The Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle of World War II, began in the Ardennes area in Belgium 67 years ago today.
The town of Bastogne was at the heart of that fight. Through the years, many stories of heroism emerged from Bastogne, but none quite like the one historian Martin King tells of a 4-foot-8 volunteer nurse who was born in the Belgian Congo.
King said to fully understand her story, you must understand the battle. As he drives around Bastogne in a battered Ford minivan, he passed a memorial commemorating Easy Company, 101st Airborne Division — the guys made famous by “Band of Brothers.”
Before long, King leaves the van and takes off through the trees. The temperature drops. Cold rain and sleet begin to fall. King said these are the woods where Easy Company dug in back in December 1944. The ground is still marked by deep craters.
“What I find remarkable,” King said, “is that 67 years after the fact, you can still quite clearly see the foxholes here.”
Originally from Scotland, King has lived and worked in Belgium for thirty years now. He’s interviewed countless veterans, and co-authored a book called “Voices of the Bulge.”
This was the scene of some of the most ferocious front line action in the Battle of Bulge. But to get the real flavor, he said, you have to imagine two feet of snow, the ground frozen solid and fog so thick you can’t see five feet in front of you.
“And the Germans,” he notes, “would have been a few hundred yards away.”
The German shelling and bombing of Bastogne were horrific. Allied medical supplies and personnel were hard to come by. Some locals volunteered to help as nurses.
In HBO’s “Band of Brothers” mini-series, there’s a scene set in Bastogne. In it, a white Belgian nurse chats with an Army medic outside an aid station. They’re discussing another volunteer, a black nurse.
“Where’s she from? The black girl?” asked the medic.
“From the Congo,” answered the white nurse.
It turns out that “the black girl from the Congo” is not a fictional character. Her name’s Augusta Chiwy, and hers is one of the great untold war stories.
“The Snow! Oh, the Fog!”
“Augusta’s story is the most incredible thing I ever heard,” King said. “You can take the hero story – he did so much that day, and shot all those people, and he had big guns. But this, to me, had something else. It had a humanity that I’d never come across.”
Chiwy was born in 1921 in the Belgian Congo. Her father was a white veterinarian, originally from Bastogne. Her mother was Congolese.
At age nine, her father brought her to live with relatives in Bastogne. Then, at 19, Chiwy went to study nursing in the city of Leuven. In December of 1944, her father invited her home for Christmas.
“The snow, oh, the fog!” Chiwy recalled.
When she arrived in Bastogne, the town was firmly in American hands and the front was miles away. A few days later, though, German advance left Bastogne surrounded. Chiwy and her family stayed in town, hiding in the basement like many other residents.
A few days before Christmas, there was a knock at the door. It was US Army medic Dr. John Prior.
“He told me that he had no one left, that his ambulance driver had been killed,” Chiwy said.
Chiwy volunteered as a nurse, working at the makeshift first-aid station in town. When her own clothing became bloody, she donned a U.S. Army uniform. Then, she volunteered for something much more dangerous.
“The Germans Had it Zeroed”
Every fifteen minutes on this day, chimes ring out from the U.S. war memorial that stands on the top of Mardasson Hill outside of Bastogne. The chimes are meant to remind visitors of the sacrifices made by American soldiers. Not 200 yards away from the memorial is a field that was very much the front line.
Chiwy, King said, jumped onto the back of a two-and-a-half ton Army truck with Prior and two litter-bearers. They drove from Bastogne to the spot where the memorial now stands. There, King said, Chiwy risked everything to help the wounded US soldiers.
“She was actually running out into this field,” King said. “And the Germans had it zeroed. They were hitting it with 88s, and mortars and heavy machine gun fire. And Augusta tells me that the ground was being raked up around her as she was trying to retrieve the bodies.”
There were other hazards besides the intense gunfire, though.
Bastogne had, until recently, been under German occupation.
“If the Germans captured her, they would have shot her immediately as a collaborator,” King said.
That Chiwy was black would have made matter worse with the Germans.
“It was an incredible risk,” King said.
“We Heard Something Screaming Towards Us”
On Christmas Eve, the aid station where Chiwy was working was hit by a German bomb. More than two dozen U.S. soldiers, and Renee Lamaire, another volunteer nurse, were killed.
The aid station stood not far from Bastogne’s main square. It’s now a Chinese restaurant. Outside, a plaque commemorates those who died when the aid station was bombed. Lamaire is mentioned, but not Chiwy.
King said some books about the Battle of the Bulge said Chiwy died in the explosion. But the historian didn’t buy it, and he went looking for her. A contact in the Belgian army told King Chiwy was still alive. Eventually, King found her living comfortably in a retirement home just outside Brussels.
Slowly, he got her to tell the story of how she survived that bomb blast in Bastogne.
In a documentary made a few years ago, Chiwy remembered the night the aid station was hit. She was sipping champagne with Prior in a building next door.
“So a bottle of champagne was opened, a glass was passed around,” Chiwy said on the video. “And I don’t remember if he finished filling the glass, but we heard something screaming coming towards us, and then a big bang and all the windows were blown out.”
Chiwy was blown through a wall, but survived. After the explosion, she simply got up and started helping Prior tend the wounded. She continued to volunteer until the Germans were pushed back, and the siege of Bastogne ended.
“You Embody What is Best and Most Kind in All of Us”
For years, Chiwy went for long stretches of time without speaking about her experiences. King said today, she’d probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But the more King coaxed out of her, the more he realized Chiwy should be honored for her service.
He wrote letters to the US Army, and to the Belgian King. It has finally paid off. Earlier this year, Chiwy was honored by King Albert II of Belgium.
And this week, the U.S. Army did its part as well. In a ceremony in Brussels, Chiwy was given the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. Colonel J.P. McGee, who commands the “Bastogne Brigade” of the 101st Airborne Division, presented the award to her.
“You embody what is best and most kind in all of us,” McGee said. “It is an honor to share the stage with you and to be able to say on behalf of U.S. veterans everywhere — thank you. The number of lives that you touched is incalculable. There are men and women in America who would never have a father or grandfather if you hadn’t been there to provide them basic medical care.”
During the ceremony, Chiwy smiled, blew kisses and waved to her family in the audience. Afterwards, amid the applause, she said she was happy to be honored, even if it was 70 years after the fact.
“See, I’ve had a good life. I’ve got my children, and my grandchildren," she said. “And,” she added, pointing to her head, “I’ve still got my marbles.”
“America honors its heroes. It just needs to be reminded sometimes who those heroes are," King said.