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Showing disrespect
Jul 17, 2008

Winnipeg dealers all agree that the replica medals aren’t worth a heck of a lot, but that didn’t stop someone from chiseling the medals out of a granite memorial dedicated to one of Canada’s most decorated aboriginal war heroes. 

At best, one dealer said the 12 medals are worth around $125. All the city’s coin and medal dealers are on high alert, looking for anyone attempting to sell the medals; as a result, the replicas are actually worthless to whomever vandalized the memorial to Tommy Prince. 

Ten of the original Prince medals are now on display at the Manitoba Museum on Main Street. Prince’s nephew recovered the medals at a 2001 auction for $75,000. Prince, who had fallen on hard times, sold all his medals awarded for heroism during the Second World War and the Korean War before his death at age 62.

The only outcome of defacing the memorial has been for the vandal(s) to earn widespread condemnation for their dastardly deed. What it also shows is a complete lack of respect for the very people who won with their blood and lives the freedoms that we all enjoy today. It is especially a blow to all the people who dedicated their time and money to erect the year-old memorial in Sgt. Tommy Prince Veteran’s Park. 

For example, Donald Mackay spent more than 10 years raising funds for the memorial at Battery Street and Selkirk Avenue. The 75-year-old retired police officer told the Free Press he was disgusted at the disrespect shown to a veteran. He is also urging whomever stole the replica medals to return them — no questions asked.

The crime is made more despicable by the fact Manitobans are justifiably proud that one of our own had played such a prominent role in support of democracy and freedom.

Not only was Prince a war hero, but he was the grandson of Chief Peguis, the man who helped the original Selkirk Settlers survive their first years in Manitoba. Without Peguis’ assistance, it is doubtful the settlers would have been able to establish their community at the forks of the Assiniboine and Red rivers. Another descendant, Chief William Prince, headed the Ojibwa-Manitoba boatmen who sailed down the Nile River in Egypt in  futile attempt to save General Gordon besieged at Khartoum.

Prince was born on October 25, 1915, at Petersfield, one of 11 children born to Harry and Arabella Prince of the Brokenhead Band. In 1920, the family moved to Scanterbury in the Brokenhead First Nation.

Surprisingly, it took the future hero several attempts to enlist before he was accepted on June 3, 1940. 

“As soon as I put on my uniform I felt a better man,” said Prince.

He served first as a sapper with the Royal Canadian Engineers and then with the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, which merged with an American battalion to form the 1st Special Service Force, a unit composed of 1,600 of the “toughest men to be found in Canada and the United States.” The force eventually became known to the enemy and famous to history as the Devil’s Brigade.

While serving with the Devil’s Brigade near Littoria, Italy, in 1944, Prince volunteered to set up an observation post in an abandoned farmhouse about 200 metres from the enemy’s position. After shelling severed his communications wire, Prince put on civilian clothes, grabbed a hoe and acted like a farmer tending his crops. He slowly inched his way along the 1,400-metre line until he found the break. He stooped down, pretending to tie his shoelace and managed to repair the damaged telephone line while in full view of German troops. His observations led to the destruction of four German artillery positions that had been firing on the Allies.

For his heroism in the face of the enemy, Lieut.-Col. Gilday, his CO, recommended Prince receive the Military Medal for “exceptional bravery in the field.”

In another feat of daring, he hiked for kilometres behind enemy lines near L’Escarène, France, often going without food or water for days, to locate a German camp. Once he located the camp, he trekked 70 kilometres back to the Allied lines and then brought his unit to the German camp. The Devils captured over 1,000 Germans.

Prince received the Military Medal and the Silver Star, an American medal for gallantry, from King George VI. He was one of only 59 Canadians awarded the Silver Star, while only three of this group also received the Military Medal.

“So accurate was the report rendered by the patrol that Sergeant Prince’s regiment moved forward on 5 September 1944, occupied new heights and successfully wiped out the enemy bivouac area. The keen sense of responsibility and devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant Prince is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the Allied Nations,” read his citation for the Silver Star.

After the war, Prince became involved in aboriginal issues, but became frustrated with the difficulty of dealing with federal officials responsible for the Indian Act. A business he owned failed, so with no job, 34-year-old Prince volunteered to serve with 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry during the Korean War, where his exploits were the stuff of legend. In February 1951, Prince led an eight-man patrol into enemy territory which captured two machine-gun posts.

Prince was with the 2PPCLI at the Battle of Kapyong on April 24 and 25. Often surrounded and under intense enemy attack, the battalion held its ground, preventing a North Korea and Chinese breakthrough toward Seoul. Their stubborn resistance resulted in the battalion being awarded the United States’ Presidential Unit Citation.

After an armistice was signed ending the war, Prince remained with the Canadian army until September 1954. 

“Unskilled and unable to fit into the post-war boom, Prince retained only menial jobs and was the subject of scorn from white workers ignorant of his wartime gallantry,” according to the 1981 publication Manitobans in Profile: Thomas George Prince (Penguin Publishers Ltd.)

It would seem that some people are still “ignorant” of Prince’s accomplishments on their behalf — that’s the only way the wanton act of vandalism of his memorial can be explained.