Charles Norman Shay’s Job in Normandy Was to Save Lives


Shay, a member of the Penobscot Nation, served with the first Infantry Division as a fight medic and landed within the first wave at Omaha Seashore.

BORN IN 1924 in Bristol, Connecticut, Charles Norman Shay is a tribal elder with the Penobscot Nation and grew up on the reservation on Indian Island, Maine. Drafted as a medic into the sixteenth Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in 1943, Shay’s introduction to fight got here when he landed within the first wave at Omaha Seashore on June 6, 1944. He was awarded a Silver Star for his braveness that day in rescuing wounded males from drowning and went on to see motion on the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He remained within the navy after the conflict; served with distinction in Korea, incomes three Bronze Stars; and has spent many years dwelling in Europe. Since 2018 Shay, now 97, has made Normandy his house, dwelling 20 miles from Omaha Seashore. At 6:30 a.m. every June 6 he performs a standard Penobscot ceremony by the ocean to honor his comrades who by no means returned house. 

You have been born in 1924—the 12 months Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native People born in the US.

But the proper to vote was ruled by state regulation—and Maine refused to provide us that proper [until 1954]. My mom was an activist who campaigned all through her life for extra rights for Native People; this was one of many issues she was combating for. She had 4 sons, however she didn’t suppose they need to serve within the U.S. navy if they might not vote.

However you and your brothers all served.

Sure. I used to be the one one of many 4 to serve within the military. I used to be drafted in Boston and despatched to Camp Pickett, Virginia, for primary coaching. As soon as I acquired into navy service, the White males knew that I used to be a Native American and accepted me as such. I used to be advised at the moment that I used to be going to be a medic. I didn’t select myself; they advised me what I used to be going to do.

How did you come to affix the first Infantry Division—the Large Crimson One?

I arrived in England in November 1943, and I used to be despatched to Bridport [on the south coast], the place the first Infantry Division’s sixteenth Regiment was stationed. I used to be chosen to be a fight medic with the regiment’s F Firm, 2nd Battalion.

You participated in Operation Tiger in April 1944, when German E-boats attacked a D-Day rehearsal within the English Channel, killing 750 People.

I used to be there, however my ship was not concerned with what occurred that day. We have been all advised to not speak about it or focus on it with anyone. The U.S. navy didn’t need the American public to learn about it.

Have been you apprehensive that your nerve may falter when below fireplace for the primary time?

No: I used to be advised what my job was. I used to be thereto deal with the wounded and do what I might do to save lots of them. This stored my thoughts occupied. I had no worry. I knew I might do my job as a result of I had been skilled for it.

How was the climate on the voyage throughout the Channel?

Very dangerous. The touchdown craft have been on the aspect of our troopship, the USS Henrico, and so they have been going up and down with the waves. Crewmen threw rope ladders over the aspect, and we needed to crawl down. The boys who had made it into the craft gave recommendation to these coming afterward, telling us when to leap as a result of there was the hazard that for those who landed on the mistaken time you’d break your legs, or you could possibly miss the touchdown craft and be drowned or crushed to dying.

What was it like exiting the touchdown craft at Omaha Seashore?

The Germans had put up underwater obstacles within the sea. The coxswain in control of our touchdown craft introduced over his intercom system: “Put together to disembark as a result of I’m marooned on an underwater impediment, and I can not transfer.” He dropped the ramp, and naturally we have been below fixed machine gun, rifle, artillery, and mortar fireplace. Of the lads standing on the entrance of the craft when the ramp went down, many have been hit instantly, and a few have been killed. Others have been overloaded, and after they jumped into the ocean they drowned as a result of they have been weighed down with machine weapons, bazookas, and ammunition.

As a medic I had solely my two satchels and a life vest. After I left the touchdown craft I landed in water about as much as my chest. I made my option to the obstacles the Germans had put up. I used to be utilizing these for defense. Many of the males who had landed have been doing the identical factor. I used to be in a position to make a touch for the seashore, acquired there, and began treating the wounded.

One in all whom was your greatest good friend.

Sure: one other medic, Non-public Edward Morozewicz. He obtained a abdomen wound and had a big opening in his stomach. It was a wound I couldn’t deal with. I knew he was dying, and he knew he was dying. I stayed with him and tried to console him and put together him for his departure into the long run world. Whereas I used to be speaking with him, he died.

Have been you stunned at your composure given your age and inexperience?

Sure, as a result of I had by no means been in such conditions earlier than. I used to be in a position to deal with the wounded and see males die. I don’t know the way I used to be in a position to do it, however I used to be. 

How did you deal with all of the wounded?

I used to be not involved with the diploma of the wound; I simply did all I might. A few of the males, in fact, there was no assist for them, however I handled them anyway and bandaged their wounds. Maybe later they died, however I didn’t keep round.

Describe the motion for which you have been awarded a Silver Star.

After I landed, I discovered an space far up the seashore the place the seas had come up over a few hundred years and washed up all this particles. I chosen that spot to deal with the wounded as a result of it was protected. I occurred to look again out to the ocean and noticed there have been many wounded males mendacity close to the shore. The tide was coming in very quick. I dropped what I used to be doing and ran to assist them. Most of the wounded have been a lot greater than I used to be, so I rolled them onto their backs so they might breathe; I reached below the arms of the others and pulled them to the high-water mark and left them there. I did this till I turned exhausted and needed to take a break. Then I continued. 

Did you come to the eye of the Germans?

This man in bunker WN 62 [Heinrich Severloh, who claimed to have killed hundreds of Americans from his perch overlooking Omaha Beach]—he noticed me. He began taking pictures and I might see the bullets hitting the sand round my toes, however he didn’t hit me.

How did the remainder of D-Day pan out?

In treating the wounded, I turned separated from my firm. So I connected myself to the twenty sixth Infantry Regiment [which had landed at 7:30 p.m.] and adopted them inland towards Colleville-sur-Mer. I used to be fully exhausted, laid down behind a bush, and went to sleep. After I woke, it was very early within the morning. I appeared round the place I used to be sleeping and there was nothing however lifeless People and Germans.

Did you discover your organization?

Sure—however my firm had taken heavy casualties and was not a fight unit anymore. We needed to keep and get replacements so we might be an efficient unit once more.

You confronted one other blow on the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in fall 1944.

I misplaced one other good friend there: an artillery shell exploded within the prime of a tree and shrapnel showered down and hit him. He known as for me. I noticed that he was critically wounded and was going to die. Again on the command put up, I broke down. I began crying and couldn’t cease. I used to be despatched to the battalion medical support station to recuperate. Just a few days later I returned to F Firm.

How did your conflict finish?

I used to be captured in March 1945 close to the German village of Auel not lengthy after I’d crossed the river Sieg—a tributary of the Rhine—as a part of a reconnaissance squad. I used to be held in Stalag VI-G, near Bonn. The Germans handled us good. They knew they’d misplaced the conflict, and I used to be liberated in April.

Funded by a group of Normandy residents, a bronze bust honoring Shay was installed on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach on July 4, 2020. (Gavin Mortimer)

Have you ever watched Saving Non-public Ryan?

No. I by no means watched any of these kind of movies. My mother and father invited me to the flicks one night not lengthy after I’d come house [in the summer of 1945]. The information got here up and the primary merchandise was in regards to the conflict. I acquired up and walked out. It continues to this present day. However I learn a variety of books, notably in regards to the 1st Infantry Division.

You got here by means of the conflict with no scratch, as you probably did the Korean Conflict. Have been you born below a fortunate star?

I might by no means perceive why I used to be by no means wounded both from shrapnel or machine gun fireplace. I’ve at all times stated that I survived solely by means of my mom’s prayers. 

This text was printed within the February 2022 concern of World Conflict II. 

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