It was a desperate time, this week before Christmas, 1944. Since D-Day in June the Allies had fought their way across France and Belgium and now were poised on the very doorstep of Germany itself. On December 16, in a massive counterattack, the Nazis hurled 400,000 men and 1,400 tanks against a thin line of American forces in the Ardennes Forest. This battle, the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne, became the stuff of legends with Patton’s Third Army, the British 6th Airborne, and Belgian and French agents ultimately successful. But of course, the great events of history are made up of individuals, and this one was no exception.
Jack Prior was a 27-year-old U.S. Army doctor who found himself in Bastogne in almost indescribable circumstances. Surrounded by Germans and under constant bombardment, there was no electricity, no running water, no medicines, and almost no food. There were 47,500 wounded American soldiers, a number of whom Dr. Prior was caring for in a three-story building which he had set up as a medical aid station. Add to this misery the fact that temperatures were in the single digits with soldiers literally freezing to death in foxholes.
Two young Belgian nurses, Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, were asked to help with the severely wounded men. The talents and skills they brought were quite different. Renee was gentle and sweet, dubbed the Angel of Bastogne, as she soothed the men, sponging their faces and writing letters for them. Augusta, on the other hand, was the gritty one. She took on the most gruesome tasks, functioning as a "pseudo-doctor" and even accompanying Dr. Prior into active battle to rescue the wounded. Augusta had a white Belgian father and black Congolese mother, and in a segregated military, she faced discrimination. Dr. Prior bluntly told any man who didn’t want her care to go outside and freeze to death like everyone else.
On Christmas Eve, Dr. Prior and Augusta had just stepped into the neighboring building when the aid station took a direct hit from overhead. A frantic search through the rubble found only seven men alive. Jack Prior wrapped Renee Lemaire in the silk parachute he had procured for her dreamed-of wedding dress and carried her home to her father.
Augusta was thrown through a wall, but not severely injured. She pressed on despite the trauma and accompanied Dr. Prior to the Heintz Barracks Hospital, where she worked tirelessly until January 17, 1945 when the 10th Armored Division moved forward into Luxembourg and Germany. Just imagine, a 23-year-old girl, 4’11” tall, who had been a nurse for all of one year before these defining moments of her life!
After the war, Jack Prior went on to become a pathologist, husband, and dad. Augusta married, had kids, and worked as a nurse. She rarely spoke of that Christmas week of 1944, and in fact, it was assumed for many years that she had died during the battle. Sixty-seven years passed before historian Martin King, researching the Battle of the Bulge, unearthed the story of these brave heroes and found Augusta Chiwy alive. When interviewed, she described her role simply, as heroes often do: "I was just a nurse. I did what I had to do."
In honor and memory of Capt. Jack Prior, Renee Lemaire, and Augusta Chiwy.
Bastogne, January 8, 1945