Legion of Honor recipient, Penobscot elder Charles Shay, recalls D-day and Chosin in new book
BY RAMONA DU HOUX
March 26th, 2013
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. The young Army medic had been in the famed 1st Infantry Division that landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach, Normandy. During that D-day invasion, it’s estimated that up to 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.
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.
“You are a direct descendant of Chief Joseph Orono, who was an ally of George Washington during the independence war,” Sarkozy told Shay at the ceremony. “You are also the grandson of the French Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie, baron of Saint-Castin. And thus, the links that tie you to France hark back until the 17th century. In fact, you’ve been a Frenchman for far longer than I.”
Shay, a Penobscot tribal elder, 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 with determination.
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.
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.
Shay has also become an author, and his book, Project Omaha Beach: The Life and Military Service of a Penobscot Indian Elder, was just published by Polar Bear & Company of Solon, Maine. Recently, he answered questions about his work.
What is the most important thing that you would like the reader to take away from your book?
I think the most important thing is to remember that we are very fortunate as a people to live in this great democratic land where we enjoy freedom of speech and religion. Many other countries around the world enjoy these privileges also, but there remain some people that are forced to exist under suppression and live under the willpower of a minority, which creates much unrest in the world. We read about this unrest almost daily in our newspapers and listen to it every evening on our televisions.
You served in two of the biggest battles, in two of the largest wars. Your book honors all who served. When you returned to France, were you surprised at the welcoming?
In WWII, I was a combat medic serving with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, hitting the beaches of Normandy, Omaha Beach, at 06:30 in the morning on 6 June 1944. I continued on in every major battle until 25 March 1945 when I became a POW of the German forces.
In the Korean War, I 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.
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.
On my return to Omaha Beach on 6 June 2009, I was surprised to witness the sincerity of the citizens expressing their joy and gratitude at what took place in their villages, the liberation 65 years earlier. The gratitude of this older generation, in my age, was especially awe-inspiring and almost unbelievable.
What’s the significance of the ceremonies you performed on the beach?
The ceremonies that I have performed on Omaha Beach in late September 2007, and again on 6 June 2009 in the morning, are my way of trying to take up contact with the spirits of the brave men that remain there. It is necessary to sanctify the area where I perform by making a small fire, burning tobacco and sage, disbursing the smoke from this fire in the immediate area with the feather of an eagle. I bathe myself in this smoke to cleanse my mind and my body of all evil, concentrating very earnestly on the spirits of my fellow comrades-in-arms who are still there. I also remember the spirits of family members and my deceased wife.
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 and always perform very early in the morning to avoid spectators. It has to be a very solemn affair.
As a medic, you were bound to help everyone in need. Was this difficult after all you witnessed?
Yes, I like to believe I was a good medic. I was always there when needed. 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.
You lived overseas for the majority of your adult life. What was returning home to Maine like?
I spent over forty years living in Vienna, Austria, home of my wife. When I returned to the reservation in 2003, the home that I had left after graduating high school at the age of eighteen, it was like night and day. I had left a city with a population of well over one million, a city that was full of culture, a city of wine, music, and beautiful women, and returned to a small Indian reservation, population approximately 500. But, in all of my travels, I never forgot who I was or where I came from. All of my friends knew that I was a Native American who was proud of his heritage. It was always my desire to return when I retired. I have a very comfortable home on the reservation. Unfortunately, my wife passed away three months after our arrival.
Do you hope America will embrace more of our own Native American roots?
I doubt this very much. We struggle to keep alive our customs and as you say our “roots.” I think the opposite has taken place. Because of the rapid advances in technology today, the Native American has accepted and adopted more of the white man’s way of life.
What are your hopes for the future of your tribe?
For a small community, we have many artists. We have basketmakers; we have people that do very fine bead work, painters, woodcarvers, sculptors— not to forget authors. We are also very proud of our young people, many of whom have attained degrees in higher education. Some of our young people have positions with universities in and out of state. It is my hope that our tribe will continue to prosper and that we will someday be treated on an equal basis on the state/tribal administration level.
Do you feel that Native Americans are now treated as equals in the eyes of the people?
Much has changed since I was a child. We can accomplish more through education. This is all-important for our people and our culture.
What words of wisdom can you offer for the youth in your tribe and the youth of America?
Our youth should always be proud of and never forget their heritage. They should always be prepared to step forward, should always protect our way of life and the land we live in should another threaten us.