BRUSSELS — A Belgian nurse who saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge at the end of World War II was given a U.S. award for valor Monday – 67 years late.
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Congolese-born Augusta Chiwy, now 93, received the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service medal from U.S. Ambassador Howard Gutman at a ceremony in the military museum in Brussels.
“She helped, she helped, and she helped,” Gutman said at the ceremony. He said the long delay in presenting the award was because it was assumed that Chiwy had been killed when a bomb destroyed her hospital.
The Battle of the Bulge was a ferocious encounter in the final stages of World War II. In desperation, Adolf Hitler ordered a massive attack on allied forces in the Ardennes, in southern Belgium. More than 80,000 American soldiers were killed, captured or wounded.
Chiwy had volunteered to assist in an aid station in the town of Bastogne, where wounded and dying U.S. soldiers in their thousands were being treated by a single doctor in December 1944 and January 1945. Chiwy braved the gunfire, helping whoever she could, and saving the lives of hundreds of American GIs.
The Nazis hoped the surprise attack would reach the sea at the Belgian port of Antwerp and cut off the advancing allied armies. Bastogne, a market town that was also a critical road junction, was quickly besieged.
The U.S. troops – led by paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division – found themselves surrounded. But they resisted fiercely, and the key crossroads was never taken.
During the battle, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st’s acting division commander, delivered his famous reply to a German surrender demand when he scribbled: “To the German commander: Nuts! The American commander.”
In the ensuing siege, Bastogne was heavily shelled and quickly reduced to ruins. Another Belgian nurse – Chiwy’s friend Renee Lemaire – was killed along with about 30 patients when a bomb penetrated a cellar where she was tending to the wounded.
Gutman said the diminutive Chiwy combed battlefields during the battle, often coming under enemy fire, to collect the wounded in the deep snow.
“What I did was very normal,” Chiwy said during the ceremony. “I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”
But Col. J.P. McGee, who commands a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, said that to the wounded soldiers Chiwy was “a goddess.”
“Men lived and families were reunited due to your efforts,” he said.
McGee said the army’s doctor in Bastogne, John Prior, had joked that the German snipers couldn’t hit Chiwy because she was so tiny. But Chiwy, who moved to Belgium from the colony of Congo before the war, responded that they were just bad shots.
Historian Alexander Omhof, who has dealt extensively with the history of the allied advance, also praised Chiwy’s deeds during the month-long battle.
Chiwy then received a letter of appreciation from Gen. David Petraeus, himself a former commander of the 101st Airborne.
After the battle, Chiwy slipped into obscurity, working as a hospital nurse treating spinal injuries. She married a Belgian soldier and had two children.
She was finally located several years ago by a British author and historian, Martin King, who had heard stories about a black nurse at Bastogne.