For decades, stories circulated among veterans and historians about an African nurse who tended to wounded and dying American soldiers in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, the bloody campaign through the Ardennes in the winter of 1944-1945 that became the last major German offensive of World War II.
“Band of Brothers,” the 2001 TV war drama based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-selling book, referred to a nurse from Congo. But no such nurse was identified and celebrated until nearly seven decades after the war — when the Belgian king granted a knighthood, and the U.S. government awarded a high civilian honor, to Augusta Chiwy.
Chiwy (pronounced she-wee), 94, died Aug. 23 at a nursing home in Brussels. The cause was a heart attack, said her son, Alain Cornet. She was credited with ministering to hundreds of men during the Battle of the Bulge, so named for the brief and ultimately unsuccessful German penetration of Allied lines.
As a volunteer nurse — amid unremitting shelling and in sub-zero temperatures, with inadequate food and little rest — Chiwy was said to have helped rescue the injured, dressing their wounds, bathing them and boiling snow for water. On Christmas Eve, she nearly lost her life when a bomb hit her makeshift aid station in the besieged town of Bastogne.
“A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target,” she once said, remarking on her survival through the battle. “Those Germans must be terrible marksmen.”
Augusta Marie Chiwy was born June 3, 1921, in Mubavu, an East African village that became part of a Belgian colony and that is now located in Burundi. Her father was a white Belgian veterinarian, and her mother was African.
Chiwy moved to Belgium as a girl, trained as a nurse in the city of Leuven (Louvain in French), and arrived in Bastogne to spend the holidays with her father just as the Germans launched their attack through the Ardennes forest in eastern Belgium on Dec. 16, 1944. It would be one of the costliest engagements of World War II, with more than 80,000 American and 100,000 German casualties.
Bastogne, located at a major road junction, was surrounded during the battle. Chiwy joined the skeletal and beleaguered medical operation there led by a U.S. Army physician, Jack Prior. “He told me that he had no one left,” Chiwy once recalled in an interview with Public Radio International, “that his ambulance driver had been killed.”
For much of her life, Chiwy spoke little about the carnage that she witnessed, according to her son. Her story was documented in large part by Martin King, a Scottish historian and co-author with Michael Collins of the book “Voices of the Bulge: Untold Stories From Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.”
Prior recounted his wartime service in a written account that has been published online. He recalled the contributions of two nurses — one, a Belgian named Renee Lemaire, and another he identified as “a native of the Belgian Congo.”
“They played different roles among the dying,” Prior wrote. “Renee shrank away from the fresh, gory trauma, while the Congo girl was always in the thick of the splinting, dressing, and hemorrhage control. Renee preferred to circulate among the litter patients, sponging, feeding them, and distributing the few medications we had (sulfa pills and plasma). The presence of these two girls was a morale factor of the highest order.”
Some white soldiers reacted negatively to the prospect of a black woman providing intimate care. One man, King said, suffered from severe frostbite and asked Prior not to allow the black nurse to touch him.
“Fine,” Prior replied, according to King’s account. “Die, then.”
On Christmas Eve, Chiwy and Prior were invited to step out of their aid station.
“A bottle of champagne was opened,” Chiwy recalled. “A glass was passed around. And I do not know whether he finished filling the glass, but we heard something coming screaming towards us. And then a big bang! And all of the windows were blown out.”
A bomb had hit the aid station, killing 30 of the approximately 100 wounded soldiers, according to King. Lemaire perished in the blast. Years later, Prior told ABC News that he collected her remains and gathered them in a white parachute that Lemaire hoped to fashion one day into a wedding dress.
After the bombing, Chiwy followed Prior to another clinic, where she continued providing medical care until mid-January 1945, when Prior and his unit moved out of Bastogne.
Chiwy worked as a nurse for some years after the war. She was married to Jacques Cornet, who died two decades ago. Survivors include two children, Alain Cornet of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, and Christine Cornet of Grez-Doiceau, Belgium; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
King, the historian who publicized Chiwy’s story, is a son, husband and father of nurses and told The Washington Post in an interview that he was intrigued by the reference in “Band of Brothers” to the African battlefield aide. After an 18-month search, he said, he located Chiwy in a Belgian retirement community.
She became the subject of a biography by King — “The Forgotten Nurse” (2011) published in French and Dutch — and the documentary film “Searching for Augusta” (2014).
“What I did was very normal,” Chiwy said when she was honored in 2011. “I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”
Prior, the Army physician, became a pathologist in Syracuse, New York. A daughter, Anne P. Stringer, said in an interview that her father told his children about an African nurse who had so valiantly assisted him during the war. “He said that he would never forget her courage,” said Stringer, who traveled to Belgium in recent years to meet Chiwy. “She was only 23.”
Prior died in 2007. Until then, he and his former nurse exchanged greetings at Christmastime, a period that coincided with the anniversary of their survival at Bastogne. He kept her letters in a trunk along with a bayonet and wartime mail from his mother. Along with her letters, Chiwy sent Belgian chocolates.