Remembering our veterans: Tommy Prince

Thomas George Prince, war hero and Indigenous advocate, is easily one of Deer Lodge Centre’s most famous residents. He spent his last years living here until his death in 1977 at age 62. Throughout his military career he earned 11 medals, making him Canada’s most decorated Indigenous war veteran.

Born in 1915 as a member of the Brokenhead Band of Ojibwa, Prince was a descendant of Peguis, the Salteaux Chief. His father, a hunter and trapper, taught him to be an excellent tracker and marksman.

In 1940 he enlisted in the Canadian army. By 1942 he was a sergeant with the Canadian Parachute Battalion, and was later assigned to the elite “Devil’s Brigade”, a specialized assault team later made famous by a Hollywood film.

Prince distinguished himself many times throughout the Second World War. In one well-known story, he disguised himself as a peasant farmer and pretended to work the land around a farmhouse in order to fix a communication wire, which he needed to report back his observations of German troop movements in the area. The Germans watching him were none the wiser. Because of his actions, four German tanks that had been firing on Allied troops were destroyed.

Later he undertook a gruelling three-day journey over harsh terrain without food and water to pinpoint the location of an enemy camp. More than 1,000 German soldiers were later captured thanks to his efforts.

After the war, Prince returned home to unemployment and discrimination — despite receiving a Military Medal from England, a Silver Star with Ribbon from the US, the 1939-1945 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defense Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and the War Medal. As an Indigenous man, he didn’t have the right to vote in federal elections and wasn’t eligible for veteran’s benefits. So he became an activist, working on behalf of the Manitoba Indian Association to lobby the federal government to change the Indian Act.

At the onset of the Korean War he enlisted with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. As a sergeant once again, he led many “snatch patrols” or sneak attacks on enemy territory. He served two tours, and won the Korean, Canadian Volunteer Service and United Nations Service medals.

Armed with a strong sense of civic duty and fierce pride in his people, Prince served in the army’s personnel department upon returning to Winnipeg from Korea. Ever a hero, he leapt from the Alexander Docks to save a drowning man in 1955.

Prince was honoured at his funeral by Manitoba’s lieutenant governor and representatives from the US, Italy and France. His pallbearers were members of the Princess Patricia’s. As he was lowered into his grave, men from his reserve chanted the “Death of a War” song.

Tommy Prince’s legacy lives on to this day—in the names of roads, streets and schools, awards and scholarships, training programs and buildings across Canada, and in our memory of the veterans of Deer Lodge whose sacrifices won the freedoms we enjoy today.