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The Angels of Bastogne

Aid station in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. military)
Aid station in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. military)

Doctors and nurses often become true heroes in times of war, but they're all too easily overlooked in popular culture. We tend to concentrate on the commanders and the men who display heroism on the battlefield, and ignore the men and women who put themselves in harm's way, often without even means of defending themselves, to save others. This article is about three incredible individuals who made a difference in the besieged town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge: Battalion Surgeon Dr. Jack T. Prior, and Belgian nurses Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy.
 
Jack Prior, a pathologist from Syracuse, NY, began service with the Medical Battalion of the 10th Armored Division. His unit landed in Europe on September 23, 1944, in the city of Cherbourg in Normandy. He was detached to the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion on December 14 to replace a medical officer who had to be evacuated with pneumonia. He had a dentist and 30 enlisted men trained as litter bearers and first aid men at his disposal, along with two jeeps and several half-track ambulance cars. Three days after his transfer, his team was sent to the town of Noville, 4.4 miles / 7 kilometers to the northeast of Bastogne. At first they thought they were just being shuffled around and will be quartered in Luxembourg. It took time for news to filter down to the troops: Hitler had launched his desperate final counterattack against the Western Allies the day before, and soldiers were being thrown into the breach to slow down the German advance.

Aerial photograph of Noville, where D. Prior first set up an aid station before retreating to Bastogne (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)
Aerial photograph of Noville, where D. Prior first set up an aid station before retreating to Bastogne (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)

Prior arrived in Noville in the morning of December 19, and quickly established an aid station at a pub – such a location was highly suitable due to all the space in the drinking area. Shooting started two hours later, and Prior and his men quickly had to get down and crawl from stretcher to stretcher to stay below the bullets going through the windows. Vastly outnumbered American forces held Noville for about two days, then evacuated to Bastogne. The doors of the pub were ripped off, the wounded were strapped to them, and the makeshift litters were taken out of town by tanks.

Dr. Jack Prior in Bastogne (Photo: U.S. military)
Dr. Jack Prior in Bastogne (Photo: U.S. military)

Once in Bastogne, Prior started looking for a site for a new aid station. At first, he chose a garage on one of the main streets, but it turned out to be too cold in the harsh winter, and he moved his post to a three-floor private home. (On a sightseer's note, the location hosts an Asian restaurant today, but is identified by a memorial.)

The memorial plaque dedicated to those killed in the German bombing raid on December 24, 1944 (Photo: Author’s own)
The memorial plaque dedicated to those killed in the German bombing raid on December 24, 1944
(Photo: Author’s own)
The present location of the former aid station in Bastogne with the plaque at the entrance (Photo: Author’s own)
The present location of the former aid station in Bastogne with the plaque at the entrance (Photo: Author’s own)

Fortunately for Prior, he found excellent help when two Belgian nurses came to his aid. One of them was Renée Lemaire. Lemaire was born in Bastogne in 1914, but had been working as a nurse in Brussels during the war. She was engaged to a Jewish man, who was arrested by the Gestapo earlier in 1944. She was visiting her parents in Bastogne in mid-December, when the Germans launched their surprise offensive. She quickly volunteered to help Prior at the 20th Battalion aid station.

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Renée Lemaire (Photo: Wikipedia)
Renée Lemaire (Photo: Wikipedia)

Renée Lemaire became known as the Angel of Bastogne for her selfless work, but it was only discovered decades after the war that she wasn’t the only person deserving of the accolade. She and Prior worked together with another nurse, a black Belgian called Augusta Chiwy. She was born in 1921 in the Belgian Congo to a white Belgian father and a local mother. Her father took her with him to Belgium when she was young. Like Lemaire, Chiwy also spent her childhood in Bastogne, but moved to the Belgian city of Leuven to attend nursing school in her early twenties. And, just like Lemaire, she too decided to visit home right when the Battle of the Bulge started. On the way home, she learned that trains headed for Bastogne terminated at Namur, still 49 miles / 79 kilometers from home. She was herded from the train to a cattle truck, then later she hitched a ride on a U.S. Army Willis Jeep, and finally rode a bicycle to get home, just in time to find herself in the middle of the war. At first, she helped her uncle, a doctor, in treating both civilian and military wounded, then joined Prior's team on December 21.

Augusta Chiwy (Photo: discoveringbelgium.com)
Augusta Chiwy (Photo: discoveringbelgium.com)

Conditions were harsh. There were practically no medical supplies, and cognac (easily found in Belgian cellars) was sometimes used as the closest thing to anesthetics. Freezing temperatures and no electricity meant that even water was scarce. Another staple of Belgian homes, champagne, was often used by soldiers to shave or wash, as it has a lower freezing point than water and stays liquid longer in the cold.
 
Lemaire and Chiwy complemented each other well. Lemaire shrunk from fresh, gory wounds, so she spent most of her time feeding and bathing the wounded, changing dressings, and lifting their spirits with her cheerful presence. Chiwy, on the other hand, had no fear of blood, and helped treat the most serious injuries. As a mixed-race woman, she faced bigotry from several American soldiers, who refused to be treated by her. Prior's response to such men was usually "She treats you or you die."

Augusta Chiwy and others exploring a crashed airplane, probably in the summer of 1945 (Photo: The Washington Post)
Augusta Chiwy and others exploring a crashed airplane, probably in the summer of 1945 (Photo: The Washington Post)

Chiwy and Prior made at least four trips to the front lines to evacuate the wounded. These were extremely risky trips, and they once came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire on Mardasson Hill – today, the place hosts the largest American monument outside the United States. Chiwy later found several bullet holes in her garment. "Looks like they almost got you. It's a good thing you're small" – Prior commented. Unflapped, Chiwy replied "A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen."

The Mardasson Memorial, near Prior's and Chiwy’s brush with death (Photo: Author’s own)
The Mardasson Memorial, near Prior's and Chiwy’s brush with death (Photo: Author’s own)

Lemaire also made several trips away from her post, though for a different reason. Supplies air-dropped by C-47 transport planes had different colored parachutes to identify the contents. Lemaire desperately wanted to get a white silk parachute to make a wedding dress out of, but she was always beaten to them by soldiers, who had other, admittedly more vital needs, such as snow camouflage or warmth.

Men from the 101st Airborne Division gathering up air-dropped supplies at Bastogne (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)
Men from the 101st Airborne Division gathering up air-dropped supplies at Bastogne (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)

The story of Prior's aid station and the Angels of Bastogne came to a tragic end on Christmas Eve, December 24. At 8:30 p.m., Prior left the station and headed for the adjacent building. A young lieutenant was dying of a chest wound, and Prior agreed to write a letter to his wife in his name. As he was stepping out of the station, either a man or Augusta Chiwy (accounts vary) stopped him and invited him to share a bottle of champagne to celebrate Christmas. Just as the cups were being filled in a blacked-out room, a massive explosion shook the building: the aid station next door received a direct hit from a German bomber. We don't know why exactly the building was targeted, but Prior later speculated that the bomber pilot must have seen the concentration of tanks and halftracks outside and just wanted to get as many American soldiers as he could. The aid station was not marked as such – had it been, it's possible the attack would not have happened.

Ambulance in front of a bombed-out building in Bastogne (Photo: ww2db.com)
Ambulance in front of a bombed-out building in Bastogne (Photo: ww2db.com)

Prior, Chiwy and many other men survived, but not Renée Lemaire. Some witnesses say she was cleared instantly; others claim she ran into the burning building several times to rescue the wounded, until she herself failed to return. Before leaving Bastogne, Prior brought Lemaire's remains to her parents, wrapped in the white silk parachute she so dearly wanted. Renée Lemaire rests in Bastogne's cemetery today.

Renée Lemaire's family grave in Bastogne (Photo: Author’s own)
Renée Lemaire's family grave in Bastogne (Photo: Author’s own)

Augusta Chiwy survived the war. She formed a strong connection with Dr. Prior, but the man had to move on with the army. They stayed in touch until his death in 2007 at 90, writing letters and sending each other candy and Belgian chocolate. They met one final time in Bastogne in 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the battle. She passed away on August 23, 2015 at the age of 94 and was laid to rest in a family plot in Bastogne. Streets were named after both nurses in the city.

Augusta Chiwy and Jack Prior at their reunion (Photo: augustachiwy.org)
Augusta Chiwy and Jack Prior at their reunion (Photo: augustachiwy.org)

The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers features Renée Lemaire, played by French actress Lucie Jeanne, in episode 6 (“Bastogne”). The series also briefly shows a black nurse, loosely inspired by Augusta Chiwy, played by Rebecca Okot but called "Anna". The series also plays fast and loose with the circumstances of their work. They're depicted working in a hospital set up by the 101st Airborne Division, who were moved into Bastogne at the last minute to defend it, in Bastogne's cathedral. Historically, the 101st did have a large aid station, but it was located at a Belgian army barracks building, rather than at the cathedral, and Lemaire did not serve there at any rate – she was working for Prior at his much smaller aid station.

Actress Lucie Jeanne as Renée Lemaire in Band of Brothers (Image: HBO)
Actress Lucie Jeanne as Renée Lemaire in Band of Brothers (Image: HBO)
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