June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allies’ famed invasion of the beaches of Normandy. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Veterans History Project (VHP) is publishing a special series of blog posts revealing hidden facets of D-Day illuminated within VHP’s collections.
This post is the fifth in a six-part series, spotlighting the service of Charles Norman Shay, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation who took part in D-Day.
On a cloudy day in late October, 2017, my father and I walked along Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, as the tide came in. After some wandering along the beach, we looked for a place to sit and rest for a minute, and spotted a bench on a small bluff perched slightly above the sand. The bench was flanked by four flags, a beautiful stone sculpture depicting a turtle, and a small explanatory placard. The sign indicated that this memorial site was in honor of Charles Norman Shay, an American medic and a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Several months ago, as I pulled together VHP’s online exhibit on the 75th anniversary of D-Day and searched through more than 2,500 collections of veterans who participated in Operation Overlord, I spotted a familiar name: Charles Norman Shay. To my utter surprise, it turns out that the veteran whose memorial bench I came across on Omaha Beach had donated an oral history interview to the Veterans History Project in 2012!
Marveling at this coincidence, I immediately dove into Shay’s oral history to learn more about his story. Drafted into the Army in 1943, Shay was sent to Camp Pickett, Virginia, where he was initially trained as a surgical technician, though he would eventually be assigned to the role of combat medic. He shipped out to England, where he was quartered with an English family, and assigned to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. After months of training, he and the rest of his unit headed for Normandy, where they were part of the first wave to hit Omaha Beach.
Here is Shay’s riveting description of his journey from the landing craft to the beachhead:
Your clothes and your boots and everything become immediately waterlogged. You’re carrying heavy equipment, bazookas and all kinds of equipment. It was very difficult to proceed, when you’re up to your waist—up to your chest, almost. It was very difficult to make any headway. Any headway you made was very slow. I eventually was able to get into water that only went up to my ankles… the first thing I did was head for one of the barriers that the Germans had constructed.
At this point, he was concerned only with survival. Once he made it to the beach, he soon turned to assisting his wounded comrades. Many soldiers were unable to move out of the surf, and were in danger of drowning as the tide rose. Calling on strength that he didn’t know he had, he would pull a man to safety and then go back for another. For his heroism on D-Day, Shay was awarded the Silver Star.
In the days and weeks that followed, Shay and the rest of F Company moved further inland, heading for Belgium and the Siegfried Line. As fall turned to winter, he took part in the Battle of the Bulge, treating casualties and case after case of frostbite. In late March, 1945, he was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. Fortunately, he was liberated by the Americans a few weeks later.
Listening to Shay’s oral history, I thought back to the memorial that I had come across 18 months earlier. In addition to honoring Shay’s service, it also pays tribute to the 175 other American Indians who took part in the Normandy invasion. Nearly 45,000 American Indians served in World War II, representing the war’s highest rate of voluntary enlistment in the military. VHP has archived the stories of over 100 American Indian veterans of World War II, and is committed to collecting additional stories from this group through a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
The military service of all American Indian veterans will soon be commemorated through the National Native American Veterans Memorial. Located adjacent to NMAI on the Mall in Washington, DC, the Memorial will be unveiled in 2020.
Stay tuned for a special D-Day Story Map, as well as a new Experiencing War online exhibit, debuting in early May 2019.