Augusta Chiwy epitomizes everything that every wonderful nurse should aspire to. Her courage, compassion, and humility remain an inspiration to everyone who knows her story, but just in case you don't. Military historians know full well that war and conflict can produce the most unlikely heroes’ and heroines. Augusta Chiwy was one such heroine. She died on the 23rd July 2015 at the grand age of 94 while living in a geriatric care home on the outskirts of Brussels and was buried in Bastogne with full military honors.
There were innumerable articles about her life and passing in many newspapers and magazines around the world but few of them got all their facts right so here for the record is the true story of Nurse Augusta Chiwy and the siege of Bastogne. If you saw the ‘Band of Brothers’ series you may have seen her character portrayed as ‘Anna from the Congo’ all too briefly in the ‘Bastogne’ episode. That’s where I first saw her. That’s when I began wondering ‘Who was this black nurse from the Congo?’ Augusta’s story is not about war. It’s a story that evolved and transpired because of it. It’s quintessentially about two people, a doctor and a nurse whose paths would’ve never crossed had it not been for the siege of Bastogne. They had a relationship that left no time for romantic interludes. They were too preoccupied trying to save lives and care for wounded soldiers with little more than bandages and antiseptic powder, performing surgery with no surgical instruments and only Cognac for anesthesia.
After months of research I discovered that in 1930 at the tender age of 9 Augusta had been brought to Belgium by her white European father, a traveling veterinarian called Henri Chiwy. She was one of many mixed-race children who were becoming so ubiquitous in Congo that the Belgian government of the day acted to bring most of them to Belgium. She spent the remainder of her childhood in Bastogne, eventually leaving for the northern Flemish town of Leuven in her early twenties to attend nursing school. After graduating as a fully qualified nurse she remained in Leuven and worked at the Saint Elizabeth Hospital which was staffed by the Augustine Congregation Sisters of Louvain (Leuven). While there in December 1944, she decided to accept an invitation from her father to go home to Bastogne and spend Christmas with him and his sister (whom she called “Mama Caroline”).
By December 1944 the allies had breached the Siegfried line in some places and were preparing to push the Nazis back beyond their own western border. Augusta’s timing was atrocious. On the very day that she decided to make the trek to Bastogne, three German armies launched a concerted offensive against thinly held allied positions in the Belgian Ardennes. During the very darkest days of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, she volunteered to work with the 10th Armored Division and then the 101st Airborne. Many, many Americans lived to tell the tale because of her. If I hadn’t discovered and meticulously researched her story she would have taken it to the grave because when I found her she had no inclination whatsoever to talk about her experiences. After WWII she was completely mute for many years and she didn’t return to full time nursing until 1967.
The reason was because Augusta suffered from a form of PTSD known as ‘Selective Mutism’. Any mention of the war or Bastogne would make her clam up completely and when I finally discovered where she was living it took nearly a whole year of frequent visits before she decided to exorcise her demons and impart her story. The surgeon at the 20th AIB Aide Station in Bastogne where Augusta worked was a wonderful American by the name of Dr. John ‘Jack’ Prior who hailed from a small town in Vermont. Augusta was a 23-year-old civilian nurse. Jack and Augusta weren’t just from different countries with different languages. They were from different worlds. It was the fortunes of war that brought them together and tore them apart. But in the few weeks that they worked side by side in the Army hospitals, they forged a bond that may well have been deeper than that of many couples who have been married for years.
On the morning of December 16, 1944 Augusta left Louvain by tram but when she reached Brussels to transfer southward, she discovered that all trains bound for Bastogne and Luxembourg were terminating at the city of Namur. From there, passengers were loaded onto cattle trucks, the only form of transportation available and taken a further 20 miles to the town of Marche. It was a chilly ride – with temperatures plunging to -20 degrees Fahrenheit and colder, that December was the coldest winter in Northern Europe in living memory. After spending more than fifteen hours on the road and having used trains, trucks, a U.S. Army Willy’s Jeep, and even a bicycle she finally reached Bastogne at around 11 that evening. A group of devoutly religious nuns who ran Augusta’s former school The Sisters of Notre Dame began preparing the cellars as they had done in 1940. As worried Bastogne civilians began to flock there Augusta volunteered to assist. She was completely oblivious to the fact that three German armies had broken through the lightly-defended western front in an all-out effort to seize the Port of Antwerp, with the intent of dividing the allies and ending the war. As they advanced westward, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake a significant “bulge” in the allied battle lines began to take shape hence the name of this infamous battle.
As the situation grew more desperate, the 10th Armored rushed three teams to Bastogne that constituted just 2,700 men. Among them with ‘Team Desobry’ was Army Doctor (Captain) Jack Prior who found himself just north of Bastogne in the village of Noville attempting to hold back the enemy onslaught. Dense Ardennes mist exacerbated an already desperate situation and after little less than 48 hours the diminutive force was overwhelmed and evacuated to Bastogne. A few days later the strategically important market town of Bastogne became completely surrounded by enemy forces. After having lost a number of his men in Noville, Jack instructed his second in command Captain Irving Lee Naftulin to comb the market town for anyone with medical experience to aid their efforts. Naftulin found two people – a young nurse named Renee Lemaire, and Augusta Chiwy.
Both women agreed to join forces with Jack to prepare and treat the steadily increasing number of casualties as US forces struggled to maintain their tenuous hold on the city against repeated onslaughts by well-equipped German divisions. As German artillery fire began to intermittently fall inside the American perimeter, the small group set up shop in a recently abandoned building that had served as a grocery store. With living quarters upstairs and a cellar below, it was about the best location available for a new aid station. Jack discovered that Augusta was incredibly adept at handling the bloodiest and most grave of injuries, handling amputees, bleeding, large thoracic wounds, and other results of battlefield trauma. Renee played the role of comforter, her forté was wiping fevered brows, soothing soldiers in pain and keeping them clean. Because racism was still fairly institutionalized in the United States in 1944, Augusta, a mixed-race woman, was the subject of unadulterated bigotry on more than a few occasions. There were many American soldiers who flatly refused to be treated by her, to which Jack’s response was usually, “She treats you, or you die.” Augusta quickly discovered that death is a great leveler.
On a few occasions, Jack and Augusta made extremely risky trips to the front lines to evacuate the wounded. One of the most significant of these was at a promontory just outside Bastogne called Mardasson Hill, which today is the location of the largest American monument outside the United States. Here, Augusta and Jack came under intense rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire in a dangerously exposed position, despite this they still managed to treat and evacuate several critically wounded men. Augusta, who wore a long nurses’ gabardine came through unscathed, but discovered several bullet holes in the garment. In later years, Augusta recalled in interviews that Jack had remarked, “Looks like they almost got you. It’s a good thing you’re small.” She retorted, “A black face in all this snow is an easy target. The Germans are just bad shots.” As the Nazi vice tightened its grip on Bastogne, casualties mounted considerably. And due to the intense, all pervading mist the Air Forces were unable to re-supply the besieged garrison until December 23. Up until that point, Jack’s medics were forced to use bed sheets and any other available fabric as bandages. In one extreme case, Jack and Augusta were forced to amputate one man’s hand and leg using nothing more than the serrated edge of an Army-issue survival knife and anesthesia provided by 5 Star Cognac.
On Christmas Eve, Jack and Augusta briefly left the aid station to enjoy a glass of champagne provided by a resourceful GI in the house adjacent. Once inside they heard the unmistakable drone of approaching aircraft, but what they thought was another airdrop was in fact an enemy bombing mission. Their aid station took a direct hit from a 500lb bomb. The percussion threw Jack to the ground and blew Augusta clean through a brick wall. Miraculously they both survived relatively unscathed, but their Aide Station was leveled to the ground, killing thirty patients inside along with the other Bastogne volunteer Nurse Renee Lemaire whose fragile body was blown into two pieces. The following day Jack reported for duty at the 101st Airborne HQ at the Heintz barracks, and Augusta followed him. They continued to work together almost ceaselessly day and night. They saved lives together and watched life slip away together. And on more than one occasion, they had barely escaped death together.
Bastogne was liberated by General George Patton’s 3rd Army December 26, and on January 17 Jack and Augusta were forced to make their goodbyes. They wouldn’t see each other again until more than five decades later. Their story is one of incredible bravery, compassion and devotion. It’s a story of tenderness in the midst of appalling inhumanity enriched with a depth of caring that went mostly unexpressed and unacknowledged. Jack returned home in 1945, became a respected pathologist and raised a family. Augusta also survived to raise a family but suffered severe post-traumatic stress for the rest of her life. In 1948 the Red Cross sent her a desultory letter of thanks for her service, but her incredible efforts were largely forgotten after the war and she had absolutely no desire to recount them.
After I had cross referenced Augusta’s story with my co-author and dedicated researcher Mike Collins, I began a fervent campaign to get Augusta the recognition she so richly deserved. In 2011, Belgian King Albert II officially declared her a Knight of the Order of the Crown, which is basically the equivalent of a knighthood. Then the 101st Airborne Division presented her with the Civilian Humanitarian Medal. Augusta had finally gotten her just acknowledgment. As I rolled her wheelchair across the cobbled square and into the main hall at the Royal Military Museum in Brussels to receive her awards, the world’s press began snapping away I whispered to her, “This is all for you Augusta.” “They took their time didn’t they?” retorted Augusta with a wry smile. I used to visit her 3 times a week and after I received the Emmy Award for my documentary "Searching for Augusta" I visited the care home and presented it to her. 24 hours later she died. I read her eulogy. The American Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer and various government officials along with an emissary attended the funeral from the King of Belgium. New York Times journalist Ruth Padawer included her in the NY Times annual magazine under the title "People you should know". Augusta's story remains an inspiration to all nurses but if anyone ever asks me why I wrote it? I tell them my mother was a nurse, my wife is a nurse and my daughter is also a nurse. Her memory will remain in my heart forever.
Mr. King has graciously provided a free download of his book chronicling Augusta Chiwy's story for our members:
Download Searching for Augusta 1st pp.pdf