Early in the morning of June 6, 1944, Army Pvt. Charles Shay crawled down a rope ladder from a transport ship and jumped six feet to a small landing craft that tossed up and down in the unexpectedly rough English Channel.
Shay, 19, of the 1st Infantry Division, had just about one hour to wait in the boat before he collided with history on Omaha Beach.
He was one of about 160,000 troops who landed that day as part of the first wave of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe at Normandy. The D-Day assaults were the largest one-day amphibious invasion of all time, and eventually would allow Allied troops their first toehold in Western Europe.
But Shay’s mind was full of thoughts about one soldier in particular.
Through a strange coincidence, Shay and Melvin Neptune, who both grew up on the reservation on Indian Island, were on the same transport ship from England. The two young Penobscots had an emotional, tearful reunion on the ship, swapping news of other friends in military service and stories from home. They separated again for the 12-mile trip in landing crafts to the beaches.
Shay’s reverie of home disappeared as soon as he jumped into the chilly, waist-deep water off the coast of Normandy.
As a medic, he was unarmed and faced the noise and chaos of battle with just his wits, his courage — and his prayers.
“Explosions were going off all around, machine-gun fire, the bullets whizzing by your ear,” Shay said. “I don’t know how any of us made it.”
Back to Indian Island
Shay, now 84, is an upright, courtly man whose old-world manners seem a relic of the 39 years he lived in Vienna, Austria, beginning in 1964. He and his Austrian wife, Lilli, moved back to Indian Island in 2003, after relatives left him a house on the Penobscot River.
Though Shay made a pilgrimage of sorts to Omaha Beach in 2007, he has never been to one of the official celebrations in the 65 years since the invasion. That is changing today, with Shay’s presence at a commemoration ceremony in Normandy which is also being attended by President Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and other remaining veterans who can make the voyage. Attendees will pay tribute to the veterans and fallen soldiers at the beaches and the cemeteries filled with acres of white crosses. It may be the last large ceremony as the numbers of D-Day veterans dwindle.
“I want to go,” Shay said last week at his home. “Most of the men who participated are now over 80. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to another one.”
It won’t be his first time being honored by Sarkozy. In November 2007, Sarkozy made Shay and six other World War II veterans chevaliers, or knights, of the Legion of Honor. Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Inouye was among the honorees.
“You were part of the first wave on Omaha Beach,” Sarkozy said to Shay at the ceremony in Washington, D.C. “Several of your comrades were wounded, and you pulled them out of the water yourself. You saved your comrades despite the danger.”
On the beach
It was a long journey for Shay from Indian Island to Omaha Beach, perhaps longer than that of other soldiers. He experienced racism and discrimination while growing up in Maine, and his mother, Florence Nicolar, was an advocate for the rights of indigenous people.
“We were second-class citizens in our own country,” Shay said.
Out of respect and support for his mother’s views that it was unjust policy to require young American Indian men to register for the draft, but not allow them the right to vote in federal or state elections, Shay didn’t enlist in the Army immediately when the war began for the U.S. in December 1941.
He was drafted into the Army in April 1943, and after basic training was sent to a surgical technician school in Indiana. Shay and thousands of other soldiers then shipped across the Atlantic on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted to a troop carrier during the war. When Shay reached England, he was as-signed to his storied division, which already had fought in the North African and Sicilian campaigns.
“I was able to learn very much from them,” he wrote in a self-published 2008 book, “Project Omaha Beach.” “I learned how to conduct myself in combat and how to treat my wounded comrades under intense gunfire.”
It was a skill he used almost immediately. Strafed by heavy enemy fire, the men jumping out of the landing crafts were in trouble.
Some were hit right away, and Shay, the medic, could do little to help.
“They just sank to the bottom and drowned,” he said.
German soldiers were shooting at them from the cliffs above the beach, and it was all that the men could do to reach the slim safety provided by sand dunes.
“It was every man for himself,” Shay wrote. “Jumping into water up to our waists, weighted down with all sorts of gear, weapons and ammunition, plus the waterlogged clothing and boots, made it very difficult to make any progress toward the beach. … It was a miracle that any of us were able to reach the beach.”
When Shay made it, he started to treat the wounded by putting on splints and administering morphine.
Then he looked back at the sea and the rising tide.
“I saw that so many men who had been wounded were floundering in the water, trying to stay afloat,” Shay wrote. “The tide was rising very rapidly and many of them were doomed to drown if nobody came to their help.”
According to the U.S. Navy Historical Center, some units in the first wave of assaults on Omaha Beach suffered casualty rates of up to 90 percent.
In the midst of the deadly chaos, Shay went back into the sea, and hauled several men to safety, despite the unrelenting enemy fire from machine guns and small arms. He pulled them above the high-tide line, then went back for more.
“I don’t know where my strength came from, but I was able to do it,” he said.
On the beach, he saw a fellow combat medic he knew who had suffered a serious wound in the stomach. Shay bandaged his friend and gave him a shot of morphine — then said goodbye.
Shay, like many WWII veterans, downplays his heroism.
“I had a job to do, to treat the wounded and make them more comfortable,” he said. “Everybody had a job to do.”
For extraordinary bravery that day, Shay received the Silver Star award.
“Private Shay repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically wounded men to safety,” the citation of July 16, 1944, read.
“Private Shay’s unselfish heroism exemplified the finest traditions of the Medical Department.”
One last trip
Shay’s war did not end on D-Day.
He fought from Normandy through Belgium and then Germany, where he was captured by German enemy troops on March 25, 1945. The Army sent his mother a telegram with the grim news, but he was released a few weeks later.
After the war’s end, Shay received his discharge papers and returned to his parents, then living in Boston. He started working with the Boston Sears Roebuck mail-order department, but wasn’t happy. He then returned to the reservation at Indian Island, where he reconnected with Melvin Neptune. Although they were in battle just a few miles apart throughout Europe, Shay and Neptune had not seen each other again until their return to Indian Island.
But Shay was dismayed by the poverty on the reservation and the continued lack of the right to vote. Penobscots did not get the right to vote in federal elections until 1954, and in state and local elections until 1967, he said.
“It was then that I decided to re-enlist in the U.S. Army where I was recognized for my accomplishments,” he wrote. “It was difficult to be a Native American in the State of Maine and I saw no opportunity of this situation ever changing in the near future.”
He was assigned to occupation forces, and found himself working in Vienna, Austria, where he met a young waitress who reminded him of the actress Jeanette MacDonald.
“I knew then I had found the woman I was looking for,” he wrote.
They were married for 57 years, until Lilli’s death in Maine in 2003.
His adventures continued and included a stint as a medic during the Korean War and assignments with the Air Force Reserve during atomic bomb tests in the Marshall and Caroline islands in the Pacific.
Lately, Shay has been busy writing down the history of his family. One thing he didn’t do was discuss his war memories — until just a few years ago.
He started talking with friends Bunny McBride and Harald Prins about the war, and in 2007 they accompanied him on a trip back to the D-Day beaches.
There, Shay conducted a traditional Penobscot spiritual ceremony.
“It was a modest, personal event,” Prins and McBride, cultural anthropologists, wrote in the preface to Shay’s book. “An old gentleman in a beaded vest, making a little fire, burning sweetgrass, sage and tobacco, and cleansing himself in the smoke in an effort to sanctify the place.”
Shay stood on the beach and performed the ritual of the four directions and remembered the dead with a prayer.
“As I was performing the ceremony, the thought went through my mind that I would soon be joining all of them,” he wrote. “I was consoled knowing that all would be there to greet me when I arrived.”