In 2007 Charles Norman Shay went to Washington, DC, to receive the Legion of Honor medal from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The medal has joined the others bestowed on him, including a Silver Star and four bronze battle stars from World War II and the Korean War, in his home on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Old Town, Maine.
As a young Army medic he had been in the famed 1st Infantry Division that landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach, Normandy. He does not recall how many men he pulled from the water while bullets were streaming past him. “We’ve all had our individual experiences, and none are more dramatic than the next,” said Shay, characteristically modest.
Shay was a medic who saved many lives that D-day in 1944 when 3,000 Allied troops died and some 9,000 were injured or went missing. Shay repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically-wounded men to safety.
His book honors all who served but it was hard for him to recall the past while writing it.
“My book is a journey into the past, a past that I would prefer to wipe out of my memory but this is not possible. At the very beginning on Omaha Beach, it was difficult for me to witness so much carnage and not be affected emotionally. It was necessary for me to close my mind to what I was experiencing in order for me to be effective at doing what I had been trained for. Once I had accomplished this, I was able to operate effectively and even saved a few lives,” said Shay.
Shay performed Penobscot ceremonies on Omaha Beach every time he returned to the battle site.
“The ceremonies are my way of trying to take up contact with the spirits of the brave men that remain there. I can never forget the men who paid the ultimate price that day, especially the young men who never experienced life as it was meant to be, a wife and a family, but instead were destined to depart this life in some far-off place they had probably never heard of while growing up. I perform this ceremony every time I return to Omaha Beach. It has to be a very solemn affair,” said Shay.
After Omaha Beach Shay continued on in every major battle until 25 March 1945 until he eventually became a POW of the German forces.
In the Korean War, he was a combat medic in charge of litter squads, later advancing to senior NCO of the medical battalion, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.
“We landed in North Korea at the recently-captured harbor of Wonsan. We fought a bitter battle to assist in extricating a Marine division that had become encircled in the Chosin Reservoir when the Chinese armies entered the conflict in the fall of 1950. It was bitter cold with temperatures dropping into the minus double-digit figures. Frostbite became a major problem. Our mission was successful, and we were evacuated by ship on Christmas Eve,” said Shay.
Humble, dignified, and gracious are other attributes that describe the war veteran, who is 89 — but seems much younger. His home is decorated with memories of a life largely spent in Austria and Penobscot artifacts.
Under his medals in a black frame in his study is a tattered telegram from the War Department to Florence Shay, telling her that her son was missing in action. Two months went by before a knock on her door in early May of 1945 brought tears to her eyes, but they were tears of joy. Her son was home.
Shay respects and honors his family ancestry and has visited towns associated with his French lineage, but he says that he is the proudest of his Native American heritage.
“I’m very proud to be a Native American, a member of the Penobscot Indian nation. I’m trying to do whatever I can to promote my Native American culture, to promote what my ancestors have done for the people of this small reservation,” he said.
When he returned to live on the reservation nearly 10 years ago, he worked in earnest to promote his tribe and pass on the history of his nation. Shay was instrumental in getting the reissue of a famous book by his grandfather Joseph Nicolar titled The Life and Traditions of the Red Man. The tall white-shingled tepee beside his house is a museum dedicated to Princess Watahwaso, the stage name of his late aunt, Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, who interpreted Indian music and dance.