Among the many thousands of Allied troops crossing the stormy sea to France’s Normandy coast on the dark night of June 6, 1944, were a few dozen American Indian soldiers–including Charles Shay and Melvin Neptune from the small village of Indian Island on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. Serving in the legendary 1st Infantry Division, better known as the Big Red One, they found themselves aboard the same transport ship. Neptune, a battle-hardened scout and rifleman, had fought against German enemy forces in North Africa and Sicily. Shay, recently drafted, was a nineteen-year-old medic newly assigned to the 16th Regiment. They talked about home until midnight, then said farewell.
Before dawn, Shay and his platoon boarded a small landing craft to Omaha Beach. At 6.30 a.m., halted by explosives and obstacles about 400 yards from shore, they waded in under horrendous enemy fire. Immediately, many were pierced by bullets or shrapnel, their blood staining the water red. “It was every man for himself,” Shay recalls. Having reached the seawall, he saw hundreds of dead and dying men. Braving a barrage of fire, he ran back and pulled wounded comrades out of the rising tide, dragging them to the shelter of a low sand dune where he treated them.
For his heroism that morning when his regiment suffered nearly 1,000 casualties, the young Penobscot earned his first Silver Star. Called “doc” by his comrades, Shay saved many lives on battlefields from Normandy to the Ardennes and beyond. After crossing the Rhine, he was captured by German troops, but survived the POW camps. Three Penobscots died in the war and several were wounded, but Shay and his three brothers made it safely home. So did Melvin Neptune. From their small tribe of about 500 men, women, and children, almost every eligible male served in World War II.
Reenlisting, Shay served in Austria, then distinguished himself as a combat medic in the Korean War, followed by a stint in the southern Pacific when atomic bombs were tested at the Marshall Islands. After many years abroad, he moved back to Indian Island. In 2007, the eighty-three-year-old veteran revisited Omaha Beach and other WWII battlefields for the first time. Soon after his story became public, the President of France personally inducted this Indian war veteran as a Chevalier in the illustrious Légion d’Honneur.