Memorial Day Tribute

Did you know John Thompson Prior?

I have been reading about the siege of Bastogne, Christmas 1944. The many enormous sacrifices strike me with awe. There was love and humanity even for enemies.

Most heroes never intended to be one. They were ordinary people who volunteered at personal risk to help others in difficult circumstances. Some circumstances seem more dramatic than others- but the truth is we can all be heroes in our world- notice, step up, and serve. This is one such story.


Jack Prior was born October 8, 1917, in the sleepy Vermont town of St. Albans, Vermont, by Lake Champlain, a town with less than 1600 people according to the 1920 census. Even today, it has less than seven thousand. Jack’s father, Thomas W. Prior Jr., worked for the US Census dept and the Central Vermont Railway. His mother, Pauline, married at age 26, and Jack was born a year later. By all accounts, Thomas was a hardworking Catholic, and Pauline, also Catholic, steered the ship. Jack was made to toe the mark at home, and while only average in school, Pauline destined him for medical school and made sure he did the work to get there. In his younger years, he was a bit of a couch potato, but in high school he enrolled in the Citizens Military Training Program

He gained strength and stamina, and a desire to enter the military. At over six feet tall, and with plenty of muscle when he emerged, it’s fair to say that the camp changed Jack’s life. He took up boxing, and then at the University of Vermont, he went out for the football team, despite never having played in high school – and he made it. He joined ROTC and graduated with the highest honors. His mother, Pauline, was not happy about the military – to the point that if he persisted in spite of his acceptance to medical school, she was ready to kick him out of the house forever. Jack bent to the storm that was Pauline, and went to med school, graduating with highest honors in 1943. At 26 years old, he insisted on his military dream, and this preparation pointed him toward an unforeseen destiny.

Jack had become engaged during medical school, but it wasn’t to last – his fiance wrote him a literal “Dear John” letter following D-Day. His decision to join the military, the war, and his absence overseas broke the relationship.

Jack’s zeal for medicine and the army, the certainty that he was saving lives and aiding his country left him little time to lament the loss. He was serving in the 80th Armored Medical Battalion, attached to the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division. By November 1944, they were in action, but Jack’s role was limited to the triage of patients and preparation for their evacuation to Paris. Then Jack was transferred to work with the 20th AIB, a British unit, as an emergency replacement for a surgeon that had seen too much war, and even more of the bottle. From that point on, and when he rejoined his American unit, he was constantly busy. The weather changed, as rain poured, then snow, resulting in “trench foot” Many soldiers returned from furlough in Paris having had “too much fun” and a roaring case of STDs. A bitter cold moved in, and with it, the cases of pneumonia skyrocketed.

On December 16, Jack was attached to the tactical unit “Team Desobry”, so named for Major William Desobry. The team was sent north of Bastogne to the town of Noville.

In Noville, the entire 2nd Panzer division consisting of 27 Panzer IVs, 58 Panthers, and 48 StuG III assault guns attacked. US Army at the scene was

“fifteen medium tanks, five light tanks, a company of infantry transported in M3 half-tracks, and a platoon of five M10 tank destroyers.”

King, Martin. Searching for Augusta (p. 37). Lyons Press. Kindle Edition.

The Americans were severely outmanned and outgunned. The building Jack set up as an aid station happened to have an ammunition dump behind it, making it a bomb waiting to go off – not that there was an alternative. They arrived around 11 p.m. in thick fog. Jack had about 35 men under his command. Within the hour, they came under heavy artillery fire, which continued through the night. Jack was soon busy tending to shrapnel wounds.

The Americans had more petrol – the Panzers were short on it. The weather changed on Dec 18, and the fog lifted, allowing more accurate fire from the Sherman tanks. But numbers began to tell, and by late the next day, even after the arrival of troops from the 101st Airborne, it was obvious what the outcome would be. Jack’s superior officer negotiated a thirty-minute truce. There were no more trucks to evacuate the wounded. The tank men came up with the idea of strapping the wounded to doors ripped off buildings, and tied down on the tanks, in order to evacuate them. Jack was resigned to becoming a POW, as there were no more vehicles, and electricity and water failed. The outdoor temperature hovered around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

A GI appeared from nowhere with a half-track, and Jack ordered him to help load the remaining wounded on litters as the thirty-minute truce ended. As he left, the SS collected villagers and the parish priest and executed them.

When Jack made it back to Bastogne, they set up more aid stations in pubs and grocery stores. It was Dec 20, and the number of wounded steadily grew, while medical supplies dwindled. Jack did amputations, in one case using his service knife for lack of other equipment. Due to the capture of medical personnel, there were few qualified nurses available. Two were civilian volunteers, Renee Lemaire, and Augusta Chiwy. Some of the troops didn’t want Augusta to treat them, because she was mulatto. Yet Augusta took the more difficult cases when Renee declined. Jack grew frustrated with the prejudice and informed those who refused, “Well, you can just die then. We don’t have enough people to treat everyone.” Both nurses worked days without food or sleep. Jack was called out to rescue a group of four paratroopers outside Bastogne. He invited Renee, but she refused. Augusta went with him. German snipers zeroed in on the Red Cross on his helmet, and other troops kept up a steady fire on him and Augusta as they treated and loaded the soldiers on a half-track. Two of the wounded were German soldiers – Jack and Augusta offered them treatment as well, but were refused – they didn’t want a black woman touching them.

When Augusta got back to the aid station, she noticed holes in her gabardine where machine gun bullets had missed her legs. She laughed and told Jack she never liked that dress anyway, donning an American medic’s uniform.

The situation continued to deteriorate, leading to the encirclement of Bastogne, the German demand for surrender, and the American General MacAuliffe’s famous reply of, “Nuts!”. Then the weather cleared, and American C47s braved anti-aircraft fire to drop supplies on the surrounded American troops. With resupply, the 101st Airborne was known to remark, “Hell, we didn’t need rescuing. We could have held out another two months.”

On Christmas Day, Adolf Hitler personally ordered an airstrike on the town. Jack had just stepped out of the aid station and with a buddy engaged in a small celebration during the lull, drinking a glass of champagne. The ominous buzz of planes grew louder – but most assumed it was more American C47s dropping supplies. When the incendiary bombs hit, lighting the sky and turning everything into a hellish inferno, Jack happened to be outdoors. Renee Lemaire, now lauded as “The Angel of Bastogne”, had just gone back into the building. German bombers cared nothing for the Geneva Convention and bombed the aid station and hospitals in the area. Augusta was blown through a brick wall and buried under rubble. Renee was blown in half.

When the smoke cleared, Jack worked with a few men to clear rubble and rescue survivors, many of whom could be heard screaming for help. A basement window was located, and a private volunteered to go into the burning building, pulling out three or four men and handing them off to Jack. Then the entire building collapsed.

Jack dug through rubble and found a hand sticking out – a black hand. He pulled Augusta out from the fallen bricks and found her alive. He also located Renee Lemaire, blown in half. Renee had wanted an American parachute, to use the silk as a wedding dress, but she was always too late in getting to one. Jack used his rank and connections – he had one wrapped for her as a Christmas present when the bombing came. He wrapped her body in it and delivered it to her parents.

There are many other stories of heroism involving Jack, the two nurses, and so many others in the bloodiest battle of World War 2. For more on this topic, I recommend Martin King’s excellent books, Voices of the Bulge and Searching for Augusta.

To all American military personnel, we salute you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.