Skip to main content

This is Charles Henry Byce: The most decorated Indigenous soldier from the Second World War

Share
SASKATOON -

Moose Cree man Charles Henry Byce was the most decorated Indigenous soldier from the Second World War, being awarded both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

“Just to think that dad went from residential school to Buckingham Palace, where he was decorated by King George VI on July 13, 1945,” his son, Richard Byce, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.

Byce passed away in 1994 and on Sept. 17, 2016, a bronze bust of Byce was unveiled in his hometown of Chapleau, Ont., outside the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Charles Henry Byce passed away in 1994 and on Sept. 17, 2016, a bronze bust of Byce was unveiled in his hometown of Chapleau, Ont., outside the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Charles Henry Byce with two of his fellow soldiers (Byce family)

He earned the Military Medal for his actions during a fighting patrol while crossing the Maas River in the Netherlands in January 1945. His unit snuck across enemy lines in an attempt to capture and interrogate German soldiers. Byce took out several enemy combatants during the mission and managed to capture one. But his unit took enemy fire and the prisoner was killed. Byce, however, stayed behind until he removed the soldier’s identification and brought it back to military headquarters.

Only six weeks later, on March 2, 1945, he went on to earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal, after he single-handedly destroyed an enemy tank near the Hochwald forest in northwest Germany. Byce was forced to assume command after his superiors were killed. When his unit was overrun by enemy soldiers, he told his men to retreat while he acted as a sniper. He remained until his men were safe.

“Not bad for a little Cree boy from Chapleau, Ont.,” Frank Byce, Byce’s other son, said in a CTVNews.ca video interview. Byce enlisted despite his relatively small frame of 5’6” tall and 57 kg weight.

Photo of Charles Henry Byce with one if his closest friends, Popeye Richards. (Byce Family)

Byce’s accomplishments are especially noteworthy because 21 years earlier during the First World War, his non-Indigenous father, Henry, had also earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the French Medaille militaire.

Both of Byces’ medals are on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Photo of the pair of commendations won by Charles Henry Byce and his father. Both men won The Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal.

STOLEN BOOTS

The brothers explained that it was only in the last few years that they started to learn the extent of what their father accomplished during the Second World War. And it was even more recently when they fully learned what their father had endured and survived while attending St. John's Indian Residential School in Chapleau, Ont.

“My grandmother had seven children and at one time, there were six of them in the residential school,” Frank Byce said.

His father was only five years old when he was forcefully taken from his family. During a Christmas-time visit, Byce’s mother, Louisa, a Cree woman from Moose Factory, Ont., was dismayed when she saw someone had stolen her son’s boots, which had caused his feet to turn black and frozen. No one at the school had replaced them and Byce had to be carried by one of his older brothers.

Charles Henry Byce pictured with his children (Byce Family)

When Byce went on to serve in the military as a young man, he enjoyed freedoms and equality he hadn’t experienced while living in Canada, the Byce brothers said. But when he returned from the war, they said their father still faced many of the same prejudices he’d experienced before he left.

Richard Byce said it was disappointing that people were able to curb their racism while they were fighting alongside Indigenous men, but they hadn’t fought to end the systemic racism after the war.

“Because anybody that came out of that Hochwald Forest came out of there alive because of Charlie Byce.”

Statue of Charles Henry Byce with his sons Frank and Richard standing next to it. (Byce Family)

CTVNews.ca Top Stories

Group tied to Islamic State plotted fatal Ontario restaurant shooting: Crown

A gunman who is accused of killing a young Ontario man and shooting four of his family members at their small Mississauga restaurant in 2021 was allegedly part of a trio who had pledged allegiance to the listed terrorist group Islamic State, a Crown attorney said in an opening statement in the Brampton murder trial this week.

Local Spotlight

Stay Connected