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Film The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne wins Emmy Documentary – Historical award

10:07 29/07/2015
Producer Martin King talks about the “gem of a story” that reveals the wartime heroism of mixed-race Belgian nurse Augusta Chiwy

“I mentioned Bastogne and she clammed up,” says historian Martin King as he describes the painstaking process of encouraging Augusta Chiwy to recall the traumatic events of December 1944. The Antwerp-based British author had tracked down Chiwy to a care home in Brussels after hearing about her wartime exploits while researching a book. She was suffering from selective mutism and had never spoken about the war, her children told King.

After risking her own life to treat injured soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge, Chiwy’s bravery went unrecognised and her trauma undiagnosed. But King’s persistence paid off, resulting in a book The Forgotten Nurse and Emmy-winning documentary The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne. Produced by King, the film was released in October 2014, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Ardennes battle.

Although overlooked for more than 60 years, Chiwy made an unacknowledged appearance in the acclaimed TV WWII series  Band of Brothers. ‘Angel of Bastogne’ nurse Renée Lemaire referred to her as Anna, “a black nurse from the Congo”.  Chiwy, now 94, was born in the Belgian Congo and trained as a nurse in Leuven. She was visiting her father in Bastogne when the German army launched a surprise offensive that besieged the small town. It was to be the final campaign of the war and the second bloodiest in the history of the US army.

Through archive material, personal testimonies and original illustrations, the documentary provides a historic account of the battle and how 23-year-old Chiwy became caught up in unfolding horror. King’s quest to find the forgotten nurse is interspersed in the narration; a modern and parallel tale of triumph over adversity. After successive trips to various Brussels communes he finally discovered  her in a Jette care home. “I was teaching at the time at Antwerp University, but I would visit her twice a week, turn on a hand held camera and ask ‘How are you today Augusta?’.  It was about six months before I brought up the war.”

King’s elation at discovering Chiwy was initially offset by her inability to talk. “She was a deeply scarred woman and was very upset by the war. I was careful about what I asked her and finally she said, ‘ what do you want to know? The first word up to this point was ‘prior’.  I didn’t get it, and then the penny dropped and she was using the French inflexion for Prior, Jack Prior, who was the US army surgeon running the 10th Armored Division’s aid station in Bastogne, says King.

“What this woman experienced in one month is horrendous, life at its nadir. She was in a hovel, caring for the wounded, treating  haemorrhage,  with no equipment and little medication,” he says. It was her skills, rather than Lemaire who shied away from blood and trauma, that helped save lives. She assisted in emergency amputations and on one occasion accompanied Prior to the battlefield to rescue injured soldiers. While dragging one soldier, shot in the leg, towards safety, she survived a hail of German bullets. When Prior told her it was her small size that helped evade the gunfire, she retorted, ‘Oh, so they’re not going to see a black face in white snow? They’re just bad shots,’ ” recounts King.

Lemaire, 30, was killed when the aid station took a direct hit during a German bombing raid. Chiwy, escaped by being in a next-door building, although the blast threw her through a wall, says King.

Prior defended Chiwy against the racism that was prevalent at the time. “It was written into regulations that black nurses could not treat white soldiers and he got around this by saying she was a volunteer. He told soldiers, ‘ You either let her treat you or you die’.  Chiwy nevertheless suffered abuse. “She said to me that nursing was one of the only professions in the world where a black women could treat men with impunity.”

“From Prior’s diaries, I found out that they were deeply involved, which was risky, because of the army’s racial bar at the time.”  After the Allies’ counter-offensive caused the German army to retreat, Prior left Bastogne with his division. Chiwy went on to marry a Belgian soldier and didn’t return to nursing until 1964.

“One detail not included in the film is that when they separated he gave her an address to write to but she got a letter from the war office saying that he had been killed in action. She was absolutely heartbroken. But then in the early 1950s she received a Christmas card and box of chocolates from him in the States,” says King.

They kept in touch for 60 years, continuing to send chocolates to each other at Christmas,”  says King. The pair were reunited in Bastogne in 1994 for the 50th anniversary commemorations and spent some time together. Prior, who became a respected pathologist in the US after the war, died in 2007. “He chose pathology because he couldn’t bear to see people suffering and in pain,” explains King.

King’s admiration for the nursing profession runs deep. “My mother, wife, sister, and daughter are nurses,” he say. “That’s why the overriding theme of the documentary is about caring, it transcends every other consideration, religion race and age.”

He is delighted to win an award: “I’ve never won anything before and if I never win anything again this little trophy is the validation that I wanted. I will treasure it for the rest of my days. Thank you ‘The Emmy Awards’ for being so gracious and thanks to my wife Freya and all those wonderful expats who have supported and encouraged me throughout”. 

King’s campaign to gain Chiwy long-overdue recognition resulted in King Albert II making her a Belgian knight of the realm and the US army giving her a civilian award for humanitarian service. She has also been made a citizen of Bastogne. Chiwy is loving the attention and receives between 60 and a 100 letters a week, says King.

“She refers to herself as La Reine de la Magnolia, in reference to the care home. She has an edge on her this lass.  I love her to bits and she’s a great friend of the family. Now when I visit, she’s waiting for me and shouts out so loud you can hear her from one end of the corridor to the other.”

King’s commitment to Chiwy includes the Augusta Chiwy Foundation which encourages racial harmony through education with an emphasis on the shared history between the US and Europe. The foundation consists of a voluntary programme that organises lectures and screenings of the film and King spearheads the foundations work in Belgium.  He is currently looking for help in to promote the cause which focuses on two histories, the Congo and World War Two. “We need volunteers to get the film and book into schools, colleges and universities in Belgium and abroad. This is a great cause to get behind.”

The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne by Michael Edwards (US/Bel 2014, 94 mins. English and French versions).

Read about the Battle of the Bulge and the Bastogne War Museum here

Written by Sarah Crew