Tommy Prince was no average soldier. By the end of the Second World War, he was Canada’s most decorated soldier of First Nations descent. In itself, that made him exceptional, but Prince was more than a figurehead. He was one of the most feared members of the Devil’s Brigade.
Prince, an Ojibwa from Manitoba, was first assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers as a sapper. That didn’t last long. He enrolled in parachute school, then volunteered to join the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, a somewhat secret unit formed in mid-1942.
Prince would soon discover the battalion was something more than a conventional paratrooper, reconnaissance or commando unit. It would be all of these, but also an American-Canadian commando unit that would employ new combat strategies with the utmost precision.
When the Americans issued a call for volunteers for the unit, they asked for experienced wilderness specialists — hunters, game wardens, lumberjacks and guides. Prince had grown up in the bush, had worked as a lumberjack and was an expert tracker, hunter and marksman.
Prince, along with 696 other Canadian soldiers, was posted to Helena, Mont., to join nearly 1,000 Americans with similar skills. There, they underwent further training designed to make these tough soldiers tougher. Winter warfare techniques, hand-to-hand combat, mountaineering, amphibious entries, demolition, covert penetration and use of specialized weapons were all part of their no-holds-barred training, and it went on for nearly a year.
The unit’s first mission was to Kiska in the Aleutians, where they arrived only to find the Japanese had already departed. Then, in December 1943, they arrived in Italy.
Just south of Cassino, the unit mounted its first mission against the Germans. After dark and in frigid temperatures, they scaled cliffs on ropes, then, with silent penetration and ruthless efficiency, overran a key German defensive position — the infamous Camino Ridge, from which death had rained down on British and American troops for weeks.
At Anzio, the unit fought without relief for 99 days. To escape their patrols, the Germans established their defensive line about a kilometre back from its original position, but the buffer zone didn’t solve anything.
The Germans began calling them the Devil’s Brigade, especially after soldiers began leaving stickers on dead Germans showing the unit’s insignia and a comment in German, which, roughly translated, said “The worst is yet to come.”
Prince excelled at lone reconnaissance missions, spending days and nights far behind enemy lines, gathering intelligence while living off the land.
In August 1944, his unit transferred from Italy to southern France before its formal disbandment in December of that year. Prince was one of only a few of the remaining original Canadian members who got the salute from American troops at the disbandment ceremony.
In its short history, the Devil’s Brigade accounted for 12,000 German casualties and took 7,000 prisoners.
Prince was called to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI presented him with the Military Medal for his achievements in Italy and the American Silver Star for gallantry.
The Devil’s Brigade has a place in history other than its successes during the Second World War. Its training regimen and mission purposes were adapted by future special forces, including the Green Berets, SEALs, Delta Force and Canada’s JTF2.
After the war, Prince became a vocal veterans’ and natives’ rights advocate, and, when the call came for volunteers for the Korean War, he joined the Princess Patricia’s from Winnipeg, the first contingent of Canadians to arrive in Korea.
Kapyong: Victory goes to the Princess
Canada’s military has seen action in almost every inhospitable climate and on every mean terrain on Earth. Korea was one of the worst.
The legendary cold and wind at Winnipeg’s Portage and Main was nothing compared to those on the wintry hilltops in Korea. The ground thawed to mud in the daytime and froze to rock at night.
In summer, soldiers trudged through flooded rice paddies polluted with human excrement. Insufferable humidity, insect life and diseases could be as lethal as any weapon.
On the night of April 22, 1951, a massive assault was launched against UN defenders in the Kapyong River Valley. More than 200,000 Chinese and North Korean soldiers were set to break through UN lines and capture the South Korean capital of Seoul. The UN defenders could not hold: The South Koreans, the British, the Americans and the Australians fell back.
The Chinese now turned their attention to Hill 677 and the Canadians.
Lt.-Col. James R. Stone was in command of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on the hill. Stone had taken part in the invasion of Sicily in the Second World War and in the Italian campaign, where he was awarded the Military Cross for single-handedly wiping out an enemy gun emplacement that had been holding up his unit’s advance.
Stone had an afternoon to position his four companies to advantage. Settled in shallow slit trenches scratched from loose rock and scrub, all the soldiers could do was wait and watch, not realizing they would be facing the assault of an entire veteran division of the Chinese army.
The Chinese waited until night and attacked in waves. Blowing whistles and bugles, hurling grenades, most of them armed with automatic weapons — so-called burp guns — they surged over the Canadian positions.
Despite suffering significant casualties, the stubborn Pats repeatedly beat them back, at times fighting hand-to-hand in the dark. At one point, the Canadians called down artillery fire on their own positions to halt a Chinese rush. Taking cover in their slit trenches, they waited out a barrage that exploded at tree-top level and scoured the ground above them.
In the morning, the Pats still held Hill 677, but they were now surrounded by Chinese. Precision airdrops of supplies to the hilltop gave the Pats what they needed to hang on. They stalled the Chinese offensive long enough for other UN forces to reinforce positions and prevent the Chinese from reaching Seoul.
For their work that night, the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was awarded Presidential Unit Citations, one from the United States and one from the Republic of Korea, an honour unique to this day for a Canadian unit.
Excerpt from Canadian Forces and Historical Salute to Those on the Front Line. By Art Montague.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2011 J16