Tommy Prince: We’re Breaking His Heart

The rash of  news stories on the disgraceful housing of native people in Northern Ontario got me thinking of Kapyong. There’s a link between the two. Bear with me.

It’s been almost  61 years to the day (Dec. 16, 1950) that the first batch of Canadian soldiers – members of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry arrived in Pusan. They were met on the dock by US military band playing: “If I’d Known You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake.” Two months later they were in combat.

The 700 or so Canadian volunteers arrived aboard the American troopship USS Joseph P.  Martinez. It had been a stomach-churning crossing in dreadful weather and the Martinez was a wretched excuse for a naval vessel. The only thing keeping the water out was the rust.

USS Joseph Martinez

The real Joseph Martinez deserved a better memorial. He was a GI in World War 2, who fought in the Aleutian Islands, a campaign, sadly, little remembered by history. But men still died there. One of them was Martinez, the son of dirt-poor farm people from New Mexico. He was shot in the head by a Japanese sniper as he led an attack on the island of Attu. Martinez was the first Hispanic-American to get the Medal of Honor.

Joseph Martinez, Medal of Honor

Also in  the Aleutian campaign was a remarkable Canadian soldier – Tommy Prince, a native from the Scanterbury reserve , north of Winnipeg. Prince was a member of the so–called Devil’s Brigade, a joint American-Canadian unit of what we’d now call special forces. Their first mission was the Aleutians.

Probably Martinez and Prince never met but it’s ironic that a Canadian native, a war hero and an Aleutian veteran was carried to Korea on a ship named after an American hero, also an Aleutian veteran and also a minority member.

Prince went on to become one of the most decorated Canadian soldiers ever. After Alaska, he fought later in Italy and in southern France. After the Nazis were beaten Tommy Prince volunteered – again – this time for Korea. He had unparalled skills as a marksman and in irregular warfare. And like so many citizen soldiers in history with no formal military education, he was a natural leader. He had a calming effect on those around him and a knack of inspiring trust. People would follow him anywhere.

Tommy Prince, about the time of Kapyong

Tommy Prince was at Kapyong in A Company, the unit on the northern most position in the battle. But his years at war had taken their toll on his body and a month after Kapyong he was shipped home with bad knees. His health slowly improved, and unbelievably,  he volunteered for a second tour in Korea, this time with 3PPCLI, was wounded yet again and was in hospital when the armistice was signed.

He lived out his final sad years in Winnipeg in poverty and loneliness. I met Tommy a year or so before his death in the late 70s . We chatted for an afternoon on a park bench. Even at this lowest ebb-point in this life, he had great dignity and spoke with melancholy, but not bitterness. The army, he said, was the best thing that ever happened to him. In the army, Tommy was judged simply by what he did and little else. His buddies at Kapyong had pretty much figured out what really matters. Ironically it was in this strict hierarchical world and of rank and place that he found equality and brotherhood; where lives depended on what the Victorians quaintly called “character” … the stuff people were made of. That’s the real “Right Stuff.”

It was later, in civilian life, Tommy told me, that he encountered that other stuff: prejudice and discrimination.

But through it all, he retained great affection for his country. Heaven only knows what he would make of  it now.

How in the world, he might ask, in a country of such wealth and generosity … how on earth  have we allowed our fellow citizens to live so desperately, up there at Attawapiskat… and the other Attawapiskats across the country?

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About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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