Sunday, December 27, 2015

The lives they lived: Augusta Chiwy

‘‘I was just a nurse. I did what I had to do.’’ — Augusta Chiwy

MY FAVORITE annual issue of The New York Times Magazine is The Lives They Lived, a year-end salute to people we've lost in the previous 12 months. I'm often moved by these life stories and sad that some among them are no more — especially so because I didn't get the chance to know them and express my praise, thanks or sympathy.

In the introduction to this year's issue, author Jenna Worthas makes a comforting point: the internet and social media have combined to alter what we might consider as earthly existence, saying, "Perhaps the most profound side effect is that death no longer obeys any laws of finality." 

I rather like that idea. Here's the life story that moved me the most.

Augusta Chiwy

B. 1921


She saw so much and could say so little about it.

By Ruth Padawer

December 27, 2015

In late December 1944, as German bombs rained on the Belgian town Bastogne, an American Army surgeon named Jack Prior banged on the door of a local home, desperate for help. He had heard a nurse lived there. When a middle-aged gentleman cautiously opened the door, the surgeon asked if the man’s daughter could join him at the Army’s makeshift hospital close by.

Prior knew Augusta Chiwy was black — her father was Belgian, her mother Congolese — and he knew the American Army prohibited black nurses from treating its white soldiers. But he reasoned that volunteers weren’t bound by Army rules. And anyway, he needed help.

The situation at the hospital was dire. The only medics for the 50 or so wounded soldiers were Prior, a dentist and another volunteer nurse. The team had run out of morphine and bandages, and only one can of ether remained. Electricity and running water had been cut off by the Germans, who were quickly surrounding Bastogne. This was the Battle of the Bulge, one of the deadliest of the war.

Chiwy, then 23, was home for what was supposed to be a short Christmas break from her job as a general nurse 100 miles away. That post had not prepared her for what she now saw: gaping shrapnel wounds, broken bones protruding through skin, men shaking, screaming and dying, with no medication to alleviate their pain.

The other nurse, a white Belgian who couldn’t bear gore, focused on bathing and feeding the men. But Chiwy assisted Prior in everything, packing men’s intestines back into their abdomens and wrapping their wounds with ripped bedsheets. After local residents told them about a large supply of cognac beneath town hall, Chiwy and Prior used it as both antiseptic and anesthetic.

When Prior found gangrene on a soldier’s hand and foot, Chiwy, who was only 4-foot-8, gave the man cognac, then held him down as Prior sawed off the appendages with a standard-issue serrated knife. She and Prior also went to the battlefield to retrieve the wounded, as snow and earth flew up around them whenever machine-gun fire struck nearby.

Augusta Chiwy as a nursing student, front row center, at St. Elisabeth Hospital in Leuven, Belgium, in 1943. Credit Photograph from Martin King
On Christmas Eve, a 500-pound bomb hit Prior’s hospital. As the building buckled, 30 wounded men were killed, as was the white nurse. She would be called heroic and dubbed the Angel of Bastogne. Chiwy wouldn’t be acknowledged until decades later.

The explosion blew Chiwy through a glass wall, but she ignored her cuts and helped pull survivors from the smoldering heap. She then fled to her father’s empty home. The attacks continued as she crouched in the corner of the basement, shaking uncontrollably. Even after she crept out of the cellar, something inside her seemed to shut down.

With his hospital demolished, Prior moved to a bigger American military-aid station a half-mile away, where 600 wounded soldiers, many with gangrene, lay on a straw-and-dirt floor in what was once an indoor riding hall for cavalry practice. The handful of medics were utterly overwhelmed, so Chiwy joined them to do what she could. Besides, she adored Prior. Many of those soldiers were from the Deep South, and they recoiled from her, saying they didn’t want a black person touching them. Prior snapped back that they had a choice: be treated by Chiwy or be left to die.

Though Chiwy worked hard, she talked less and less. In early January, when a soldier near her was blown up by a land mine, she tried to scream, but no sound came out.

On Jan. 17, 1945, Prior left Bastogne to follow his division. Chiwy was devastated and fell mute. Her silence lasted two years. When she finally spoke again, she avoided discussing those days as an Army volunteer, even with her two children. It took her 20 years to return to nursing.

The historian Martin King had wondered who the uncelebrated black nurse at Bastogne was, and in 2007, he set out to find her. Eventually, he located Chiwy in a Brussels geriatric home and visited her weekly but for eight months could coax no details from her about the war: ‘‘She’d talk about the nice weather and the bad food, but whenever I’d ask about Bastogne, she’d just go quiet.’’ 

One day, she abruptly asked, ‘‘So, what do you want to know about Bastogne?’’ and Martin said: ‘‘Everything.’’ She said: ‘‘The corpses being stacked up outside the aid station. And the smell of death and blood and piss.’’

As she opened up, she seemed lighter, but waved off her heroism: ‘‘I was just a nurse. I did what I had to do.’’

1 comment:

  1. Wow - it dang near ruined her life and those ignorant guys tried to disallow her from treating her? For crying out loud - what an amazing woman - a real hero! I'm going to link to this unless you object - several of my other friends are sharing stories of women heroes.