THE AUGUSTA CHIWY
So who was Augusta Chiwy and what did she do all those years ago when the world was engulfed in a horrible war that claimed millions upon millions of lives and reduced thousands and thousands of square miles to rubble?
Augusta’s life began a continent away from the town that would one day celebrate her as a “Citizen of Honor.” She was born June 6, 1921, in eastern Africa, the daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese woman she never knew. Augusta was one of thousands of biracial children fathered by Belgian men working in Africa during Belgium’s colonial era. When she was nine years old, her father returned to his hometown of Bastogne and took Augusta with him.She was cared for by her father and his sister, whom Augusta called “mama Caroline.” She attended a Catholic boarding school near her home where she was the only female black student. She was bright, ambitious and popular.
Augusta dreamed of becoming a teacher like her aunt, “mama Caroline.” But Belgium was rife with racial prejudice and a black person would never be allowed to teach white children. So on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician, Augusta became a nurse. She attended a nursing college in a city about 100 miles north of Bastogne. After qualifying as a nurse in 1943, she began working at a large hospital in the city where she had gone to school.
Augusta’s life up to that time had been fairly normal. And it might have continued that way were it not for her decision to accept her father’s invitation to return home to Bastogne to celebrate Christmas in 1944.Augusta arrived in Bastogne on December 16, the very day that Hitler’s German army launched a surprise attack on the Allies’ front line in Belgium. Germany had been driven out of Belgium by the Allies only a few months before, but Hitler believed he could still win the war if he could retake Belgium.
Tiny Bastogne, with its population of just 9,000, was a focal point of the German attack. As Augusta made her way home for Christmas, the Germans were on the move. Within two days of her arrival home, Bastogne was surrounded by the German army and under constant bombardment. The history books would record the Siege of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge as among the most fierce and bloodiest battles in all of World War II. Bastogne was defended by American GIs who were poorly equipped and outnumbered five to one. They didn’t even have winter uniforms, and the winter of 1944 was one of the worst on record.
The Germans demanded the U.S. troops surrender. But the Americans knew holding Bastogne was critical to thwarting the German offensive and they were determined to fight.About two thirds of Bastogne’s citizens had fled the city. Hundreds of those who remained took shelter in the sprawling cellar beneath a Catholic school. Augusta volunteered to help care for the people who had sought refuge there.
Also in Bastogne by then was a U.S. Army doctor named Jack Prior. Captain Prior was assigned to the Army’s 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, which had been ordered into Belgium once the Allies learned of the German attack. Prior had set up a military aid station in a vacant building in Bastogne. He had about 100 men in his charge, including 30 seriously wounded soldiers on litters. He had practically no medical equipment or medicines, and his only other medical officer was a dentist from Ohio named Lee Naftulin.
Jack Prior was in desperate need of nursing help. When he learned about Augusta, he called on her at her father’s home. The doctor spoke a little French. Augusta understood a little English. Jack managed to communicate his need for assistance. Augusta agreed to help Prior in his makeshift hospital. She did so knowing that if the Germans succeeded in capturing Bastogne, she would likely be executed for having aided the Americans.
Home for Christmas
Asked for Help
For the next month, Augusta risked her life caring for U.S. GIs, even those from the Deep South who objected to being touched by a black woman. Augusta worked side by side with Jack Prior under indescribably horrible conditions. In the first few days, they had no surgical instruments, no anesthesia and little medicine for relieving pain. The German shelling had also left Bastogne without electricity or running water.
In the aid station, Jack and Augusta were surrounded by wounded soldiers, many of whom would die because their head, chest or stomach wounds required a level of care that the doctor and nurse did not have the equipment or medications to provide. Still, they did the best they could with what they had, performing amputations with a large army knife and Cognac to dull the patient’s pain, even going to a nearby battlefield to rescue wounded soldiers and return them to the aid station. On Christmas Eve the German Luftwaffe struck Bastogne. A 500 pound bomb from one of its planes scored a direct hit on the aid station. Dozens of wounded GIs were killed instantly. A second Belgian nurse who had also volunteered to help in the aid station died in the explosion. Renée Lemaire would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”
Augusta could just as easily have been killed. She was in a building next door to the aid station when the bomb struck. She was blown through a wall, but miraculously sustained only minor injuries. Her brush with death did not deter her from continuing to help the Americans. The soldiers who did not die in the bombing were moved to a second hospital and Augusta helped care for the wounded in that facility.
The Aid Station
In only a few weeks, Jack Prior and Augusta had shared a lifetime’s worth of experiences. They had been through hell together. They had saved lives and faced death together. They had supported and comforted one another, and earned each other’s deepest respect, admiration and affection. Augusta had developed a deep love for the American army doctor, even though she knew he would eventually have to leave Bastogne. That day came in the middle of January, only about a month after the doctor had first appeared at her father’s house to ask for her help in the aid station.
The U.S. Third Army under General George Patton had routed the Germans from the area and ended the siege of Bastogne. Now it was time for Jack Prior and the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion to move on. Augusta was heartbroken. While her service to the U.S. Army and her time helping Jack Prior had come to an end, the trauma of her experience was just beginning. She would suffer from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for decades to come, going long periods without speaking, and even decades later sometimes growing quiet and withdrawn.
It would be 20 years before she would resume her nursing career. In 1959 she married a Belgian soldier and the couple had two children. She went on with her life, living and working next to people who had no idea what she had done or been through.
Augusta and Jack Prior had exchanged addresses. After the war they stayed in touch, writing letters and sending small gifts—mostly candy—to each other for over 60 years. Jack Prior returned to his home state of Vermont, where he had a long and successful career as a pathologist. He died in 2007, but before he passed away he and Augusta saw each other one last time, in 1994 when the doctor returned to Bastogne for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Augusta kept her memories of the war and Jack Prior to herself. Even her children said she rarely spoke about what had happened during the siege of Bastogne.
In October, 2007, there was a knock on the door of Augusta’s room in a geriatric home in a suburb of Brussels. The Scotsman who entered her room was Martin King, the military historian who had spent the last 18 months trying to uncover her story and find her. Slowly, over a period of months, Augusta would tell King about what had happened all those decades before, about the horrors of the war, the nightmare of working in the aid station, watching young men die and trying to save soldiers with little more than bandages and sulfur powder, about the Christmas eve bombing...and about Jack Prior. Through King’s efforts, Augusta, who had been overlooked by history or ignored by it because of her race, began to receive the recognition she so richly deserved.
On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor. Whenever she was asked about her heroism, Augusta always said the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.” But as more and more people have learned in recent years, Augusta Chiwy did more—immeasurably more—than that.
On August 23, 2015, at the age of 94, Augusta died peacefully in her sleep in her room at the geriatric home where she lived. Although she had been forgotten by history for decades, she will be always remembered for her courage, compassion and service to humanity.
A Knock at the Door
Born in the Congo
If it were up to Augusta Chiwy, no one would have ever known about her incredible acts of courage and compassion during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. A tiny woman with an even smaller ego, Augusta humbly explained her actions as simply doing “what I had to do.”
But what she did in those last days of 1944 was nothing short of remarkable. Her selfless bravery and heroism have been recognized by the King of Belgium, the U.S. Army and her hometown of Bastogne. Still, Augusta never sought any of the attention she has received.
In fact, it was only through the persistent efforts of military historian Martin King that Augusta’s story came to light. And even then, it was four years after King found Augusta living in a geriatric home in Brussels before her story began to surface publicly.