First Park in France to honor North American Indian WWII soldiers
By Ramona du Houx
Penobscot Tribal Elder Charles Shay served as a combat medic in the First Division Infantry, and was one of the first to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
On June 5, 2017, Shay was honored at a ceremony dedicating the Charles Shay Indian Memorial in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer Park, on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
The park features a bench, a large turtle carved out of blue granite (being unveiled in the photo above) by Mr. Shay’s nephew Penobscot Indian artist Tim Shay, and a plaque inscribed in English with a French translation. The opening line of the plaque reads: “In honor of Charles Norman Shay and in grateful memory of the 500 American and Canadian Indian soldiers who participated in Operation Neptune for the liberation of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”
Shay was only 19 years old when he struggled ashore Omaha Beach, as a platoon medic serving in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. The 16th Infantry Regiment was one of three combat regiments in the 1st Infantry Division that spearheaded the assault on D-Day.
“On the evening of June 5, 1944, I was aboard the Henrico heading across the Channel, when I had a surprise visit from a Penobscot Indian warrior named Melvin Neptune,” Shay recalled. “He didn’t trouble me with his combat experience, nor did he offer me advice. Instead, we talked about home because he knew I had never been in combat … all hell was about to break loose on me.”
“Only two of us appear to have survived the war without being wounded,” Shay continued. “We were lucky. Call it what you want, fate, destiny, angels, spirits or God. All I know is that my mother prayed for me.”
French and American dignitaries attended the event, including Penobscot Indian Nation representatives. Penobscot language instructor Mr. Gabe Paul sang the traditional Penobscot Honor Song, and Maine singer-songwriter Lisa Redfern sang her ballad written about Shay.
“I was honored to tell part of his life story in a song,” said Redfern.
Senator Angus King sent a letter that was read out. In it he wrote:
“While no words ca truly thank you for the courage you showed as a medic on that beach, please know that this park will act as a timeless reminder to generations to come that democracy triumphed over tyranny—than good triumphed over evil—because soldiers, like you and your Native American comrades, selflessly served and sacrificed in the face of great odds in the D-Day invasion.”
“The contributions of members of the Penobscot Nation and other Indian tribes who participated in this Allied invasion will never be forgotten. This park is a testament to your heroism and to the valor of your fellow service-members who fell in the line of duty, and I humbly join all those at the dedication, today, to express my deepest gratitude.”
Over the last decade, Shay has given many talks in France and in the U.S. about his military service and Indian heritage. On one of his trips he met In Normandy, Madame Marie Legrand of Caen in Normandy. Shortly thereafter, Caen launched an effort to establish a memorial park honoring all North American Indians who landed on the shores of Normandy on D-Day.
In 2007, retired Master Sgt. Shay made his first pilgrimage to Omaha Beach, and several other major World War II battlefields. During that trip, for the first time, Shay spoke about his heartrending wartime experiences, including being a comfort to many who didn’t survive and saving wounded soldiers on the beach that ran red with blood.
That same year, this Silver Star veteran received the Légion d’Honneur directly from President Nicolas Sarkozy at the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC., for his heroic duty to France.
Every year since 2007 he returns to pay tribute to his fallen comrades on the beach in Normandy, where he performs a Native American sage ceremony. (the photo above shows the set up for the ceramony. The book cover shows the ceramony in progress)
Governor John Baldacci honored him in 2007, and working with Charles also established the Maine state law making June 21st Native American Veterans Day.
Shay wrote an autobiography, Project Omaha Beach: The Life and Military Service of a Penobscot Indian Elder, published by Polar Bear & Company.
Shay will turn 93 this year. Despite his years, during his annual trips to France, he’s also been re-establishing Penobscot-French relations that reach back to France’s alliance with Maine Indians in the colonial period.
Shay is a direct descendent of the French military officer and aristocrat Baron de St. Castin, for whom the small seaport of Castine, Maine, is named, and his Penobscot Indian wife, Pidianiske, the daughter of the famous Grand Chief Madockawando.
Please visit his website dedicated to Native Americans called Indian Connections, indianconnections.org