Prince, Thomas (Tommy) George

Thomas George (Tommy) Prince, was one of Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldiers, bravely earning medals in both the Second World War and the Korean War.

Prince was born on Oct. 25, 1915 in a canvas tent at Petersfield, Manitoba. He was one of eleven children born to Henry and Arabella Prince of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. When Prince was 5, his family moved to Scanterbury, Manitoba, on the Brokenhead Reserve. His father taught him to hunt and trap at an early age, giving him skills that he would build on in his later years as a soldier.

The family’s financial situation forced him to leave the Elkhorn Residential School after completing Grade 8. He was able to make a humble living during the difficult Depression years by trapping, lumbering and hiring himself out for odd jobs.

After unsuccessfully trying to join the military several times (likely attributable to the widespread discrimination Aboriginal people faced at the time), Prince was finally accepted into the army on June 3, 1940. By 1943, he had been promoted to sergeant. Prince was among a select group chosen to train with American soldiers to form a specialized assault team. They became the 1st Special Service Force (1st SSF). Men of the 1st SSF were trained as paratroopers, ski troops, demolition experts and specialists in hand-to hand combat.

Prince’s unit was assigned to Italy in November 1943. While near the front line in Anzio, Italy, in Feb. 1944, Prince volunteered to run a communication line out to an abandoned farmhouse in German territory which sat just 200 metres from a German artillery position. From the farmhouse, he reported on German troop movements via a 1400 metre-long telephone wire. When the wire was severed during shelling, he disguised himself as an Italian farmer and proceeded to fix the ground wire (while pretending to tie his shoelaces) while in plain view of the Germans. He would spend a full 3 days behind enemy lines, while sending out information that helped his troops knock the four nearby German batteries out of action. For this exceptionally brave act, Prince was awarded the Military Medal. The Military Medal was pinned on Prince by King George VI at a ceremony on Feb. 12 1945 in Buckingham Palace. The King spoke with Prince for several minutes - giving the young soldier what would later become one of his proudest moments.

A few months later, in Sept. 1944, he was awarded the United States Silver Star for gallantry in action near L’Escarene, France. He was one of only 59 Canadians to receive this medal during WWII. By war’s end, Prince would be decorated a total of nine times.

Soon after returning to civilian life, Prince was elected as chairman of the Manitoba Indian Association. Aboriginal soldiers, in spite of putting their lives on the line for their country, faced continuing discrimination when they returned to Canada. They were not allowed to vote in federal elections and were refused the same benefits as other veterans. Leaving his friends to manage the cleaning service he had established after WWII, Prince devoted his time to working with and lobbying the government to improve conditions for Aboriginal peoples. He fought for better housing, improved schooling, financial assistance to start farms and businesses, improved roads on the reserves, and protection of Aboriginal hunting, fishing and trapping rights. He was unfortunately frustrated in his work with the Federal government, and when he returned to Winnipeg, he discovered that his business had folded under the care of his friends. He went on to work in lumber camps and a concrete factory to make ends meet.

In August 1950, Prince took up the call to arms again, volunteering to join the Canadian Army Special Force for service with the United Nations in Korea. For his efforts in that war, Prince earned the Korea Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal. After the war, Prince returned to Canada, remaining in the army until Sept. 1954 when he was honourably discharged.

Tommy Prince’s second return to civilian life was challenging. Harsh conditions experienced during his military service left him with painfully arthritic knees. The fact that Aboriginal peoples were still facing strong discrimination, added to his difficulties. Sadly, his personal life deteriorated, resulting with his final years being spent living in a Salvation Army hostel. He died, at the age of 62, at the Deer Lodge Hospital in Winnipeg in 1977. More than 500 people attended his funeral, including the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, and consuls from France, Italy and the United States.

His legacy of courage, duty and pride in his aboriginal heritage live on, however. Prince had been forced to sell off his war medals during difficult times, but after his death, his nephew was able to buy them back and they were entrusted to the Manitoba Museum. Schools and military buildings, streets, monuments, awards and scholarships have all been created in his honour.

Further Reading

  • Laura Neilson Bonikowsky. “Tommy Prince” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2016
  • Historica Canada. Heritage Minutes: Tommy Prince [video]. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2016
  • John Moses, with Donald Graves and Warren Sinclair. A Sketch Account of Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military. [Ottawa]: National Defence, 2004 Retrieved Feb. 19, 2016
  • Jean Sikabewis. “Unforgettable warrior: Prince” in Anishinabek News, Vol. 5, no. 12, Dec.1993, p. 11. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2016
Biographical Record
Full Name Prince, Thomas (Tommy) George
Heritage Ojibwa
Band Name Brokenhead Band
Band Location Scanterbury, MB
Date of Death 1977-11-25
Conflict WWII, Korea
CEF Unit FSSF MM, Korea PPCLI
Rank Lance Corporal
Date of Enlistment 1940-06-01
Age at Enlistment 24
Medal awarded (MM), Silver Star (USA)
Medal notes Prince was one of only 59 Canadians to earn the Silver Star during WWII. Cf. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Identifier 8434