For decades, stories circulated among veterans and historians about a black nurse who tended to the wounded and dying American soldiers in Belgium during the bloody Battle of the Bulge in World War II, in which 75,000 American soldiers died, along with up to 100,000 German soldiers. It was a scene of carnage and death. But this nurse, her name long forgotten, was considered something of a legend and, perhaps, a myth. This was the era where racism was so rampant many people refused to be treated by a black nurse and indeed many places forbade it. But in the heat of war, could such a person be real? Nobody really knew for sure until 2007 when the truth came out. There was indeed a volunteer nurse, a black woman from Belgium, whose unsung bravery saved many lives during the Battle of the Bulge only for her name to be lost to history. But who was she? This is the story of heroism, loss and a fight for survival. This is the story of Augusta Chiwy.
The Call for an Angel of the Battlefield
Augusta Marie Chiwy [chee-wee] was born on June 6th, 1921 in the village of Mubavu in the Belgian Congo, now part of Burundi. Records are scarce. We do not know the name of Augusta’s mother, only that she was a Congolese woman. Her father was Henri Chiwy, a Belgian veterinarian. Augusta was one of thousands of biracial children fathered by Belgian men working in Africa during Belgium’s brutal occupation. Augusta was just nine-years-old when she arrived in Belgium. Her father had returned to his hometown of Bastogne and he took his daughter with him.
Belgium was far removed from the wild and untamed landscapes of Burundi and it took Augusta some time to get used to her new life. Her childhood was one spent in Africa where she grew up in a racist society questioning her skin colour and the texture of her hair. But her ambitions in life were far greater than the obstacles she faced. Cared for in Belgium by her father and his sister, whom Augusta named ‘Mama Caroline’, Augusta attended a Catholic boarding school where she was described as ‘bright, ambitious and popular’.
She was also very small, just shy of five feet tall. She spent the rest of her childhood in Bastogne, ultimately leaving for the beautiful and historic city of Leuven, also in Belgium, to attend nursing school. Augusta, like her father, was drawn to the world of healing and desired to become a nurse. She had, originally, set her heart on becoming a teacher, but war was declared in 1939 and in 1940, Augusta decided to become a nurse. She knew nurses would be needed. She didn’t run away from the war, the most unimaginable horror, no, she ran toward it. And in 1943, she qualified as a nurse. She began her career working at the St Elizabeth Hospital in Leuven.
In 1944, Augusta accepted an invitation from her father to go home and spend Christmas with him and Mama Caroline. But the situation across Europe was bleak and getting worse. As the war was raging on, as more and more people died, in small pockets of Europe there were simply no nurses left. Help was becoming harder and harder to find.
But one knock on the door of the family home that Christmas was to change Augusta’s life forever.
When Help Ran Out the Nurse Came to Serve
By the December of 1944, American and British forces had breached the Siegfried line along the German border and had begun pushing the Nazis toward the Rhine. Regulations at the time stipulated that black nurses were not allowed to treat white soldiers, but as the war raged on, racism such as this was not enough to prevent nurses from treating their patients. It was simply a case of letting black nurses treat you… or you die. Augusta was 23 when a knock on the door came. A man named Dr Jack Prior, looking for volunteers, told Henri:
There is no-one left. My ambulance driver has been killed.
Right there, on that day in Belgium, help ran out. There was no-one left to treat people. Everyone else had been killed. The situation was unimaginable. Without a moment’s hesitation, Augusta volunteered. I’ll do it. I can help. The colour of her skin did not matter, not then, not anymore. Anyone who could help was desperately needed. Along with her best friend Renée Lemaire, also a nurse, Augusta now found herself thrust into hell itself.
Augusta and Renée swapped their bloodstained clothes for army uniforms. If captured, Augusta and Renée would have faced immediate execution. Nurses were not captured by the Germans. They were simply shot dead there and then. But simply being there amongst the soldiers provided something of a morale boost. Numbers were low but these two young and confident women gave the soldiers they served alongside a lift. Dr Prior said:
The presence of these two girls was a morale factor of the highest order.
The Germans launched a surprise attack on the Allies in Belgium. The focal point for their attack was Bastogne. Right where Augusta and Renée were serving. The town of Bastogne was now surrounded by German soldiers. It was a siege. There was no escape. The town was under constant bombardment. Bombs were exploding across the town almost every minute of every hour. It was utter hell. And in the middle of this, two young nurses trying their best to help the wounded and dying. Their bravery immeasurable.
The Siege of Bastogne, within the Battle of the Bulge, became known as one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War. It was to be a defining moment in history.
The Carnage of the Siege of Bastogne
The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest winters anyone could remember. The American soldiers were poorly equipped and hopelessly outnumbered. The Germans demanded their surrender. The soldiers would be taken as prisoners of war, everyone else, including the nurses, faced almost certain death, having aided the Allies. But the Americans knew that holding Bastogne for as long as they could was critical in thwarting the German offensive. They were determined to fight. And so were the nurses of Bastogne.
Augusta had no idea this is what she would be facing. The violence had dramatically increased. The destruction was untold. The situation desperate. Causalities were flooding in to Dr Prior’s aid station. The Allies were overwhelmed. Dr Prior was joined by Augusta and Renée, and that was it. Just the three of them. There were no other volunteers. They set up a new aid station in an abandoned building that was once a grocery store with living quarters upstairs and a cellar below. And Augusta’s role was pivotal.
Dr Prior soon discovered that Augusta was the best he had at treating the bloodiest and gravest of injuries, so she saw the worst of war. She handled amputees, treated severe bleeding, dealt with large thoracic wounds, and other horrific injuries. Renée served as the ‘comforter’, soothing soldiers in pain and keeping them clean. They never had a moment’s rest. Even then, a few American soldiers regularly hurled racist insults at Augusta, even as she was treating them. Those that refused to be treated by her were always met with the same words from Dr Prior:
She treats you or you die.
For the next month, despite the racism, Augusta battled hard to save American soldier’s lives. Under horrendous conditions, with almost no surgical instruments, no anaesthesia, and hardly any pain relief, Augusta, Renée and Dr Prior fought as hard as they could, but still, many lives were lost. The onslaught from the Germans had also left Bastogne without electricity and no running water. But the trio persevered to offer whatever help they could. What Augusta saw unquestionably traumatised her. She regularly had to perform amputations, for example, with a large army knife and nothing but Cognac to dull the pain.
The situation was nothing short of catastrophic. But as the siege went on, Augusta’s role became more and more important.
The Inferno of the Endless Battlefield
Augusta began heading out into the battlefields to rescue the injured and sometimes, she had to treat them where they had fallen, all whilst gunfire flew passed her and bombs exploded around her. She was clever, too. This was winter and the snow was heavy. She boiled snow for water. On one Christmas Eve, she nearly lost her life when a bomb hit the aid station she served in alongside Dr Prior and her friend Renée. She later said:
A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen.
The bomb that had hit the aid station was a 500 pound beast. Augusta was blown THROUGH a wall, but she survived. 30 American soldiers were killed. And so was Renée. Augusta had lost her best friend right there on Christmas Eve. She became known as the ‘Angel of the Battlefield’, did Renée, her bravery until the very end celebrated that Christmas Day. She was just 30-years-old. And one hell of a great nurse.
Augusta had no choice but to carry on. The grief she felt was immense but she had to carry on. Her courage and bravery was second to none, but the toll it was taking on her mental health caused her so much anguish. The team of three was now a team of two. The days were grim but Dr Prior did whatever he could to keep Augusta going. She was the best he had. He often praised her resilience amid the carnage, and encouraged her every step of the way. It will soon be over, Augusta. Keep going. We’re nearly there.
Augusta and Dr Prior came under intense artillery fire on more than one occasion. One of the most significant was on a promontory just outside Bastogne named ‘Mardasson Hill’, today the location of the largest American monument outside of America. In a dangerously exposed position, the two managed to treat and evacuate several critically wounded men. Augusta survived but later found several bullet holes in her long garments. Dr Prior said to Augusta:
Looks like they almost got you. It’s a good thing you’re small.
Death and destruction had taken hold of Bastogne. But just two days after the attack on Christmas Eve that had claimed the life of Renée, the siege was lifted. 75,000 Americans and up to 100,000 Germans had been killed.
It left Augusta with what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After the War the Angel Lived On
Augusta, once lively and outgoing, became understandably quiet and withdrawn. She would sometimes go weeks without speaking. Nevertheless, after the war, she continued to be a nurse. Dr Prior and Augusta performed services across town at Heintz Barracks, both eventually leaving Bastogne in the January of 1945. Augusta was just 24. Still so young.
Dr Prior eventually moved out east and became a pathologist, raising a family of his own. Augusta, meanwhile, worked at a hospital treating spinal injuries. She married a Belgian soldier and they had two children. She rarely spoke of her experiences during the war and indeed, her name became something of a legend, perhaps even a myth. Many people simply assumed that she died during the war because she seemingly vanished into the pages of history. But she had survived the war, forever scarred by her experiences.
Every Christmas until his death, Dr Prior received chocolates and a card, written in French, from Augusta. The two remained close friends until his death in 2007. Augusta’s incredible efforts were largely forgotten after the war and she faded into obscurity. She was briefly mentioned by Stephen Ambrose in his book, ‘Band of Brothers’, speaking of a nurse from the Belgian Congo named ‘Anna’, a woman who also appears in the television series of the same name. That woman is Augusta. But who knew she was real?
British historian Martin King, whilst researching his book ‘Voices of the Bulge’, learnt all about Augusta and he spent 18 months trying to find her. He managed to track her down to a retirement home near Brussels, where she recounted her remarkable and forgotten story. It brought her to public attention. Overlooked no more. In 2007, the world finally remembered Augusta, who was then 86. And in 2011, on June 24th, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later, she received the US Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And in 2014, she was recognised by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honour.
Before she died, Augusta’s unbelievable heroism had been recognised and celebrated. She didn’t die in obscurity but recognised for her bravery and courage. Remarkably, we only lost Augusta on August 23rd, 2015. She was 94-years-old.
She died peacefully in her sleep.
The Unknown Hero Whose Name Was Lost to Time
If there is one thing to remember of Augusta it is this: she never wanted to be remembered as a hero, but as someone ‘just doing her job’. Well, I think it’s safe to say she did it remarkably well. I wonder how many people watch ‘Band of Brothers’ and have no idea ‘Anna’ is real and really Augusta Chiwy. It is often the little-known and humblest of individuals who made the biggest impact in the Second World War. Through unimaginable pain and strife, Augusta saved many lives. King believes the number of lives Augusta saved is nearly 1,000. Many of them will have grandchildren alive today because of Augusta. It is astonishing to think that her work is still being felt to this day. If you have a grandparent who was in that siege… Augusta is likely the reason you are here today.
For most of her life, Augusta, understandably so, rarely spoke of the war. She saw horror beyond belief and lost one of her closest friends. She suffered racism with one white man, refusing her treatment, telling her not to touch him. To which Augusta replied, “Die, then.” She was a nurse, but a brave nurse, one who risked her life treating the badly wounded and dying in one of the Second World War’s most brutal battles. It is estimated that nearly 1,000 men were saved by her hands. She saw so much but could say so little about it. She may not want to have been labelled a ‘hero’, but we have to thank her and all the nurses who fight so valiantly in war. How many more out there have been forgotten?
Augusta truly went above and beyond. At her award ceremony in Brussels, she said:
What I did was very normal. I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.
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https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/obituaries/2015/08/28/augusta-chiwy-forgotten-african-nurse-battle-bulge-dies/le5fIWGX48h8MXQbkZXiwL/story.html, https://www.blackfive.net/main/2013/12/band-of-brothers-nurse-augusta-chiwy-someone-you-should-know.html, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/augusta-chiwy-nurse-who-tended-wounded-amid-carnage-battle-bulge-and-was-tracked-down-60-years-later-10495940.html
nytimes.com, taskandpurpose.com, washingtonpost.com