The sound of bullets popping through air and piercing the water haunts Charles Norman Shay to this day. He doesn’t recall how many wounded men he pulled from the water while machine gun rounds streamed past. He doesn’t really want to remember that day when he repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea to carry men up onto Omaha Beach.
The 19-year-old Penobscot from Indian Island, Me., was an Army medic in the 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the unit known as the Big Red One. Shay had the distinction of being in one of the three combat regiments of the 1st Infantry Division that spearheaded the D-Day assault in Normandy, France.
On the evening before the invasion landing, Shay had a surprise visit from a fellow Penobscot, Melvin Neptune. It seemed like destiny to meet someone he knew well from his small home reservation aboard an attack transport ship. “He didn’t trouble me with his combat experience, nor did he offer me advice. Instead, we talked about home, because he knew I had never been in combat . . . all hell was about to break loose on me,” Shay recalls.
The Big Red One sustained about 2,000 casualties, most during the first hour of the landings under heavy German fire.
With his eyes stinging from the thick smoke that engulfed the battle, Shay looked seaward at injured men struggling to get ashore, loaded down with equipment. Some were drowning in the rising tide. Without hesitation he ran into danger.
Armed with only his two satchels of medical supplies, he maneuvered around the fallen to pull the living up on the beach. He’ll never forget the smell of burning flesh, vehicles and oil carried on the ocean breezes.
“The seas were red with the blood. At the very beginning, it was difficult for me to witness so much carnage. I had to push what I was experiencing out of my mind, so I could function the way I was trained to function. Then I was able to operate effectively and even saved a few lives. I have always been proud to be a medic. It’s a special privilege.”
By noon, almost half of the soldiers and most of the officers in his company were wounded or dead. Up to 3,000 Allied troops died, and some 9,000 were injured or classified as missing the day of the largest seaborne invasion in recorded history.
Shay remembers cradling the critically wounded to give them some comfort. He stayed with Private Edward Morozewicz, easing his passing. In 2017 Shay visited Morozewicz’s family, making sure they knew of Edward’s bravery, and he participated in a special ceremony honoring his fellow medic. He still questions why he lived when Morozewicz perished. “I knew he was slowly dying. I bandaged his wounds and gave him morphine. But I knew there was no help for him,” says a somber Shay.
Seven medics from his regiment were killed on D-Day and 24 others wounded. “I am a great believer in a spiritual way of life. My mother’s prayers must have guided me.”
For his gallantry that day, Private Shay was awarded the Silver Star. In 2007 French President Nicolas Sarkozy honored him with the Légion d’Honneur. He is one of two American Indian combat medics to survive the war, both without any injuries.
On the 2017 anniversary of D-Day, he listened intently to the waves lapping the shore, remembering his brothers-in-arms who died there 73 years ago, as he performed a sage-smudging ceremony at dawn. “The ceremonies are my way of trying to take up contact with the spirits of the brave men that remain there.”
Since 2007 Shay has made the pilgrimage to Normandy nearly every year. Wearing a deer-hide vest with the beaded design of a turtle on the back, he fans the smoke, created from burning tobacco, sage and sweetgrass, gently with an eagle feather, sanctifying the area.
“I bathe myself in this smoke to cleanse my mind and my body of all evil, concentrating very earnestly on the spirits of my fellow comradesin- arms who are still there. I let them know they’re not forgotten.”
Speaking openly about his wartime experiences during his first visits to Normandy was a challenge, after being silent about them for more than 62 years. But the people of France eased his worries. “I was surprised to witness the sincerity of the citizens expressing their joy and gratitude at the liberation, after so many years. The gratitude was especially awe-inspiring and almost unbelievable.”
His 2017 trip back to the war zone was different in a special way. His nephew Timothy Shay assisted him in the ceremony, and the people of France honored him by dedicating a park on a bluff that overlooks Omaha Beach – to him and all American Indians who fought for the Allies during the war.
The Charles Shay Memorial immortalizes the 175 Native Americans who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Only 55 of them have been identified.
“Now, there is a plaque commemorating Indian soldiers who left Turtle Island to help liberate our ancient French allies. An estimated 500 tribesmen participated in Operation Neptune (D-Day), as paratroopers or as ground troops landing on the beaches…these brave men have passed into the spirit world. We will not forget,” said Shay at the park’s commemorative ceremony, citing the Indian name for North America.
The turtle is a sacred animal representing wisdom and longevity. It also is the animal Shay chose as a little boy to be his personal Penobscot animal. Sculpted by his nephew Tim, the park’s turtle looks out over the Atlantic, with its head turned west towards Indian Island, Maine, home of the Penobscot Nation, where Shay lives.
Charles Shay went on to see action during the Battle of Aachen, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. After crossing the Rhine on the bridge at Remagen in 1945, he was captured.
“My heart breaks for those women who prayed for their brave sons but never welcomed their sons home again,” says Shay wiping away a tear. “I can never forget the men who never had the chance to experience life as it was meant to be, a wife and a family, but instead were destined to depart this life in some far-off land.”
Shay and his three brothers served in World War II; two in the U.S. Navy and one in the Army Air Corps as a B-17 gunner. All survived. But for nearly two agonizing months, Shay’s mother, Florence, thought Charles had perished, unaware he’d been taken prisoner.
Shay said he would never forget her expression when she opened the door and saw him standing there. Tears of joy streamed down her face. “It was the only time I enjoyed making my mother cry.”
But jobs were scarce, and being a decorated Penobscot veteran held little weight. “While a good number of us were decorated with purple hearts, bronze and silver stars, when we came back to our reservations, we didn’t talk about our experiences. We weren’t asked.”
He reenlisted and served in Austria. He returned to combat as a medic in Korea and was awarded the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf clusters, again for valor in saving lives. After serving a short time in the southern Pacific, where atomic bombs were being tested, he joined the Air Force, before retiring in 1954 as a master sergeant. Then he worked in Vienna for the International Atomic Energy Commission and later for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before finally returning home to Indian Island.
As a child, Charles had to walk across the Penobscot River in the depths of winter to attend school off the reservation. His mother wanted her son to be more integrated with the larger community, so he dutifully made the trek in all weather, despite Maine’s frigid conditions. Years later, in Korea, those experiences had hardened him enough to face a Siberian cold front that descended over the Chosin Reservoir, plunging temperatures to as low as −35°F.
“It was bitter cold. Medical supplies froze – plasma became useless. To defrost morphine syrettes, we put them in our mouths before they could be injected. Frostbite was a major problem, killing too many men. But our mission extricating a Marine division was successful, and we were evacuated on Christmas Eve.”
In 2003, shortly after he returned to Indian Island to retire, his beloved wife, Lilly, passed.
“After 40 years living in Vienna, when I returned home it was like night and day. I had left a city with a population of well over one million and returned to a small reservation with about 500 souls. I’m proud of my heritage. It was always my desire to return home.”
But he couldn’t stay in retirement, as he felt it was his responsibility to step forward into the public light to make sure the sacrifices Natives had made during the wars would be remembered. In doing so he has become a tireless promoter of the Penobscot Nation, passing on his cultural heritage.
“We are very fortunate as a people to live in this great democratic land, where we enjoy freedom of speech and religion. Many other countries enjoy these privileges too, but some people are forced to exist under suppression and live under the will-power of a minority, which creates much unrest in the world,” says Shay.
“Our youth should always be proud of and never forget their heritage. They should always be prepared to step forward, should always protect our way of life and the land we live in, should another threaten us.”
Shay went on to write Project Omaha Beach: The Life and Military Service of a Penobscot Indian Elder, published by Polar Bear & Company, an imprint of the nonprofit Solon Center for Research and Publishing. “My book is a journey into the past, a past that I would prefer to wipe out of my memory, but this is not possible.”
He also facilitated the publication of a new edition of his grandfather Joseph Nicolar’s book, The Life and Traditions of the Red Man.
“I’m trying to do whatever I can to promote my Native American culture, to promote what my ancestors have done. For a small community, we have many artists – people that do very fine beadwork, basket makers, painters, woodcarvers, sculptors, not to forget authors. I’m proud of our young people, many of whom have attained degrees. It is my hope that our tribe will continue to prosper and that we will eventually be treated on an equal basis, on the state/tribal administration level.”
A white-shingled teepee stands beside his house, erected by his aunt Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, known on the stage as the singer Princess Watahwaso. Shay has transformed the teepee into a museum he runs, preserving family and Penobscot history.
He remembers performing Native dances for tourists and giving them tours of Indian Island, while he was growing up. “I liked it, we earned money for the family.”
In 2009, Governor John Baldacci of Maine honored Shay and other American Indians by proclaiming June 21 Native American Veterans Day in the state. The date was specifically chosen because it’s the anniversary of the day the Wabanaki joined the American Revolution in 1775. The Penobscot Indian Nation is one of four tribes in Maine that make up the Wabanaki Confederacy. Shay is a direct descendent of Penobscot Chief Joseph Orono, who fought with General Washington’s troops in the Revolutionary War.
“We were second-class citizens in our own country but served this country faithfully. In effect, we were fighting to protect our own land,” says Shay.
“I know that bullets and shrapnel do not distinguish between soldiers of different racial, national, ethnic or religious heritage. But, I know that not all those who served and sacrificed have been, or are, treated equally. This day will provide us with the opportunity to remind…and to honor those who have served or are now serving our country,” said Shay at the bill signing. Looking out over the Penobscot River that runs adjacent to his home, Shay points in the direction of Normandy, France. “On June 21st, Native American Veterans Day, we will unveil a twin turtle statue to the one on Omaha Beach. The turtles will be looking at each other across the ocean, to bring our peoples together.”