Charles Henry Byce (1916 – 1994)
Few Canadians can name the most highly-decorated Indigenous soldier serving Canada during WW II. That honour belongs to Charles Henry Byce, who was born in Chapleau, Northern Ontario. His mother, Louisa Saylors, was Moose Cree; his father, Harry, a decorated hero of the Great War.
Charlie spent time in the residential school system, enduring the pain of racism and cultural suppression. The experience inflamed a rebellious spirit. He was only a teenager when he took the train out of Chapleau, and eventually joined the army in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay).
During WW II, Charlie served with the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor). Despite his slender build, he was fiercely courageous in combat. Byce was awarded the British Military Medal (MM) for leadership and bravery on the night of January 20, 1945, in Holland. His citation commended him for his “coolness” and “devotion to duty”. Just a few weeks later, he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for extreme bravery in the Hochwald Forest sector. On March 2, 1945, the Allies were still trying to break through the last lines of defence into Germany. Charlie Byce and his Regiment comrades were in heavy combat. All the other officers had fallen, and Charlie took command. At one point, under heavy gunfire, with few men left, and facing tanks without any anti-tank weaponry, Byce was called upon by the enemy to surrender. Byce refused, and kept on fighting. He saved more than a dozen men that day, including the man who was to become one of his closest friends, Frances “Popeye” Richard. When telling the story, Richard said: “Anybody that’s alive from the Hochwald, it’s because of him. He was the best soldier that ever left the Lakehead.”
The DCM citation concludes: “The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this NCO [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.” Fewer than 10 Canadians have received both an MM and a DCM. Remarkably, Charlie’s father, Henry (Harry) Byce, was one of them. (Serving during WW I, Harry Byce received the Médaille Militaire, the French equivalent to the British MM, and the DCM.) A father and son, each receiving a DCM and MM across two world wars, is unique in Canadian military history.
After the war, Charlie settled in Espanola, Ontario. He worked at the paper plant, and raised a large family with Frances De Grasse, his wartime bride. He was known as a quiet, humble man, who rarely wanted to talk about the war, even with his Regiment comrades.
On Sept 17, 2016, a bronze monument commemorating Charlie Byce was unveiled in Chapleau, Ontario. Funded in part by the Department of Canadian Heritage, the bronze was created by Northern Ontario sculptor Tyler Fauvelle (www.tylerfauvelle.ca) May Charlie Byce’s bravery and service inspire Canadians of all ages, especially indigenous youth, to create their own positive journeys.
Charles Henry Byce – YouTube with French subtitles
Decorated By Destiny – Veterans Affairs Canada Article
Byce Charles Henry – Native Veterans
Canada’s Most Decorated Native Soldier? – Network 54 Forum