Among Tommy Prince’s ancestors are revered Indigenous leaders. His great-great-grandfather, Salteaux Chief Peguis, led 200 Ojibwa from the Sault Ste. Marie region (now in Ontario), to Manitoba’s Red River area in 1790s, following the fur trade. He was one of five chiefs to sign the Selkirk Treaty, the first between the Crown and western Indigenous Peoples. And Peguis’ son, Henry Prince (Mis-Koo-Kinew) signed Treaty 1 in 1871.
And Chief William Prince, a cousin of Tommy’s father, was one of the 327 volunteers of the Nile Voyageurs, who set out in September 1884 on an arduous journey up the Nile River in Egypt to rescue General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, only to arrive two days too late.Like those before him, Tommy Prince was to become a legend in his own right.
Following a family tradition of military service in the Red River Resistance and First World War, Prince enlisted in 1940.
“As soon as I put on my uniform I felt like a better man,” he said. He served two years as a sapper with the Royal Canadian Engineers, and leapt at the chance to join the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion (CSSB), which promptly merged with a similar elite American unit to form the 1st Special Service Force, better known as the Devil’s Brigade.
Prince didn’t want to wear the uniform for show. He “joined the army to fight, not to sit around drinking tea,” he told a comrade.
Prince, who had been tracking and hunting game in the bush since childhood and was an excellent marksman, fit the necessary prerequisites to make a good soldier.
CSSB commander Tom Gilday said he was looking to pick “trappers and hunters, bushmen, farmers’ sons, all good individual outdoor types who would know their way around in the woods and in the country and in all kinds of weather conditions.”
Some 1,600 volunteers were recruited for their robust outdoor experience as lumberjacks, hunters and similar jobs.
Recruits such as Prince received training in hand-to-hand combat, explosives, amphibious warfare, mountain climbing and skiing. They were trained for missions in terrain as diverse as the desert and the Arctic, from sea level to mountaintop, in weather varying from blistering heat to frigid cold.
The CSSB cut its teeth in the tough mountain campaign in Italy in the winter of 1943, where they took Monte la Difensa after climbing cliffs and wiping out an enemy position considered impenetrable, then captured three more strategic enemy defence posts, suffering 77 per cent casualties.
In early 1944, they were transferred to an area near Anzio, south of Rome, where the enemy gave them the nickname “Devil’s Brigade” for their fearsome night raids.
He walked 70 kilometres in 72 hours, without food, water or sleep, over rough mountains to report the information.
Prince honed his early tracking skills to deadly perfection. “He used to carry a pair of moccasins in his bag with him…he was deathly quiet,” recalled a comrade. “The Germans thought he was a ghost or a devil. They could never figure out how he passed the lines and the sentries.”
They would wake in the morning and find a dead soldier in their midst. Or “instead of sneaking in and killing them, he would steal something, like a pair of shoes, right off their feet. They didn’t believe that Prince could be real, so they figured he must be an evil spirit or better yet, the devil.”
Prince was sent on a reconnaissance mission in February 1944 near Littoria, spying on the Germans from an abandoned farmhouse. He was only a couple of hundred metres from the enemy and in ideal position to report on their movements through 1,400 metres of telephone wire he had surreptitiously laid.
That line was severed by shellfire on Feb. 8, however. Prince emerged from the house in work clothes he had found and began acting like a farmer out to weed crops. He slowly worked his way to where the line was damaged, then rejoined the wires right under the noses of enemy observers, and even shook his fist at them as he returned to the house.
His reporting contributed to the destruction of four enemy positions, earning him the Military Medal.
His next escapade of note came in France in the fall of ’44, on a scouting mission where he located an enemy reserve camp, complete with guns. He walked 70 kilometres in 72 hours, without food, water or sleep, over rough mountains to report the information. He then led the CSSB back to the enemy camp and joined the battle, which resulted in the capture of about 1,000 soldiers.
King George VI presented Prince with the Military Medal and, on behalf of the president of the United States, the Silver Star in a ceremony in 1945. Only two other Canadians earned both medals during the Second World War.
“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.
“I owed something to my friends who died,” he said, explaining why he continued serving in Korea.
After the war, Prince became an Indigenous rights activist, lobbying for changes to the Indian Act. He wanted better financial support, hospitals, improved sanitation and schools.
In 1950, Prince enlisted for the Korean War, serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which was awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for holding off waves of attacks on Hill 677 during the Battle of Kapyong.
He re-enlisted in 1952.
“I owed something to my friends who died,” he said, explaining why he continued serving in Korea. He was wounded in battle in November 1952, and was hospitalized for battle exhaustion, known now as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Prince did not do well in civilian life after his last war.
“He was fiercely proud of his people,” said retired Lieutenant-Commander (N) Bill Shead, a Cree member of the Peguis First Nation. “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 dealt with alcoholism and homelessness. He pawned and sold his medals to make ends meet.
More than 500 people, including consuls from France, Italy and the United States, attended his funeral in 1977.