REVIEW: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne by Martin King
A brutal siege. A forgotten heroine. A war-torn romance. And a historian determined to uncover the truth.
Untold millions who saw and read Band of Brothers can finally know the whole story of what happened to American soldiers and civilians in Bastogne during that arduous Winter of 1944/45. In the television version of Band of Brothers, a passing reference is made to an African nurse assisting in an aid station in Bastogne. When military historian Martin King watched the episode, he had to know who that woman was; thus began a multi-year odyssey that revealed the horror of a town under siege as well as an improbable love story between a white Army medic, Jack Prior, and his black nurse, Augusta Chiwy, as they saved countless lives while under constant bombardment.
Based on the recent discovery of Prior’s diary as well as an exhaustive and occasionally futile search for Augusta herself, King was at last able to bring belated recognition of Augusta’s incredible story by both the U.S. Army and Belgian government shortly before she died. This is not only a little-known story of the Battle of the Bulge, but also the author’s own relentless mission to locate Augusta and bestow upon her the honors she so richly deserved.
The first I knew of this story was when I watched a documentary on Netflix. Learning that there would be a book about the subject, I eagerly checked it out. With the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne coming up, I decided now was the time to read it. Then I watched the documentary,Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne again.
To my embarrassment, I’ve watched “Band of Brothers” but the scene that leapt out at historian Martin King passed me by without my remembering it. In the sixth episode of that series, the 101st Airborne takes part in the defense of Bastogne and this is shown through the eyes and actions the platoon medic. In one scene, he takes a wounded soldier from the front lines into the town and comes across two civilian nurses only one of whom is featured to any degree in the story. He does ask her about “the black nurse” and Renee tells him she’s from the Congo but basically that’s it. Fortunately King was paying more attention. After King saw that episode, he began to search for this woman who seemed to have slipped from history.
The book opens with a little background information on both Augusta Chiwy and Jack Prior before they meet during the siege and then goes on to tell the horrors they endured while desperately trying to keep the horribly wounded soldiers alive. Running low on all medical supplies, due to the fact that the medical unit assigned to the 10th Armored Division had been captured by the Germans, and holed up in the basements of the town to try and avoid the relentless shelling, they worked in a hell on earth. They also took trips out to the battlefield areas surrounding the town when calls for medics to help wounded there came in, often coming under fire as they did so. WARNING NOTE Since the story is about medical staff dealing with war wounded, there are graphic descriptions of the injured.
Just as with the men who fought there, those medical staff who lived through this developed a bond that surpassed friendship or comradeship. In the case of Jack and Augusta, it might have been more but whatever it truly was, they kept to themselves after they separated when the siege was lifted and Jack reassigned.
Augusta’s life reveals the racism that was a part of life in her native Belgian Congo as it was known then. She also faced a more subtle version of this while growing up, training and working as a nurse in Belgium. Luckily for her, the occupying Germans didn’t conscript her because of her skin color. And even while working non-stop among American soldiers and some wounded German POWs, she was subject to verbal abuse from some who didn’t want to be treated by a black nurse. WARNING NOTE – brief racial slurs that were uttered are referenced. King mentions that he got several racist, anonymous phone calls from Belgians urging him to drop the search.
After a years long fight with Belgian bureaucracy, King finally got the news he’d been seeking – the location of Augusta Chiwy. During their meetings, King saw first hand how her nursing experiences still scarred her as well as how dismissive she was about calling her actions heroic. Then, slowly but surely, he and others began working to ensure that Chiwy received the thanks and recognition she deserved. Before she died in 2015, she was appointed Knight of the Order of the Crown, awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service by the United States Department of the Army and saw the Emmy that was awarded to the documentary about her and Jack Prior’s efforts to aid the wounded during the siege.
You embody what is best and most kind in all of us.
—Col. J. P. McGee, former commander, Bastogne Brigade, 101st Airborne Division
If you want the quick story and to avoid the graphic descriptions of the injured, watch the documentary. Though no longer available at Netflix, you can watch it on Amazon (free if you’re a Prime member). The DVD is available as well. The book delves into more detail, usually about what military units were where during the siege, and has lots of pictures and maps. B