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A 100-Year-Old Penobscot Veteran Returns Yearly to the Beaches of Normandy to Commemorate D-Day

On June 6, 2024, the world marked the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a pivotal day in history that turned the tide of WWII in favor of the United States and its allies in their fight to liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany. What most of us know about D-Day we have learned from history books at a safe, but respectful distance.

However, for one Penobscot man who turned 100 years old this year, that harrowing, early morning on June 6, 1944, on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, was a real and unforgettable experience, a story that not too many other WWII veterans have lived as long to tell.

Penobscot Native Charles Norman Shay was just 19 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He became a combat medic in the 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the celebrated 1st Infantry Division famously known as the “Big Red One.”

In 1943, Charles Norman Shay, a 19-year-old Native from Indian Island, Maine, was on his way to becoming a machinist when the teenager was drafted into the U.S. Army and became a combat medic in the 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the celebrated 1st Infantry Division famously known as the “Big Red One.” He had no idea, and “no fear,” of the fate that awaited him. As he told one reporter many decades later, “I just accepted it and did what I was told to do. I had no fear of being wounded or of dying. I just knew it was not going to happen to me, for some reason.”

Shay was assigned to the first wave of infantrymen who arrived aboard small landing craft on Omaha Beach―one of five beaches assaulted by allied troops from 13 countries, including America, the United Kingdom, and Canada. It seemed an impossible mission. On Omaha Beach, the men waded through deep water and then across a broad tidal flat, loaded down with weapons and heavy packs, completely out in the open and exposed to a barrage of enemy fire from concrete bunkers on bluffs dominating the beach.

In a 2010 video interview for the Veterans History Project through the Library of Congress, an emotional “must-watch,” Shay recounts in vivid detail the horrors and heroism of that day. By taking cover behind iron posts erected by the Germans, Shay made it to the beachhead safely and began treating wounded soldiers immediately. He noticed the tide coming in quickly and saw men struggling to get ashore, trying to dodge bullets and stay alive. “I saw many wounded men floundering in the water who could not help themselves. I knew if no one went to help them, they were doomed to die; they would drown.”

The young Army medic did the unimaginable. He left the safety of the onshore embankment and crawled on his belly back into danger to pull men out of the water, one after another, while bullets from machine guns and rifles pierced the water and sand around him, miraculously missing him―as though he was cloaked in a protective shell, like a sea turtle. “I pulled as many men out as possible until I became exhausted, took a short rest, and did it again. I don’t know where the strength came from.”

Shay also served in the Korean War as a combat medic and was promoted to master sergeant. He retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve, his final tour of duty.

The National D-Day Memorial Foundation estimates that 4,414 U.S. and allied soldiers lost their lives during the Omaha Beach invasion that fateful morning, and many thousands more were injured or deemed missing. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, 175 Native Americans landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day; however, only 55 have been identified. Shay does not know how many men he saved, but casualties would have been higher had it not been for the heroism and courage of Private Charles Norman Shay.

Many decades later, during the 2010 Library of Congress interview, this vivid recounting of the D-Day landings still brings tears to the Penobscot elder’s eyes, as he recalls painfully that “the ocean was red with blood from wounded and dead soldiers.”

But his journey as a soldier was far from over when he left the Normandy coast. For the next 11 months, the brave medic marched onward across Europe with his “nearly decimated” F Company, fighting many more battles against the Germans, including the Battle of the Bulge, through summer, fall, and a brutal winter, treating wounded and frostbitten soldiers.

In March of 1945, Private Shay was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. Although fed only a daily ration of pea soup and bread, he insists that he was treated humanely, as food was scarce all around. Nearly three weeks later, Shay was rescued by the Americans.  Later, he was honorably discharged and shipped back to the United States.

Like many vets returning from war, Shay had a difficult time trying to find work on and off the reservation. So he reenlisted in the Army in 1946 and was sent to Vienna where he met his future wife, an Austrian woman named Lilli Bolarth, with whom he had a son. He later served in the Korean War as a combat medic and was promoted to master sergeant, earning the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters. In 1964, after 20 dedicated years in the military, Shay retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve, his final tour of duty.

He recalls with pride and an equal measure of awe, “I went through two wars and was never wounded once.” What gave him great strength, he believes, were his Native mother’s prayers that he carried with him in his heart.

For his extraordinary heroism on D-Day, Shay was awarded the Silver Star, the United States’ third-highest honor for valor; and in 2007, France’s President Sarkozy personally inducted him into the Legion of Honour as a chevalier, or knight―the highest honor given by France for “serving France or the ideals it upholds.”

His yearly pilgrimage to Omaha Beach

Every June 6th since 2007, Shay has returned to Omaha Beach in France, at his own expense, to honor the men―his comrades-in-arms, who fought and died on D-Day―through ceremonies, celebrations, and a quiet, prayerful burning and smudging of tobacco and sage at dawn.

Shay poses with troops on Omaha Beach in 2022.

As he explains in American Indian magazine, “The ceremonies are my way of trying to take up contact with the spirits of the brave men that remain there … to let them know they’re not forgotten.” A few years ago, Shay passed the torch of this remembrance ceremony to a Native Gulf War veteran, Julia Kelly, of the Crow Tribe, who led the ceremony this year at the Shay memorial garden on Omaha Beach.

The D-Day commemorations this year were especially meaningful. Not only did they mark 80 years since the Normandy invasion, but also, 2024 could have been the last time many surviving veterans will be able to attend these annual events due to their advanced ages. American and Delta Airlines showed their respect for these soldiers by flying more than a hundred WWII veterans to France for the commemoration, free of charge.

Dignitaries from all over the world attended the solemn D-Day ceremonies that took place throughout France, including President Biden and France’s President Macron―who invited Shay to join him in Paris on May 8th for the Victory in Europe (VE) Day, another landmark day that commemorates WWII coming to an end in 1945.

This year, Shay was invited by France’s President Macron to join him at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on May 8th for the Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

“I appreciated the invitation of President Macron at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on VE Day and was honored to be invited. I was happy to speak for a few minutes with him. He recognized the First Infantry Division insignia I was wearing and told me we would see each other again on June 6th at the U.S. war cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer,” recalls Shay of that memorable meeting, where he also handed a card to the French president with a summary of his military life.

Shay was the guest of honor for the annual nine-day event with the Charles Norman Shay Delegation. Hundreds of invited guests to this meticulously planned, multi-day remembrance included active-duty soldiers, WWII veterans, generals, colonels and other international military brass, and a special delegation of Native Americans from various tribes, including the Comanche Nation.

Tribal members made the long journey across the Atlantic to honor a fellow Comanche, Corporal Johnnie Rivas, a paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines on D-Day and was shot dead, making him the “first known Comanche to die fighting for the U.S. military,” according to the American Legion.

Unfortunately, Shay was too tired this year to attend all the planned events, including the official ceremony on June 6th. Nevertheless, as one of his close friends tells First Nations, “His presence was felt, and his spirit was guiding, at all of them.”

Highlights from the remembrance week included active-duty soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division meeting Shay during the beach tours, and spending time with him at a reception in their honor; daily ceremonies at select venues, private dinners in palaces, parades, a military music festival, and a guided battlefield tour of each place along the Normandy campaign where a Native soldier fought like a warrior and was killed.

At the Liberty Prize ceremony, a special video was played for thousands of people in attendance to honor Shay, who turned 100 years old on June 27th.

A special friendship with a First Nations donor

Military historian Paul Herbert met Charles Norman Shay in 2007 when Herbert was the executive director of the First Division Museum, the Illinois-based organization dedicated to the 1st Infantry Division, a U.S. Army unit that has fought in almost every American war since 1917 to present day―107 years of active duty―and to which Shay was assigned as a combat medic during D-Day.

Paul Herbert, a military historian and First Nations donor, has joined his good friend Shay for the D-Day commemoration on Omaha Beach for the last decade.

Over the years, the retired Army colonel, who still walks through battlefields silenced long ago, acquired a greater interest in, and empathy for, “the people who have fought in wars and sacrificed greatly.” He wonders who these people are who served so valiantly, where they came from, and why they did it.

When Herbert heard about Shay returning to Omaha Beach every year to honor the men who died there, he was intrigued. “Why does a teenager from a reservation in Maine end up in the Army when his parents can’t even vote?” Herbert, a former professor of military studies at West Point and the National War College, thought it was such an incredible story that he sent a videography team to France to record one of Shay’s pilgrimages.

The two soldiers have been close friends ever since. In fact, Herbert became a First Nations donor because of the Penobscot Native. “I have great empathy for Native Americans and Native veterans, like Charles. As a historian, I know how terribly they suffered in the development of the United States.”

The kindness of a French businesswoman

For the last decade, Herbert has joined Shay every year for the D-Day commemoration on Omaha Beach, alongside French businesswoman Marie-Pascale Legrand.  As a young woman, Legrand attended President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech in June 1984 and became inspired for a lifetime.

Herbert, Shay, and French businesswoman Marie-Pascale Legrand visit the Normandy American Cemetery, close to where Shay resides with Legrand.

For more than 40 years, she has befriended and helped hundreds of American veterans who fought on D-Day. “Not only is Marie eternally grateful to these brave and heroic men. But also, she realizes that that day changed the course of history for the better for France and the world,” explains Herbert.

In 2018, when Legrand learned from a mutual friend that the then-94-year-old Shay, a widower, was living alone out in the countryside of Maine, far from the closest town and hospital, Legrand invited the elder to move to France to live with her. She even remodeled her home in a small town in the Normandy region, about 12 miles from Omaha Beach, to provide him with his own living space. Every year, she works collaboratively with Shay and Herbert to plan the nine-day-long D-Day commemoration for the Charles Norman Shay delegation, with a welcome dinner at her spacious 18th-century French farmhouse.

Legrand’s book on Shay was released in May 2024.

Determined to preserve Shay’s legacy, the 62-year-old Legrand―who Herbert affectionately calls “La Presidente de la France” because “whatever she puts her mind to, she gets it done!”―has written a recently released book about the D-Day hero called “Spirits are Guiding.” Shay created the title to pay homage to both the Penobscot belief in the spirit world and to the lost souls on D-Day.

Few people know Shay like Herbert and Legrand. When asked what he could tell us about the WWII veteran that not many people know, Herbert replied: “Charles is one of the most engaging and humble people you will ever meet. He likes fine food and wine and is a meticulous dresser. A dapper gentleman, he will not come downstairs from his apartment until he is properly dressed.”

For someone who has seen too many men die in combat and once said sadly, but understandably, about his time in war, “I tried not to make close friends. I kept to myself,” Charles Norman Shay has finally found forever friendships with an unlikely pair―a military historian and a businesswoman from France.

Dedicated to honoring other Native veterans

On Indian Island, home to the Penobscot Tribe of Maine where Shay was born and raised, a stone turtle gazes out across the Atlantic Ocean toward its twin turtle overlooking Omaha Beach in a remembrance garden known as the Charles Norman Shay Indian Memorial Park.

The park was the brainchild of Shay and Legrand, dedicated in 2018 to the memory of the brave Native American and Canadian First Nations servicemen who stormed the five beaches on D-Day―an estimated 500, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Shay unveiled the granite turtle on June 5, 2017. It overlooks Omaha Beach and faces west toward its twin turtle on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine. Photo credit: Destination WWII

The turtles were sculpted by Shay’s nephew, Timothy Shay, and serve as fitting symbols for a 100-year-old Penobscot elder who once withstood the brutal, incessant shelling of the Germans on D-Day with an otherworldly protective shell of his own.

Like a turtle, Shay personifies resilience, perseverance, and longevity.

After his military service, Shay rededicated himself to helping other Native American veterans. He worked closely with the governor of Maine in 2009 to establish June 21st as Native American Veterans Day―the first state in the country to set aside a day to honor the many Native men and women who have fought in American wars.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Norman Shay, a 100-year-old warrior who, thankfully, continues to tell his unbelievable life story and remind us of the heroism and bravery of the more than 4,000 U.S. and allied soldiers lost on the beach that grim morning in Normandy.

But as his loyal friend Herbert, the military historian, says, “D-Day was very dramatic and very important to history. It changed Charles’ life―and the entire world. But Charles, who everyone loves, is much more than June 6, 1944. His has been a lifetime of service to his country, his tribe, and his fellow veterans.”

Penobscot elder and warrior Charles Norman Shay turned 100 years old on June 27, 2024.