In the course of doing some research for a novel I am writing which takes place during WWII, I came across a fascinating story that occurred in December, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. It’s a story of terror, sacrifice, and true heroism. There is a famous saying that heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags. I would add to that – or nurses’ outfits. As the son of a nurse, this story peaked my interest and I wanted my readers who did not know this story to get to know it.
This story begins with John “Jack” T. Prior, an American doctor and a member of the Medical Battalion of the 10th Armored Division.
The Division entered France through the Port of Cherbourg on September 23, 1944. The Division first saw action in Metz in Northeastern France on November 14, 1944. Working on the wounded at an aid station far away from the front line and in an artillery free zone near Metz, Jack Prior’s initial baptism of fire did not prepare him for the absolute hell of war that he would soon encounter and witness.
By December 1944, Allied troops had broken through the German Siegfried line and were pushing he Nazis to the Rhine. With his back against the wall, Hitler made a massive counterattack and broke through the Western Allied line, causing a “Bulge” in their line. The Battle of the Bulge began. Over 500,000 German troops threw themselves against only 80,000 Allied defenders.
On December 14th, Prior was detached to the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion as their surgeon. Assigned with him was a dentist, and about 30 enlisted men who were trained as liter bearers and first aid men. No nurses were attached to his outfit.
On December 17th, the 20th Armored Infantry Division received orders to move to the Belgian town of Noville (seven kilometers northeast of the town of Bastogne). Prior sat up his aid station inside a small pub. However, heavy German fire drove the battalion from the town. Under heavy enemy fire, Prior directed the evacuation of scores of wounded to the city of Bastogne.
The little market town of Bastogne was thought to be safely in American hands, or so it was thought. Prior sat up his aid station in a small garage near the main road through the city and cared for the wounded as they trickled in. Snow fell hard and the weather was brutally cold.
Around this same time, Renée Bernadette Émilie Lemaire, who had been working in Brussels as a nurse, returned home to Bastogne for Christmas to see her parents. She was thirty years old. Her parents owned a hardware store in Bastogne. She had two sisters, Gisèle and Marguerite. She had become engaged within the year to a Jew but he had been arrested in Brussels by the Gestapo. Her wedding plans were put on hold.
Augusta Chiwy, a young black nurse of 23, also returned to Bastogne to visit her father for the holidays. Augusta was born in Mubavu, an East African village that became part of a Belgian colony. Her father was a white Belgian veterinarian and her mother was African. Ms. Chiwy moved to Bastogne as a girl, but left when she was older to train as a nurse in the city of Leuven in France.
Both Lemaire and Chiwy arrived in Bastogne to spend time with their families just as Adolf Hitler launched his counterattack through the Ardennes forest in eastern Belgium. The town of Bastogne became a linchpin of the Battle of the Bulge as the town sat at a crossroads that connected a critical network of roads. General Dwight Eisenhower quickly decided the town must be held.
Eisenhower rushed the 101st Airborne (the “Screaming Eagles”) to the town, together with other units, joining Prior’s division who was already situated in the town. Due to the quick call to action, the soldiers of the 101st were ill-equipped and had not been issued winter clothing. Some of the soldiers confiscated white bedsheets and wrapped themselves in them as camouflage in the snow. The weather worsened. The temperature plummeted. The snow fell harder and a dense fog settled over the area making air support non-existent due to the poor weather. The US Forces could not be resupplied. They were told to dig in and survive, but to hold Bastogne at all costs.
The Germans unleashed a blistering artillery barrage in the forest on the outskirts of Bastogne. The Americans – cold, outnumbered, with limited supplies, dug in their fox holes. The fighting was fierce and American casualties quickly rose.
Prior, suddenly inundated with wounded in the garage where he had set up his aid station, decided to move his aid station to a private three story residence. Bastogne was soon surrounded by the Germans. The Germans dropped leaflets advising the Americans of their predicament. The American soldier’s response: “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.”
As Prior began to lose more and more of his medical staff on the battlefield, the US military began seeking help from any civilians with a medical background in Bastogne to assist with all the wounded. However, they only found two people: the nurses, Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy.
On December 21st, Lemaire walked into the aid station and offered her nursing services to Prior. He gladly accepted her help. Meanwhile, Chiwy and her family stayed in town, hiding in the basement like many other residents. However, there came a knock at the Chiwy’s door. It was Prior. He informed Chiwy that he had no one left. His ambulance driver had just been killed and he was down to just a few medical personnel. He asked the 23 year old Chiwy to volunteer as a nurse, working at the makeshift first-aid station in town. She agreed and immediately went to work with Prior and Lemaire.
The situation around Bastogne was dire. The German advance continued. American casualties were high. War correspondents in Bastogne kept the American public aware of the situation with radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. The American public was transfixed on the happenings in and around Bastogne, and the soldiers who were facing certain death.
As December 22nd dawned, the American Commander of the 101st Airborne, General Anthony McAuliffe, knew that his men were in a desperate situation. Ammunition was low, with each man only having 10 rounds each. The weather still did not allow for a resupply.
The German Commander, Heinrich von Lüttwitz, aware of the American’s situation, sent a major, captain and two enlisted men into Bastogne with a while flag to give an ultimatum. The Americans were given two hours to surrender or face complete annihilation. Here is the actual note that was presented to General McAuliffe of the 101st.
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
McAuliffe read the note when it was presented to him, crumbled it in his hands, and pitched it in the waste paper basket. He then typed up the American response.
To the German Commander.
The American Commander.
The Germans were perplexed by the word “Nuts” and asked to have it interpreted. An aide to General McAuliffe offered the Germans his interpretation. “In plain English, Go to Hell.”
When General Patton, who was fighting his way to Bastogne, was told what McAuliffe had told the Germans, he said, “Keep them moving, colonel. A man that eloquent has to be saved.”
Meanwhile, Prior’s aid station was overwhelmed with American wounded. Lemaire and Chiwy worked tirelessly in assisting Prior. Supplies were short, or non-existent. There was limited water and food. Because of the high risk of infections, Prior had to amputate numerous limbs in order to save his patients. With little to no anesthesia, Prior resorted to Cognac, which could be found in many Belgium cellars. After the war, he wrote the following.
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.
When Chiwy’s own clothing became bloody, she donned a US Army uniform. When some of the white soldiers refused to be treated by a black nurse, Prior’s quick response was, “Then die.” They accepted her care.
Chiwy also volunteered for something much more dangerous. On four occasions, Chiwy jumped onto the back of a truck with Prior and two litter-bearers. They drove from Bastogne to the forest. The Germans had the area zeroed with 88s, mortar fire, and heavy machine gun fire. Chiwy risked her life as she retrieved the wounded Americans from the battlefield. When Prior commented that she was lucky to be so small or otherwise she would have been hit. She replied that she was just lucky that the Germans were bad shots as her black face must have stood out in the snow.
On December 23rd, the dense fog cleared and the Americans attempted a spectacular airdrop of supplies for the beleaguered soldiers huddled in their foxholes and in the town of Bastogne. The soldiers were exuberant in seeing the supplies floating down by parachute. Hundreds of colored parachutes fell to earth – each color representing a various category of supplies.
As Prior wrote: “Food, ammunition, blankets, medical items were eagerly gathered. There was no attempt at control collection and each unit corralled whatever fell in their vicinity. Many parachutes fell in German territory, and we later learned that they relished the famed “C” rations. Even the parachutes were utilized as bedding in our hospital. I can recall Renee Lemaire leaving her duties and rushing into the back yard to get a chute. She wanted the silk for a wedding dress. She invariably was beaten out by a soldier and always returned empty handed.”
Christmas Eve, 1944. The American soldiers in Bastogne awoke with a word of encouragement from General McAuliffe.
What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West… Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: Well Done! We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.
While the break in the weather provided a well needed opportunity for a resupply, it also opened the door for German Artillery and the Luftwaffe to bomb the very center of the city of Bastogne, right where Prior’s aid station was located.
Lemaire was hard at work caring for the 30 wounded soldiers under her care, while Chiwy had just finished assisting Prior in surgery for a young soldier who was not going to make it. Prior and Chiwy left the aid station and went to the adjacent building to steal a moment away from the carnage, smell of death and cries of the wounded inside the aid station.
At 8:30 pm, just as Prior and Chiwy were about to make their way back to the aid station, a young Lieutenant pointed out that it was Christmas Eve and offered him and Chiwy a glass of Champagne. Just as they were about to drink, they all heard the hum of a plane. They thought it was another resupply. They were wrong.
A German plane unleashed a massive 500 pound shell that landed directly on the aid station.There was a huge explosion. Prior hit the floor. Chiwy, however, was blown through a wall. Prior stood up, checked on Chiwy, who luckily only had cuts and bruises, and then rushed outside. He stared in disbelief as his aid station was a pile of rubble. He wrote:
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.
Chiwy assisted with the rescue of the wounded. The thirty wounded soldiers all inside the aid station were killed by the bombing. Another 100 soldiers around the aid station were wounded in the blast. Later that night, as Prior was searching the ruins for more and more victims, he found the severed body of Renee Lemaire, who had been killed instantly by the bomb.
He salvaged a silk parachute, the kind the young heroic nurse had longed to make into a wedding dress, and wrapped her body in it. He carried her remains in the parachute to her parents. She has since been known as “The Angel of Bastogne.”
Later, Prior sent a recommendation for a commendation for Lemarie to his Commanding General.
20th Armored Infantry Battalion
APO 260, US Army
1 January 1945
SUBJECT: Commendation for Renee Bernadette
Emilie Lemaire (deceased)
To: Commanding General
10th Armored Division
APO 260, US Army
(Attn: Division Surgeon)
As Battalion Surgeon, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, I am commending a commendation for Renee Lemaire on the following evidence:
This girl, a registered nurse in the country of Belgium, volunteered her services at the aid station, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion in Bastogne, Belgium, 21 December, 1944. At this time the station was holding about 150 patients since the city was encircled by enemy forces and evacuation was impossible. Many of these patients were seriously injured and in great need of immediate nursing attention. This girl cheerfully accepted the herculean task and worked without adequate rest or food until the night of her untimely death on 24 December, 1944. She changed dressings, fed patients unable to feed themselves, gave out medications, bathed and made the patients more comfortable, and was of great assistance in the administration of plasma and other professional duties. Her very presence among those wounded men seemed to be an inspiration to those whose morale had declined from prolonged suffering. On the night of December 24 the building in which Renee Lemaire was working was scored with a direct hit by an enemy bomber. She, together with those whom she was caring for so diligently, were instantly killed.
It is on these grounds that I recommend the highest award possible to one, who though not a member of the armed forces of the United States, was of invaluable assistance to us.
Jack T. Prior
Renee Bernadette Emilie Lemaire
Place du Carre 30
On Christmas Day, the bombing in and around Bastogne continued. Finally, on December 26th, elements of Patton’s Third Army met up with the 101st Airborne. The Germans retreated. The Battle of Bulge came to an end. The biggest battle of WWII was over. 80,000 Allied casualties was the price. The Germans withdrew, battered and bleeding. They had lost close to 100,000 men. Hitler’s last ditch assault had failed. The end of the war for Germany was now inevitable. Four months later, Hitler would be dead and the war would be over.
As for the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, as the American soldiers who fought there became known, for the rest of their lives when they were asked about Patton rescuing them, to a man they always replied they did not need rescuing.
Meanwhile, Chiwy and Prior worked relentlessly on the wounded, and finally help came in the form of doctors and aids from other divisions coming to relieve the 101st.
Prior moved to another aid station in Bastogne and Chiwy followed him where she continued caring for the wounded.
In January 1945, Prior departed Bastogne. Chiwy hated to see him leave. They had grown close over the past month and had mutual respect for each other. They had seen hell together. She stayed in Bastogne and took up work in a hospital. Before Prior left, he gave Chiwy his address so she and he could stay connected after the war. He left Bastogne with his division. Chiwy’s story was forgotten.
Soon after the war, Chiwy wrote to Prior but was informed by the US military that he had been killed in action. It was a bad time for Chiwy. She suffered from debilitating PTSD and became withdrawn. She never discussed what she saw or what she did. She never spoke of the soldiers who she helped and cared for. Nor did she speak of Dr. Jack Prior. She quit nursing for many years.
Then, in 1950 at Christmas, she received a Christmas card and a box of chocolates from the States. It was from Prior. They kept in touch for the next 60 years, and every Christmas they sent each other chocolate. They saw each other at the 50th anniversary in 1994 in Bastogne.
Prior had become a respected pathologist in Syracuse, NY. His family says he became a pathologist as he did not want to hear the cries of patients ever again. He died in 1997.
Chiwy eventually went back to nursing. She married a Belgium soldier and had two children. She never spoke of the events of December 1944 and her co-workers had no idea they were working with a true war hero.
Chiwy’s story was lost to time, until the HBO series Band of Brothers came out, based on UNO Professor, Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name. In an episode depicting the battle of Bastogne, an actress portraying Renee Lemaire mentions a black nurse named Anna from the Congo. Legend surrounded Bastogne and a black nurse, but no one knew what happened to her or even if she truly existed. Others said that she had also been killed in the bombing.
Enter Martin King, a historian, who was intrigued by the reference to Anna, and began an 18 month search to find Chiwy.
He finally located her living in a Belgian retirement community, still scarred from the hell of war and what she had seen. After months of speaking with her and gaining her confidence, she finally confided to King her story. He penned a book about her life and a documentary, Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne, which was produced in 2014 and won an Emmy.
King’s campaign to gain Chiwy long-overdue recognition resulted in King Albert II making her a Belgian knight of the realm and in 2011 the US army gave her a civilian award for humanitarian service. At the ceremony packed with press and dignitaries from around the world, Augusta Chiwy modestly said, “What I did was very normal. I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”
Bastogne today is a living museum to what happened there over seventy years ago. Foxholes and craters can still be seen in the forest. The aid station where Renee Lemaire died has been rebuilt and a plaque sits on the outer wall remembering her, and the soldiers who died with her. The plaque had been put up by Prior himself. Her gravesite, with a photo of her donning a nurse’s outfit, is located in the family plot in Bastogne.
Every fifteen minutes, chimes ring out from the US war memorial that stands on the top of Mardasson Hill outside of Bastogne. The sound is meant to remind visitors and the citizens of Bastogne of the sacrifices made by American soldiers.
Augusta Chiwy died in Belgium on August 23, 2015. She was buried with full military honors by the Belgium military. They were joined by members of the US military as well.
At the funeral, US Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer summed up her heroism perfectly. “Today, we are mourning the loss of an Angel and of one the biggest treasures Belgium gave us. During the worst days this city has ever seen, during the greatest hour of need, Augusta Chiwy risked her life to help save those fighting for freedom in Bastogne.”
She was laid to rest in Bastogne in the same cemetery where Renee Lemaire was buried. And it is there where she rests today with her fellow nurse – the two Angels of Bastogne.