EDITOR'S NOTE: British author Martin King was captivated years ago by the legend of a Black nurse who helped save the lives of GIs during the Battle of the Bulge. Although King has spent 20 years in the Ardennes researching the battle, he says no story compares to that of Augusta Chiwy.
Born in the Belgian Congo, the nurse was visiting Bastogne, Belgium, in December 1944 when she volunteered to help at an American aid station. Although the hospital was destroyed by bombs and many presumed the nurse long dead, King searched relentlessly for her. He finally tracked her down at a nursing home near Brussels and pieced together her story.
He has decided to share that story with the Army News Service during Black History Month.
BASTOGNE, Belgium (Army News Service, Feb. 14, 2011) -- It was a bitterly cold winter morning when Augusta Chiwy's tram pulled into Brussels Central train station, Dec. 16, 1944.
On that very same day at 5:30 a.m., green troops of the 106th Golden Lion Division were rudely awakened from their winter sojourn by a hellish barrage of incoming artillery shells, "screaming meemies," accompanied by the menacing rumble of Tiger and Panther tanks on the move. Just over the German/Belgian border, out in an area known as the Schnee Eifel, three German armies had assembled almost under the noses of the Allies.
Brussels was still alive with commuters going about their daily routines when Chiwy arrived at the train station. She had been working at St. Elizabeth General Hospital in the Flemish town of Louvain and was on her way to visit relatives in Bastogne.
Above the din of collective voices at the station, the public address system droned out monotone information about trains, platforms and destinations, adding that "There will be no departures for Luxembourg or Bastogne. Passengers wishing to reach these destinations should take the 7:50 (a.m.) to Namur."
Chiwy noticed an inexplicable sense of urgency in many of the assembled passenger's demeanors as she boarded the train for Namur about 30 miles south of Brussels. The train stopped there and passengers wishing to go to the next destination were herded into open cattle trucks and taken as far as Marche'. From there Chiwy hitched a ride from a GI who took her to the center of Bastogne.
She arrived in Bastogne around 5 p.m. and noticed that it was a hive of activity as news was beginning to filter through of an all-out German attack to the north and east of the city. In anticipation of the approaching storm, Bastogne civilians were leaving in droves and all roads west quickly became gridlocked with a seemingly endless trail of human traffic.
Bastogne was an old market town and natural junction where seven roads converged. The German army's high command had decided many months previous to the actual attack that it was going to be a prime strategic objective, but no one there had expected what was about to occur during the coldest winter in living memory.
Chiwy had already decided that it was best to go to her uncle's house first to see if she could collate some more information on the current situation. Her uncle, Dr. Chiwy, had a practice close to the main square and the young nurse wanted to know if she could help out. By that time of night the civilians and military personnel still there could audibly make out the booming sounds of distant artillery shells exploding a few miles away.
Within a few days of her arrival in Bastogne, the U.S. Army had sent reinforcements to the city. The first to arrive were 2,800 men and 75 tanks of the 10th Armored Division. The following day on Dec. 18, the 101st Airborne Division arrived around midnight and almost immediately began taking up positions at the allocated roadblocks around Bastogne in support of the existing teams. These groups proved to be a stubborn barrier that would allow the necessary time to build Bastogne's defenses and prepare for the German Army's main assault.
Chiwy set to work as a nurse by assisting both civilian and military wounded wherever she found them. These efforts didn't go unnoticed. GIs from the 10th Armored Division were on the lookout for medical supplies and personnel to assist with their Aid Station on the Rue Neufchateau.
On Dec. 20, Bastogne became a city under siege. The ever-decreasing perimeter had reduced a once-beautiful city to a blood-soaked and battle-ravaged collection of skeletal smoldering ruins. The only safe places were the dank freezing cellars of ruined houses where remaining civilians and soldiers huddled together for safety and warmth. They survived on basic rations and shared whatever supplies they could find. Chiwy hadn't had a warm meal since she left Louvain and had also been reduced to this grim subterranean existence.
On the morning of the Dec. 21, Chiwy left the safety of her uncle's cellar and along with Nurse Renee Lemaire, she volunteered to work for the 20th AIB, 10th Armored Division at the aid station on Rue Neufchateau where Dr. John Prior was in charge. The situation there was desperate. There were hardly any medical supplies save a few bags of sulpha powder and a couple of phials of morphine.
While Lemaire helped make the wounded Soldiers as comfortable as possible, Chiwy dressed their wounds and never once shied away from the gory trauma of battlefield injuries.
On at least one occasion, Dr. Prior asked Chiwy if she would accompany him to a battle site east of the Mardasson hill. She was wearing a U.S. Army uniform at the time because her own clothes had become so dilapidated and blood stained. She was well aware that if she would have been captured by German forces it would have meant instant death for collaborating with the "Amies," the German name for the American Soldiers.
During a raging blizzard Chiwy calmly loaded up onto a deuce-and-a-half and went to the outskirts of Bastogne. When they arrived there she actually went out onto the battlefield with Dr. Prior and the two litter-bearers to retrieve wounded Soldiers.
Mortar shells were falling close by and German heavy machine guns were raking the ground around Chiwy's small frame as she tended the wounded, but despite this she focused on her duties undaunted. Dr. Prior said the bullets missed Augusta because she was so small, to which Chiwy retorted, "A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen."
The skies above Bastogne had cleared on Dec. 23, and C-47s had dropped desperately needed supplies, but the very next day on Christmas Eve, those clear skies gave the German Luftwaffe a chance to send out a few of their remaining bomber squadrons over the city to cause even further death and destruction.
A 500-pound bomb fell directly on the 20th AIB Aid Station, instantly killing 30 wounded U.S. Soldiers along with nurse Renee Lemaire. Chiwy was in the adjacent house with Dr. Prior and a lieutenant when the bomb hit. She was blown clean through a wall, but miraculously survived unscathed.
On the following day, the remaining wounded were taken to the 101st headquarters at the Heintz Barracks where Chiwy worked until they were all evacuated when Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army arrived Dec. 26.
Surviving members of the 10th Armored Division recently signed a letter of appreciation for her service to them during the battle. Her efforts had never been officially recognized until then.
This month a letter was also received from King Albert II of Belgium stating that he acknowledges Augusta Chiwy's service and will officially recognize her courage and sacrifice during the Battle of the Bulge.