Article by Peter Worthington. Would Canada still believe Tommy Prince is our most decorated native soldier or would Charlie Byce now be considered?
Oromocto (CFB Gagetown) NB
Toronto Sun, December 3, 2006
In the footsteps of the father
By PETER WORTHINGTON
Charlie Byce, a Metis who died in 1994 at age 74, is largely unknown in Canada.
Its a pity, for he was quite a man.
His mother was a Cree from Moose Factory and he was Canadas most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier in World War II, winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the Victoria Cross. Only nine Canadians, out of nearly a million in uniform in WWII, were awarded both a DCM and MM.
In the apple doesnt fall far from the tree category, Byces father (also Charles) a trapper/guide as a young man also won the DCM, in World War I.
Not only that, his father also had an MM from WWI not the British MM, but the Medaille Militaire Frances second-highest bravery award, more respected than even the Croix de Guerre. Only 55 Canadians were awarded the French MM in WWI.
That the military record of the Byce father and son is barely known, even by military historians and the National War Museum not to mention Aboriginal historians is an unfortunate oversight.
When Charlie Byce returned to civilian life after WWII to work until retirement at the pulp and paper mill at Espanola, he put the war behind him.
His brother, Gordon, and Charlies six adult children want that rectified.
They feel the wartime heroism of the two Byces unprecedented in military annals, as reflected in their medals is something all Canadian should share.
Especially as a tribute to Aboriginal and Anglo heritage blending in a common cause.
Canadas most famous Aboriginal soldier is Sgt. Tommy Prince, who died in 1977, and whom I ostensibly commanded in the latter days of the Korean war. Prince won the MM in Italy in WWII and a U.S. Silver Star while serving with the Americans in France. A Silver Star doesnt approach the status of a DCM.
Francis Peghamagabow, an Objibwa from Parry Sound, won an MM and two bars as a sniper in World War I with 378 kills on his record and 300 prisoners one of the most remarkable stories of World War I.
Another Aboriginal sniper, Henry Norwest, a free-spirited former rodeo rider, won the MM and bar in WWI and knocked off 115 Germans.
The above are all honoured in the War Museum where, if theres any justice and pride of country, the Byce father and son deserve a special alcove or presentation.
Yes, wed like to see my dad and granddad remembered, says son Rick who served in the army, while his two brothers were air force and navy.
This sentiment is shared by Ricks uncle Gordon, a retired Anglican minister and son of the WWI Byce, who died in 1957.
My dad talked about the war more than my brother did, says Gordon. Charlie mostly talked about it when he was with those whod served with him. He put the war behind him.
Ive mentioned the Byce medals to War Museum CEO Joe Geurts, who seemed surprised that a father and son had both won the DCM and MM. No other Canadian family holds this distinction. Likely no one in the world.
The National Aboriginal Veterans Association (NAVA) would also be interested in preserving the Byce medals, as would The Lake Superior Regiment museum in Thunder Bay. But the Byces wartime story is larger than a regimental museum and belongs to all Canadians.
The elder Byce earned his DCM at Amiens in 1918 when a company attack on German trenches was pinned down.
Although seriously wounded, Byce led a bayonet attack on a German machine gun post, killed those who resisted, and took 31 prisoners.
His son Charlies MM citation in WWII is testimony to leadership and courage.
On the night of Jan. 20, 1945, in Holland, Cpl. Byces section of five men was to cover the flank of a 24-man fighting patrol behind enemy lines.
The section came under fire from three sides, and acting on his own initiative, Byce located the source of the fire and attacked head-on using grenades and dispersed them.
He then came under fire from a camouflaged dugout, and again attacked and took a prisoner. Again, he came under fire that killed the prisoner whom Byce dragged out of the line of fire to obtain his unit identification.
While the main fighting patrol was attacked, Byce put in a flanking attack that killed or wounded all the Germans, and allowed the patrol to escape with few casualties.
The citation reads: Due to his magnificent efforts, the patrol was able to reach its objective and withdraw safely with valuable information ... his aggressive initiative and unselfish gallantry has been an inspiration to all ranks.
Thats Byces MM.
Six weeks later, at the Hochwald forest, C Company of the Lake Sups was ordered to take a group of buildings.
For those interested in what a recommendation for a VC looks like, despite being slightly downgraded to a DCM, heres what Acting Sgt. Charlie Byce did that March 2, 1945.
C Company attacked at 4:30 a.m. and was on the position at first light when intense enemy artillery and mortar fire knocked out their supporting tanks.
The company commander and all officers became casualties, so Sgt. Byce assumed command.
With the enemy entrenched 75 metres away, directing heavy fire on his platoon, Byce personally led an attack on the position and drove the enemy out, while suffering some 20 casualties. Byce moved from post to post, directing fire, reassuring the troops, maintaining contact.
When German Tiger tanks, with their deadly 88 mm guns, prepared to attack, Byce took the only remaining PIAT anti-tank gun and stalked them. His first two shots missed and, as machine-gun fire rained on him, he calmly took aim and knocked out the leading Tiger. The crew were shot as they scrambled out.
As four other tanks moved forward, Byce sought to get in position but was held up by fire from a farmhouse which he immediately attacked and cleared with hand grenades. Having no anti-tank ammunition, he ordered his men to let the tanks pass through, then opened fire on the infantry coming behind and forced them to retreat.
With tanks in a commanding position, Byce realized he and his men were sitting ducks, so he ordered the remnants of C company to withdraw and join up with what was left of A company. The Germans called upon the Canadians to surrender, which Byce refused.
It was now mid-afternoon, and as his citation reads:
Despite the fact that he had accomplished so much and had fought steadily under the most trying circumstances, Byce refused to stop fighting.
While his troops withdrew, he took up a snipers position and for the rest of the afternoon fired on the Germans and was seen to shoot 18 enemy, which enabled the Canadians to withdraw safely. Then he withdrew.
The citation concludes: The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this non-commissioned officer when faced with almost insuperable odds are beyond all praise. His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the regiment.
Francis Richard of Thunder Bay and S.F. Hogue who served with Byce feel he deserved the VC. Richard told the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal that he felt Byces Indian blood denied him a VC. Anyone thats alive from the Hochwald, its because of him, Richard said. He was the best soldier that ever left the Lakehead.
The Byce family, as well as those who served with him, wonder if his Indian blood didnt rob him of a VC in those more prejudiced times. Byces daughter, Janice Phillips, thinks her fathers medals on display in the war museum would be a tribute both to his bravery and native heritage: My father endured a lot of prejudice in his life, but never spoke about it and never complained ... my brothers and sisters have always been very proud of him and his extraordinary bravery.
The late George Hees, a former Conservative cabinet minister and WWII veteran had speculated on whether Byces DCM could be reviewed with an eye to upgrading it to a VC an unlikely gesture without precedence.
Another veteran who served with Byce is 86-year-old Hap Oldale in Thunder Bay: The Victoria Cross for Charlie? Of course he won it that day. I cant understand why he didnt get it. A hell of a soldier in a regiment of wonderful soldiers. Charlie couldnt have weighed 125 pounds, and was the wildest SOB going. As a fighting soldier, he was something else again. Good fun, honest and tough as they come. In a class by himself. Charlie gave new meaning to the word hero.
Byces DCM citation is so detailed and precise that it seems he was clearly recommended for a Victoria Cross. The citation itself is an historic document, initialled by the commanding officer of the Lake Superior Regiment, Lt.Col. Bob Keane; then approved by the acting brigade commander, Lt.Col. G.D. (Swatty) Wotherspoon; endorsed by acting 4th Division Commander Brig. R.E. Moncel; approved by Corps Commander Lt.Gen. Guy Simonds; okayed by First Canadian Army Commander Gen. Harry Crerar; and finally approved by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Its an amazing and unusual set of autographs, marking the progress of the citation up the chain of command to the very top. Both the MM and DCM were bestowed on Byce by King George VI at a Buckingham Palace investiture on July 13, 1945.
Charlie Byces actions that day are mindful of a combination of two Canadian VC winners: Sgt Aubrey Cosens of the Queens Own Rifles, and Maj. Fred Tilston of the Essex Scottish. In an attack, Cosen, like Byce, personally cleared several houses of enemy, and took charge of the attack before being killed by a sniper. Tilston, like Byce, was all over his company area during an attack and inspired his men with his cool courage. He was repeatedly wounded and lost both legs.
Of course, the Byce father and son medals, and their respective stories, deserve a permanent display in the National War Museum, both as Canadians with Aboriginal blood, and as peaceful men who were formidable in war, like many who follow today in their footsteps.
Was he actually nominated for the VC or his Worthington only surmising? If so, it is a good addition to the list I am assembling of VC nominees.
Who were the others to get the DCM and MM in the Second World War? We had one in the Calgary Highlanders, but I did not realize only 9 men were so recognized in the entire course of the war.