Tommy Prince

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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/branchCanadian Army
Years of service1940–1945
Battles/warsWorld War II
Korean War
AwardsMilitary Medal
Silver Star (United States)

Thomas George Prince MM (October 25, 1915 – November 25, 1977) was an Indigenous Canadian war hero and one of Canada's most decorated First Nations soldiers, serving in World War II and the Korean War.

Early life[edit]

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[edit]

World War II[edit]

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") by allowing men to volunteer. 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 unit 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. They were then moved to Anzio. 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][4] 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]

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, who eventually withdrew. When Prince made contact with the French leader, he asked Prince where his company was located, when Prince pointed to the private and said "Here," the French commander exclaimed that he thought there were 50 of them. 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.[5]

Prince continued on to his unit. He then led it back to the encampment and joined in the battle, which resulted in the capture of the entire German battalion, 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;[6] 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[edit]

Prince was honorably discharged on June 15, 1945,[7] 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.[5] 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.[5] Prince worked in lumber camps and a concrete factory to make ends meet.

Korean War[edit]

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 of the risks he took with the lives of his soldiers.[8]

Prince was present 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 had maintained a defense post on Hill 677 despite heavy fire from Chinese and North Korean forces.[8]

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 key location on the Sami-chon River known as "the Hook" the 3rd PPCLI was called to defend the rear of the UN forces. The battalion had five members killed, but was able to recapture the post with a UN unit by November 19. Prince was among the nine Patricias wounded; though he recovered from his injuries, he was hospitalized for several weeks in early 1953 for treatment on his knees.[8] 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.[7] He continued to work at a personnel depot in Winnipeg until September 1954.[7]

Post War and later life[edit]

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

Adjusting to civilian life had not been easy for Prince after World War II, and with painfully arthritic knees as a result of the long, harsh conditions during his military service, his capabilities were limited. 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.

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 spiralled into a depression and his personal life kept deteriorating and alcoholism overtook him, resulting in his final years being spent virtually alone, living in a Salvation Army hostel. 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 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.[9]

In June 2020, a group of Conservative Party of Canada Members of Parliament started a petition[10] 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.[11]


  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. ^ a b c d e f g h i Prince of the Brigade
  3. ^ a b " - Page Not Found". Archived from the original on 25 November 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2016 – via Cite uses generic title (help)CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ "Thomas Prince: Canada's Forgotten Aboriginal War Hero". Retrieved 2017-05-11.
  5. ^ a b c "Thomas Prince: Canada's Forgotten Aboriginal War Hero". Retrieved 21 July 2016. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Yank Medals For Canucks, Canadian Army Newsreel No 71
  7. ^ a b c "Home - Historica Canada". Archived from the original on 4 December 2011. Retrieved 21 July 2016. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ a b c Prince Returns to Action
  9. ^ "Adam Beach calls Tommy Prince a 'hero' role". Retrieved 21 July 2016. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ "HONOUR SERGEANT TOMMY PRINCE". Honour Tommy Prince. Tom Kmiec. Retrieved 5 July 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ 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. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Manitobans in Profile: Thomas George Prince, 1981, Penguin Publishers

External links[edit]