Tommy Prince: The Story of a Tragic Warrior
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Today is Indigenous Veterans Day, a day to pay tribute to and commemorate our Indigenous veterans. Thousands of Indigenous men and women volunteered to fight in Canada's wars, both at home and abroad. They left their communities, learned new languages, and fought alongside non-Indigenous people in Canada’s wars. They fought for those same Canadians who derided them at home for being "savages."
While our Indigenous kin’s actions are full of glory, we choose not to glorify this history. Instead, we explore the tragic complexity of Indigenous people who served — and continue to serve — our country.
Today we share P. Whitney Lackenbauer’s telling of Tommy Prince’s story. We reflect upon Tommy Prince’s story and the untold stories of so many Indigenous veterans who followed a similar path.
Who Was Tommy Prince?
Tommy Prince was born on the Brokenhead Reserve, about 42km northwest of Winnipeg. His great-great-grandfather was Chief Peguis, a Salteaux leader who moved his people from the Great Lakes region to southern Manitoba and signed the Selkirk Treaty in 1817. Chief Peguis passed the name “Prince” on to the next generations of his family. His son, Henry Prince, signed Treaty 1 150 years ago in 1871.
As a young boy, Tommy Prince went to Residential School and joined the Army Cadets. He immediately took to the military and, when World War II started, he joined the Army in the Royal Canadian Engineer Corps. He soon volunteered for the First Special Service Force (FSSF), a combined Canadian-American special forces unit specializing in reconnaissance and small-unit offensive operations. The FSSF was a highly-skilled unit that selected members based on their "youth, hardness, and fitness."
"As soon as I put on my uniform, I felt like a better man." 
Tommy Prince was an extraordinary soldier. In the FSSF, he experienced some of the most challenging hardships of war: high casualty rates, a resilient enemy, harsh weather conditions, constant enemy fire, and high operational tempo with little sleep or food. Despite these conditions, he conducted numerous patrols behind enemy lines and developed creative ways of harassing enemy positions. At one point he even dressed up as an Italian farmer to repair a broken communications line in the middle of a battle. He pushed himself, both physically and mentally.
At every opportunity, Tommy Prince reminded his comrades that he was Indigenous. Whenever the mail arrived at the front lines, he would exclaim, "I've got a smoke signal from the chief!” He carried moccasins with him at the front lines, and at night would slip them on and sneak behind enemy lines to steal something silly like a pair of boots, to leave a “calling card” in their sleeping quarters, or even to kill one of them silently in their sleep. He earned a reputation for his fieldcraft and marksmanship, which his peers attributed to his experience growing up on Brokenhead Reserve.
During his time with the FFSF, Tommy Prince was awarded the American Silver Star and the Military Medal for his “courage and utter disregard for personal safety” in battle. King George VI himself pinned the medals on Tommy Prince’s chest at Buckingham Palace. His bravery and audacity, his extraordinary skill and military acumen, and his selfless service were all characteristics that were rewarded in the military.
"All my life, I had wanted to do something to help my people recover their good name." 
After returning home from World War II, Tommy Prince became an advocate for Indigenous equality. He testified before a Special Parliamentary Joint Committee where he advocated to abolish the Indian Act and honour Treaty. He called for a renewed Indigenous non-Indigenous relationship built on trust and partnership. But society no longer recognized him as an equal. Without his uniform, he was “just another Indian.”
When the Korean war broke out in 1950, Tommy Prince eagerly re-enlisted with Second Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI). In Korea, he continued his high-risk, high-tempo operations despite suffering nearly debilitating arthritis in the knees. He pushed himself to prove once again that he was an exceptional soldier.
But instead of earning accolades, this time, Tommy Prince earned a reputation for being a danger to himself and others. At one point Tommy Prince’s patrol came under mortar fire and they returned to base, missing one man. He was sure that he had returned with all his troops. But one was missing. Battalion Headquarters found that Tommy Prince was “obviously worn out from desperately trying to achieve too much” and transitioned him out of combat. He had pushed himself beyond his limits.
Prince’s story raises many questions. Why did he push himself so hard? Did he feel a duty to represent all Indigenous peoples? Did he bear a self-imposed responsibility to prove that Indigenous people have worth? Did his family name impose a sense of duty towards his People?
There is a saying amongst marginalized groups that if one fails, they are the rule; but if one succeeds, they are the exception. Our personal failures become our group's failures, but our personal successes are attributed only as our own. Did Prince feel this untenable burden?
“[H]is final years were spent reliving the terror of the two wars and every night his bed was wet from the tears and sweat." 
After Korea, Tommy Prince returned to the streets of Winnipeg. He had trouble sleeping and his arthritis got worse. He fell into alcoholism and poverty, and allegations of abuse were brought against him. His children were taken away and placed in foster homes.
Scholars today believe Tommy Prince suffered undiagnosed operational stress injuries. But they don't believe the trauma of war alone caused the nightmares:
In Prince’s case, he held high expectations for himself as both an [Indigenous person] and a soldier, had been on repeated combat tours, faced debilitating physical injuries, and found himself in a frustrating operational situation. When emotional trauma compounded physical trauma, it seems to have produced [many of the symptoms he was experiencing].
Did Tommy Prince believe that he failed to meet his self-imposed obligations towards his fellow Indigenous Peoples? Did he lose his identity as a strong Indigenous soldier? Did Canada’s failure to accept him as an equal tear him apart?
Why do we remember Tommy Prince?
[At his funeral] Beryl and Beverly Prince, Tommy’s daughters, shed tears. When the officer in charge presented Beverly with the Canadian flag, which had been draped over the coffin, the flow of tears increased. Who were all these military and civilian strangers, honouring her father with apparent sadness and great respect? Where had they been these past years when her father, crippled from machine-gun wounds, was forced to do menial jobs to stay alive? Were the honour and respect given only after his death? Did these people care, or was this just a colourful performance?
We do not have answers to these questions, but we remember Tommy Prince for all that he was and is.
We show respect for a man who fought to achieve equality for his People with such ferocity he drove himself into physical and psychological ruin.
We acknowledge the burden that Tommy Prince carried as he fought to walk in two worlds for all of us.
We commemorate Tommy Prince as a symbol of the true history of Canada. On one hand, a history of a strong and honourable nation; and on the other hand, inequality, discrimination and racism perpetrated against the same group we remember as heroes. A truly strong nation can celebrate its successes, reconcile with its harmful past, and make the necessary changes to move forward towards a more just future.
Finally, we remember Tommy Prince as we look towards a future of genuine equality in the hope that each of us can carry some of his burden.
Until next time,
 P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “Remembering Sergeant Thomas George Prince” (2007) 1:1 J of Historical Biography 26.  Ibid at 28.  Ibid.  Aimée Craft, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnabe Understanding of Treaty One, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013) at 50.  Ibid at 41.  Lackenbauer, supra note 1 at 28.  Ibid at 29.  Ibid at 29-30.  Ibid at 27.  Ibid at 32-34.  Ibid at 34-38.  Ibid at 36.  Ibid at 30-31.  Ibid at 34.  Ibid at 34.  Ibid at 36 (quoting the award citation in “Pte. Thomas Prince Citation Is Released” (27 December 1944) Winnipeg Free Press, 16).  Ibid at 39.  Ibid at 31.  Ibid at 43.  Ibid at 41.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid at 43.  Ibid at 46.  Ibid at 49-50.  Ibid at 51-52.  Ibid at 53 (quoting a fellow Indigenous soldier who served with Prince in Korea in “Indian Veterans Remember: Allan Bird SL4779” (October 1989) Saskatchewan Indian at 5).  Ibid at 59 (quoting Brian Cole, “Hero condemns ‘punks’ of today” (10 November 1976) Winnipeg Free Press, 6).  Ibid at 58.  Ibid at 57.  Ibid at 53.  Ibid at 54 (citing Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).  Ibid at 59 (quoting D. Bruce Sealey and Peter Van De Vyvere, Manitobans in Profile: Thomas George Prince (Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1981) at 6.)