Tommy Prince travelled to Buckingham Palace in 1945, where King George VI presented him with the Military Medal. Two months later, he received the Silver Star (a U.S. medal) from Brigadier-General E. F. Koenig. He just was one of three Canadians to receive both honours during the Second World War.
The awards recognized Prince’s courageous service – and set him on course to be one of Canada’s most decorated Indigenous war veterans and a prominent Anishinaabe activist.
“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 once remarked.
Marksman and tracker
Born on St. Peter’s Reserve, Manitoba, into the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Prince first learned shooting, hunting and tracking skills from his father. After attending residential school, he took an interest in the military, but was initially rejected in his attempts to join. He later enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers after the start of the Second World War.
In 1942, Prince joined the 1st Special Service Force (FSSF), a joint Canadian-U.S. reconnaissance and raiding unit that became known as the Devil’s Brigade. Prince also established himself as a top soldier known for his marksmanship, stealth and scouting skills – not to mention sheer nerve.
A reconnaissance sergeant (or scout) in the FSSF, Prince spent 24 hours in February 1944 observing and reporting from an abandoned farmhouse near Latina, Italy. Situated just 200 metres from enemy lines, he communicated with his unit about German movements and their artillery positions.
When his 1,400-metre telephone line was severed by shelling, Prince stepped out from the house disguised as a farmer tending the land. In full view of German soldiers, he stooped as if to tie his shoelace, fixed the wire, and made his way back to the house to resume reporting. Prince’s reports resulted in the destruction of four German posts.
Behind enemy lines
In September 1944, Prince and a private scouted deep behind enemy lines near L’Escarène, France, spending as many as 72 hours without food, water or sleep, and walking between 70 and 80 kilometers across rugged, mountainous terrain. Their efforts paid off. They located the encampment of a German reserve battalion, along with its gun sites.
On their way back to report to their unit, Prince and his fellow soldier came across a squad of the French resistance surrounded by Germans. The two men joined the fighting, killing and wounding so many that the Germans withdrew. After returning to the FSSF, Prince led the unit back to the German encampment. The ensuing battle resulted in the capture of the entire German battalion of some 1,000 soldiers.
After the war
Prince, a decorated soldier, returned home after the Second World War to face stark racism and discrimination. As an Indigenous person he did not have the right to vote in federal elections. He also did not have access to many of the generous benefits afforded to white veterans.
To speak for the rights of his people, Prince took on the role of vice-president of the Manitoba Indian Association. A spokesperson for the group, he testified before a special parliamentary committee in 1947, where he advocated for the abolition of the Indian Act and respecting existing treaties.
After the start of the Korean War in 1950, Prince re-enlisted, serving with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He and his battalion took part in the Battle of Kapyong, holding a defensive position on Hill 677 against Chinese and North Korean forces. He volunteered for a second tour of duty in 1952.
“He was fiercely proud of his people,” says Bill Shead, a Cree member of the Peguis First Nation and a retired Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Canadian Navy. “He was fiercely proud of his service to his people and to the country as a soldier. Here was a man who was virtually a combatant all his military career, through two wars.”
Prince faced illness and poverty later in life, and died at age 62 at the Deer Lodge Centre in Winnipeg in 1977. At his funeral, a delegation of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry served as his pallbearers, and members from his reserve chanted the song “Death of a Warrior” as his casket was lowered into the ground.
Prince was awarded a total of 11 medals, including one posthumously, for his service during the Second World War and the Korean War. The Canadian Forces named several buildings and units after him. Among other honours in his name, a statue was erected in the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and a monument was built in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park.
Indigenous war veteran Tommy Prince honoured with new stampAvailable now