Warrior Women, Home for Christmas
Bastogne, Belgium, December 1944
Merry Christmas to you, and to everyone you hold dear. God bless you, everyone.
This is a story of what Christmas was like in western Europe in 1944. Here is the story of two young Belgian nurses who defended their hometown of Bastogne, Belgium, serving side by side with U.S. soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. These two young nurses became warrior women that Christmas of 1944. This is what we know of their story . . .
In December 1944, two Belgian women returned to their family homes to visit their parents in Bastogne, Belgium for Christmas. They soon found themselves right in the middle of one of the biggest and most dangerous battles of the Second World War.
Renée Lemaire, 30, a nurse from Brussels, returned to Bastogne in December 1944 to visit her family for Christmas. Her fiancé was a Jewish man who was arrested in Brussels by the Gestapo earlier in the year.
Renée Bernadette Émilie Lemaire was born April 10, 1914 in Bastogne to Gustave Lemaire and Bertha Gallée. She had two sisters, Gisèle and Marguerite. Her parents owned a hardware store in Bastogne.
Augusta Chiwy, 23, also a nurse from Brussels, arrived in Bastogne on December 16, 1944, for a Christmas visit with her parents. That same day, the Germans launched their Ardennes offensive through a weakly held sector, 90 miles wide, in the American defensive line. The German offensive became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Augusta Marie Chiwy was born June 6, 1921 in the Belgian Congo to her Belgian father and Congolese mother. Her parents returned to Belgium in 1930, when Augusta was nine. Her father was a veterinarian in Bastogne. In 1940, at age 19, Augusta Chiwy went to Louvain, about 16 miles east of Brussels, to be trained as a nurse.
In December 1944, the town of Bastogne seemed safe in the hands of the Americans. Within a few days, though, Bastogne was suddenly surrounded by German armored formations advancing through Belgium. The Germans were punching their way through American forces, heading toward the Belgian port city of Antwerp.
During the German assault on Bastogne, Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy volunteered to help the American soldiers defending their town. They served as nurses at the military aid station of the U.S. Army’s 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. The battalion, commanded by surgeon John T. Prior, was part of the 10th Armored Division. The aid station was located in the basement of the Sarma Store on rue de Neufchateau in Bastogne.
Renée Lemaire worked with U.S. Army surgeon John Prior, treating soldiers wounded in the fighting. Augusta Chiwy cared for civilian casualties with her uncle, a doctor, until December 21, 1944. That day, Augusta volunteered as a nurse in the battalion aid station of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. Dr. Prior now had two nurses, Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, working with him and his army medics of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion.
In that bitterly cold December of 1944, Augusta wore a U.S. Army cold weather uniform when she went out on the frozen battlefield. Day and night, under fire, she and the army medics provided first aid to wounded solders. She and the army medics brought the wounded back to the battalion aid station for treatment in Bastogne.
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944, about 8:30 pm, German planes made a bombing run on targets in Bastogne. One of the bombs hit the battalion aid station, killing over 30 wounded soldiers, and setting the building on fire.
Augusta Chiwy was with Dr. Prior in a nearby building when the bomb exploded. She was blown through a wall, but survived unhurt, and continued to work side by side with Dr. Prior, treating wounded soldiers.
That night, Renée Lemaire pushed her way six times through dense smoke into the burning building where the battalion aid station was located. She rescued six wounded soldiers. When she attempted to save a seventh wounded soldier, she was killed in the collapsing building.
When Dr. Prior was able to recover Renée Lemaire’s body, he wrapped her in a white parachute. The next day, Dr. Prior brought the body of Renée Lemaire back home to her parents.
In his commendation report for Renée Lemaire, battalion surgeon Dr. Jack T. Prior, wrote that “her very presence among those wounded men seems to be an inspiration to those whose morale had declined from prolonged suffering.”
He stated that Renée Lemaire “changed dressings, fed patients unable to feed themselves, gave out medications, bathed and made the patients more comfortable…”.
Dr. Prior concluded that Renée Lemaire “cheerfully accepted the Herculean task and worked without adequate rest or food…”.
American soldiers bore the brunt of the fighting. The German Ardennes offensive caused more casualties among American G.I.s than any other battle of the Second World War. The furious battle also severely depleted Germany’s armored forces, which they were never able to rebuild.
The Ardennes offensive was intended to split American and British forces, enabling the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies. Another intended goal was to capture the Belgian port city of Antwerp.
The Ardennes offensive was Adolf Hitler’s last desperate gamble of the war. Hitler’s totally unrealistic hope was to force the western allies to settle for a separate peace, independent of the Soviet Union.
The Ardennes offensive was Germany’s last offensive action. When it ground to a halt on January 25, 1945, the offensive turned into a retreat. From then on, Germany fought only losing battles, defending their ever shrinking homeland, until the final surrender in May 1945.
Almost 50 years later, in 1992, Stephen E. Ambrose published his book, Band of Brothers, about the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in the Second World War. In his book, Stephen Ambrose makes passing reference to Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, under the name “Anna”.
Nine years later, the 2001 television series, Band of Brothers, appeared on television. The Band of Brothers episode entitled Bastogne featured a Belgian nurse named Renée (portrayed by Lucie Jeanne) and a Congolese nurse named “Anna” (Augusta Chiwy, portrayed by Rebecca Okot).
In the Bastogne episode, the Belgian nurses work tirelessly alongside American army medics, including Eugene Roe, to care for wounded soldiers at a military aid station. Historical accounts of Renée Lemaire do not mention an army medic named Eugene Roe.
After the war, Augusta Chiwy worked at a hospital treating spinal injuries. She married a Belgian soldier, and was the mother of two children.
Augusta Chiwy rarely spoke of her wartime experiences. Some historical accounts of the siege of Bastogne stated that Augusta Chiwy had been killed in Bastogne. British historian Martin King, while researching his book, Voices of the Bulge, finally tracked her down in a retirement home near Brussels. Hearing her story, he brought her to public attention in his book in 2011.
On June 24, 2011, Augusta Chiwy was made a Knight of the Order of the Crown. Belgium’s Minister of Defense, Pieter De Crem, presented the medal to Augusta Chiwy on behalf of King Albert II of Belgium.
On December 12, 2011, Augusta Chiwy was awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service by the United States Department of the Army. U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, presented the award to Augusta Chiwy.
On March 21, 2014, Augusta Chiwy was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor.
A documentary film about Augusta Chiwy, entitled Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne, produced by Martin King and directed by Mike Edwards, won the Emmy Award for Historical Documentary in July 2015.
Warrior Woman, Augusta Chiwy, died August 23, 2015 near Brussels, Belgium at age 94.
Bastogne, Belgium, Christmas 1944. Two young Belgian nurses, Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, fought to defend their families and their hometown of Bastogne, Belgium side by side with soldiers of the U.S. Army.
Honor them, and ask yourself, “What would you fight for?”