received a direct hit and was soon in flames. A large number of men soon joined us and we located a cellar window (they were marked by white arrows on most European buildings). Some men volunteered to be lowered into the smoking cellar on a rope and two or three injured were pulled out before the entire building fell into the cellar. I estimated that about twenty injured were killed in this bombing along with Renee Lemaire. It seems that Renee had been in the kitchen as the bomb came down and she either dashed into, or was pushed into the cellar before the bomb hit. Ironically enough, all those in the kitchen were blown outdoors since one wall was all glass. I gathered what patients I still had and transported them to the riding hall hospital of the Air Borne division.
Augusta must have been in the kitchen when the bomb hit because she reported that she was blown through a glass wall and survived relatively unscathed. Days later, men sifted through the rubble and identified the majority of the dead, including Renée Lemaire. Jack Prior carried Renée’s remains to her parents encased in the white silk of a parachute that she wanted to fashion into her wedding dress.
The aid station location is now occupied by a Chinese restaurant. A plaque on the exterior notes the historic location.
On January 1, 1945, Dr. Prior submitted a letter to his commanding officers recommending that Renée Lemaire receive that highest possible civilian award for meritorious service. Jack Prior’s letter documenting Renée’s efforts may be why she has always been remembered as The Angel of Bastogne even though she worked in the hospital for the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion for only three days.
After the bombing, Prior moved his infirmary to the Bastogne Barracks where the 101st Airborne hospital was established. Augusta accompanied him. She provided medical care to U.S. soldiers through her tireless efforts until mid-January 1945, when Prior and his unit moved out of Bastogne with advancing U.S. forces.
During the siege, Augusta accompanied Prior on forays to the front lines to treat American casualties. They came under fire from rifles, heavy machine guns and mortars. Augusta never hesitated. She went onto the battlefield with Dr. Prior and two litter-bearers to retrieve wounded soldiers. On these trips, she wore an army uniform, which may have been the only suitable clothing available. Her civilian clothes probably became blood stained in short order. If captured while wearing the uniform, she knew she would be executed on the spot for collaborating with the Americans.
Dr. Prior suggested that Augusta’s five-foot frame made her a tough target. She demurred. “A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen.”
It must have been very upsetting when the 20th Armored Infantry departed Bastogne in January 1945 as she had probably grown very close to and fond of Dr. Prior. Augusta’s father wanted Dr. Prior to take Augusta along with his unit.
Why didn’t Augusta receive recognition immediately? She didn’t speak about her experiences during the battle and suffered from selective mutism. Moreover, there can be no doubt that racism played a major role.
The U.S. Army was segregated until 1948. It focused much publicity on the Malmedy Massacre of white soldiers during the battle but classified the contemporaneous Wereth 11 torture and massacre of Black soldiers and never attempted to track down the perpetrators. Reportedly, in 1944 army regulations barred Black medical personnel from treating white soldiers. Jack Prior noted that when soldiers objected to being attended by Augusta, he would reply “she treats you, or you die.”
Renée Lemaire is featured in the Band of Brothers episode about the 101st in Bastogne. But ironically because Renée was killed before Prior relocated his aid station to the Bastogne Barracks, Renee never tended to 101st casualties. Black Augusta was the only civilian nurse that the 101st had first-hand experience with, but she went unrecognized and was almost completely forgotten.
After the war, Ms. Chiwy worked in Louvain treating spinal injuries. In 1950, she married a Belgian soldier, Jacques Cornet. They had two children, Alain Cornet of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, and Christine Cornet of Grez-Doiceau, Belgium; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Jack Prior also survived the war. His decorations include the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Belgian Croix de Guerre and the medals of the cities of Bastogne and Metz. He returned to the States where he married and began a successful practice as a pathologist in Syracuse, New York. Dr. Prior’s marriage of 59 years produced six children and 19 grandchildren.
Augusta Chiwy and Jack Prior met one other time at a ceremony in Bastogne celebrating the 50th anniversary of the siege. But it wasn’t until Scottish historian Martin King tracked down Augusta in a Brussels retirement community that her story garnered widespread attention and she received long-overdue and much-deserved recognition. She became the subject of a biography by King — “The Forgotten Nurse” (2011) published in French and Dutch — and the award-winning documentary film “Searching for Augusta” (2014).
It took nearly 70 years, but when the overdue recognition and honors finally arrived, Augusta was inundated. Through King’s efforts, in 2011 King Albert II declared Augusta Marie Chiwy a Knight of the Order of the Crown, and the U.S. Army presented her with its highest civilian award, the Civilian Award For Humanitarian Service “due to selfless service and bravery.” She also received a certificate of thanks from all surviving members of the 10th Armored Division and was made a Bastogne Citizen of Honor and an honorary member of the 101st Airborne Division.
Ms. Chiwy is honored by the U.S. Army in Brussels in 2011. (Yves Logghe/AP)
Jack Prior died in 2007 at age 90. Until then, he and his former nurse exchanged greetings at Christmas, a period that coincided with the anniversary of their ordeal in Bastogne. He kept her letters in a trunk along with a bayonet and wartime mail from his mother. Along with her letters, Ms. Chiwy sent Belgian chocolates.
In 2014, when Anne Prior Stringer, Jack’s daughter, and her daughter, Meghan Stringer who lives in Belgium, visited Augusta at a nursing home in Brussels where she was recovering from a fall, they found the wall by Augusta’s bed covered with Christmas cards and family photos Jack sent to her over the years.
Lady Augusta Marie Chiwy passed in 2015 at the age of 94. She was honored at the Mardasson Memorial in her hometown by the United States, Belgium and the city of Bastogne before being laid to rest in the town cemetery not far from Renée Lemaire.
This video provides a good summary and includes interviews with Ms. Chiwy and a couple of photos from the 1994 reunion with Dr. Prior in Bastogen.
The saga of Augusta Chiwy is one of incredible humanity and compassion. The fortunes of war brought together two ordinary people of different races and nationalities under extraordinarily dreadful conditions that forged a bond of courage, love and friendship that demands to be remembered and celebrated.
Thanks for reading this long post. The saga of Augusta Chiwy is something to feel good about while awaiting the passage of the pandemic.