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How Penobscot Indian and Combat Medic Charles Shay Survived D-Day With His Mother’s Prayers

June 6, 1944 remains one of the most significant days in the historical annals of warfare. Everything, the fate of the world, depended on the allies getting ashore across a 50 mile stretch of beaches given code names: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches along the coast of Normandy in France.

If it had failed, there is no telling what the consequences would have been.

D-Day was a monumental effort on the part of the Allies to drive the Germans out and back to Germany. The Germans had developed massive and effective defensive systems along the coast and taking them was not going to be easy. Along with the Americans, the British and Canadians forces went ashore on those beaches against a fierce and formidable enemy. It was a desperate day, especially on Omaha Beach.

Troops wade ashore at Omaha Beach from a LCVP landing craft.
Troops wade ashore at Omaha Beach from a LCVP landing craft.

On that day, a 19 year old Penobscot Indian from Maine by the name of Charles Shay went ashore on Omaha Beach as a combat medic with the “Big Red 1,” 1st Infantry Division, 16th Infantry Regiment. You will hear him tell his story here in this video. He will say that it was his duty to save lives, not to take them. And that young medic saved many lives that day.

An aerial view of Omaha Beach.
An aerial view of Omaha beach.

Shay survived the hail of bullets that met them as they went ashore that day. He was able to get up to a spot on the beach to set up a triage and treatment location for the wounded. On several occasions, Shay, seeing men being hit, falling wounded or killed, and he did not hesitate to go out under the heavy machine gun fire to gather and, even though he was slight in stature, with the adrenalin pumping, he was able to carry some of the wounded back to the relatives safety of that position he had set up. He saved so many lives, by doing that and treating their wounds that day that he was awarded both a Bronze and a Silver Star.

US Veteran and Penobscot tribal elder Charles Norman Shay on Omaha Beach, where he landed on June 6th, 1944, DDay.
US Veteran and Penobscot tribal elder Charles Norman Shay on Omaha Beach, where he landed on June 6th, 1944, D-Day.

As Shay reports himself in this video, his unit suffered 65% casualties that day. He, like so many, wondered how in the world he was not one of them as he heard and saw the bullets passing by him and hitting all around him as he went out into the open for the wounded.

He says simply, “My mothers prayers were with me that day.”

Charles Shay Indian Memorial on Omaha Beach.
Charles Shay Indian Memorial on Omaha Beach.

On Omaha Beach alone, 2,000 Americans and another 2,000 British were killed, wounded or went missing that day, along with 914 Canadian soldiers killed, wounded or missing.

Today, Shay lives in Normandy, France and every year, he goes to the Normandy cemetery and performs a Penobscot Indian smoke ceremony for the spirits of the men there.

I think you will find Charles Shay, this Native American warrior, this medic from the Penobscot People of Maine, to be humble, soft spoken and proud of both his heritage and his service. His heroic efforts on behalf of the wounded and the dying on D-Day, June 6, 1944 matches the heroic efforts of the allied troops against the Nazi forces that profoundly important day.

The Veterans Site thanks Charles Shay for his dedication to duty, and for his heroic efforts on behalf of his fellow soldiers that harrowing day on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.

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