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Seventy-six years ago, a young Army medic from Indian Island helped storm the beaches of Normandy and launch the ultimate push to wrestle control of Europe from Nazi hands. Now, his likeness will be immortalized on Omaha Beach.
On June 6, Penobscot elder Charles Shay’s observance of D-Day this year was a lonely one. While Shay, who now lives nearby in France, was able to be at the site of the battle, the coronavirus pandemic prevented other veterans and dignitaries who would normally be part of the recognition from traveling there.
“I am very sad now,” Shay told the Associated Press at the time. “Because of the virus, nobody can be here. I would like to see more of us here.”
It was a sad moment, and a sad reminder that fewer and fewer of Shay’s fellow World War II veterans remain with us. Their words and deeds must continue to be memorialized, so that we collectively remember and celebrate what it took and what it meant to stand up to the powerful, evil facism of Nazi Germany.
And so on that front, we find great hope in the news that a bronze bust of Shay has been added in France as part of the Charles Shay Indian Memorial. While America is embroiled in a necessary debate about base names, statutes and monuments in this country — and we’d emphasize the need for debate and community decision-making, not undemocratic destruction — we think the people who pushed for this recognition have found a memorial and a man that everyone should be able to agree about honoring.
Shay’s bravery on D-Day, and during his continued service in World War II and Korea, give us reason to celebrate. He was awarded a silver star for his bravery that day, when he pulled fellow soldiers to safety after he saw them wounded on the shoreline as the tide was rising, saving them from drowning.
“So I dropped what I was doing, and I returned to the water,” Shay told the AP.
“In such a situation, the adrenaline starts to flow,” he added. “It gives you strength that you did not know that you had.”
Shay’s interview with the AP helps memorialize his insights about life and war, just as the bust will help memorialize his likeness and legacy as someone who fought for what was right.
On fear, as he was heading to England from New York aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth: “I never had a sense of fear because I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
On power: “Some men cannot get enough of power,” he said. “And it still continues today.”
On the sacrifices of war: “Oh, yes. Definitely it was worth it… It was a rogue regime that was trying to take over the world, and the people had to be stopped.”
It comes as no surprise that someone who is now 96 years old and has lived through so much would have wisdom and powerful experiences to share. We hope that Shay’s words and deeds will not just be remembered, but celebrated, for generations to come.