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Christmas 1944

Warrior Women, Home for Christmas
Bastogne, Belgium, December 1944

Merry Christmas to you, and to everyone you hold dear. God bless you, everyone.

Christmas 1944, Belgium, western Europe, 75 years ago. Two young Belgian nurses defend 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 . . .

It is December 1944. Two Belgian women return to their family homes to visit their parents in Bastogne, Belgium for Christmas. They soon find 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, returns to Bastogne that December of 1944. It is the end of the the sixth year of the brutal, vicious, grinding Second World War. Renée is visiting her family for Christmas. Her fiancé is 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 has two sisters, Gisèle and Marguerite. Her parents own a hardware store in Bastogne.

Augusta Chiwy, 23, also a nurse from Brussels, arrives in Bastogne on December 16, 1944, for a Christmas visit with her father. That same day, the Germans launch their Ardennes offensive through a thinly held sector, about 90 miles wide, in the American defensive line. The German offensive becomes known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Augusta Marie Chiwy was born June 6, 1921 in the Belgian Congo. She is the daughter of a Belgian father and a Congolese mother she never knew. Augusta and her father returned to Belgium in 1930, when Augusta was nine. He is 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 seems safe in the hands of the Americans. Within a few days, though, Bastogne is suddenly surrounded by German armored formations advancing through the Ardennes Forest. The Germans are punching their way through American forces, trying to reach the Belgian port city of Antwerp.

During the German assault on Bastogne, Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy volunteer to help the American soldiers defending their town. They serve 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, from Vermont, is part of the 10th Armored Division. The battalion aid station is located in the basement of the Sarma Store on rue de Neufchateau in Bastogne.

Renée Lemaire works in the battalion aid station with U.S. Army surgeon Jack Prior, treating soldiers wounded in the fighting. Augusta Chiwy cares for civilian casualties with her uncle, a doctor, until December 21, 1944. That day, Augusta volunteers as a nurse in the battalion aid station of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion.

The 20th Armored Infantry Battalion has lost many of their medics in the hard fighting around Bastogne. Dr. Jack Prior and his remaining army medics are becoming overwhelmed. They are too few, and they are receiving too many wounded soldiers to care for.

Dr. Jack Prior is very grateful to have Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, two well trained, experienced, competent Belgian volunteer nurses, work with him and his army medics in the battalion aid station.

Soon after arriving in the battalion aid station, Augusta Chiwy is working in the surgery with Dr. Prior. She works also in the main room of the battalion aid station, caring for the wounded. Her civilian clothes become so covered with blood and dirt that she is given new sets of U.S. army uniforms to wear.

On those occasions when she goes out onto the frozen battlefield that bitterly cold December of 1944, Augusta wears her U.S. Army cold weather uniform. Day and night, under fire, she and the battalion medics provide first aid to wounded solders. She and the army medics bring the wounded back to the battalion aid station in Bastogne for surgery and post-surgery treatment.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944, about 8:30 pm, German planes make a bombing run on targets in Bastogne. One of the bombs hits the battalion aid station, killing over 30 wounded soldiers, and setting the building on fire.

Augusta Chiwy is with Dr. Prior in a nearby building when the bomb explodes. She is blown through a wall, but survives unhurt, and continues working side by side with Dr. Prior, treating wounded soldiers.

That night, Renée Lemaire pushes her way six times through dense smoke into the burning building where the battalion aid station is located. She rescues six wounded soldiers. When she attempts to save a seventh wounded soldier, she is killed in the collapsing building.

When Dr. Prior is finally able to recover Renée’s body, he wraps her in a white parachute. The next day, Dr. Prior brings Renée Lemaire back home to her parents.

In his commendation report for Renée Lemaire, battalion surgeon Dr. Jack T. Prior, writes that “her very presence among those wounded men seems to be an inspiration to those whose morale had declined from prolonged suffering.”

He states that Renée Lemaire “changed dressings, fed patients unable to feed themselves, gave out medications, bathed and made the patients more comfortable…”.

Dr. Prior concludes his commendation, writing that Renée Lemaire “cheerfully accepted the Herculean task and worked without adequate rest or food…”.

American soldiers bare the brunt of the fighting. The German Ardennes offensive causes more casualties among American G.I.s than any other battle of the Second World War. The vicious fighting also severely depletes Germany’s armored forces, and the Germans are never able to recover.

The Ardennes offensive is intended to split American and British forces, enabling the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies. Another intended goal is to capture the Belgian port city of Antwerp.

The Ardennes offensive is Adolf Hitler’s last desperate gamble of the war. Hitler’s totally unrealistic hope is to force the western allies to settle for a separate peace, independent of the Soviet Union.

The Ardennes offensive is Germany’s last offensive action. When it finally grinds to a halt on January 25, 1945, the offensive turns into a retreat. After January 1945, Germany fights only losing battles, defending their ever shrinking homeland, until their final surrender in May 1945.

Almost 50 years later, in 1992, Stephen E. Ambrose publishes 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 after that, the 2001 television series, Band of Brothers, appears on television. The Band of Brothers episode entitled Bastogne features 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 works at a hospital treating spinal injuries. She marries a Belgian soldier, and becomes the mother of two children.

Augusta Chiwy rarely speaks of her wartime experiences. Some historical accounts of the siege of Bastogne state that Augusta Chiwy was killed in Bastogne. British historian Martin King, while researching his book, Voices of the Bulge, finally tracks her down in a retirement home near Brussels. Hearing her story, he brings Augusta to public attention in his book in 2011.

On June 24, 2011, Augusta Chiwy is made a Knight of the Order of the Crown. Belgium’s Minister of Defense, Pieter De Crem, presents the medal to Augusta Chiwy on behalf of King Albert II of Belgium.

On December 12, 2011, Augusta Chiwy is awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service by the United States Department of the Army. U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, presents the award to Augusta Chiwy.

On March 21, 2014, Augusta Chiwy is recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor.

In July 2015, a documentary film about Augusta Chiwy, entitled Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne, produced by Martin King and directed by Mike Edwards, wins the Emmy Award for Historical Documentary .

Warrior Woman, Augusta Chiwy, dies 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?