A native American war hero gets the French Legion of honor award
Charles Shay went off to the wars more than 60 years ago and has now returned as a tribal elder, preserving Penobscot history.
| Old Town, Maine
In a black frame on the wall in Charles Shay's tidy study is a tattered pink telegram. It's the War Department communiqué that his mother, Florence Shay, received in early March of 1945.
Her son was missing in action near Remagen, Germany.
It was two long months before a knock on her door in early May brought any further news:It was her son, himself. "I walked in and there was complete exultation, tears, hugging. She couldn't believe I was standing there in front of her," he recalls. He'd been liberated from a German POW camp and sent home.
That pink telegram hanging just below his silver star and four bronze battle stars from World War II and the Korean War, is one of the more humble markers in Mr. Shay's odyssey from the craggy rocks of his home on the Penobscot Indian Reservation to a long life abroad. But it is a powerful one for him: It marked the end of the constant combat the young Army medic had been in with the Big Red One – the famed infantry division that landed in the first deadly wave on Omaha Beach. He attributes his survival – through the D-Day chaos in which the citation for his silver star says he "repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically wounded men to saftey" – to his mother's prayers.
Sixty-three years after his heroic actions that day, Mrs. Shay's son will gather one more honor for his wall. On Nov. 6 he will become a Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur. It is given for "emminentservice to the French republique." French President Nicolas Sarkozy will bestow the award – which dates back to Napoleon – on Mr. Shay and six other American veterans in a Washington, D.C., ceremony.
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Shay, a Penobscot Indian who now lives on the Indian Island Reservation in a house beside a tall white shingled "tepee," has a rather unusual French ancestry of his own.
He is descended from Jean Vincent d'Abbadie, the third Baron de St. Castin, a French nobleman who married the daughter of the Penobscot chief, Madockawando, in 1670.
Though he spent most of his life abroad – distinguishing himself for bravery in World War II and the Korean War and then staying on in Europe to spend a career as a communications officer for the Atomic Energy Commission – it is his native American heritage of which Shay is proudest.
He is a Penobscot tribal elder – and when he and his wife began returning in the summertime to renovate a reservation house he inherited from his aunt, he says, "I began to pick up where I left off. I became quite active in trying to preserve the history of my family."
When he returned to live permanently in the US four years ago, he threw himself into historical and tribal work. Today, he spends his time recording his war experiences for a tribal archive, and sharing his family history. The tepee beside his house is a museum dedicated to Princess Watahwaso, the stage name of his late aunt, Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, a widely known interpreter of Indian music and dance. He has helped to reissue a famous book by his grandfather, Joseph Nicolar, titled "The Life and Traditions of the Red Man."
"I'm very proud to be a native American; a member of the Penobscot Indian nation," says Shay. "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.
"I would like to see more recognition given to the native American veterans of the state of Maine."
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The next-to-youngest of nine siblings, Shay was one of four brothers to fight in World War II. The Shay brothers were drafted in 1944, along with 85 other Penobscot men and women from their 500-member reservation. Two of them served on Navy ships, one was in the Army Air Corps; Charles was a medic. They all survived the war; and Shay is the last living member of his generation.
He has a somber nonchalance when describing D-Day. German obstacles thwarted a close approach to the beaches, he says, which meant disembarking into waist-high water.
"Once they hit the obstacles, they dropped their ramps," he says. "A lot of men didn't even get out of the craft because they were standing at the front and got hit ... some dropped into the water dead, or drowned because they had all their equipment on them and were wounded and couldn't help themselves. It was every man for himself."
Shay went in over his waist and headed for the top of the beach to find protection from withering fire beneath the embankments – hundreds of yards from the landing zone.
He carried no weapon – wouldn't have had time to use one. He was preoccupied with "treating and comforting the wounded anyway I could.... If the men were wounded and couldn't help themselves, they would drown." He has no recollection of the number of men he pulled from the water. And he's characteristically modest about that: "We've all had our individual experiences, and none are more dramatic than the next."
The invasion chaos turned into a coherent military campaign. "Infantry companies had been decimated, 40 to 50 percent, and we had to operate with the people we had left," says Shay. "We had objectives to take. I just followed the troops."
By March, Shay had crossed the Rhine. One day, Shay and a small reconnaissance platoon stumbled across a German tank unit idling in a village. "They got the drop on us," he says. None of his platoon were killed or wounded, and they spent several weeks being moved nightly in a German "shell-game" before they arrived in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Shay's mother was receiving that pink telegram.
"After one or two days, we woke up and the Germans were gone," says Shay. "They knew they couldn't move us anymore. Americans liberated the camp." It was April 18, 1945. In days, the war in Europe would be over.
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After the war, Shay reenlisted and worked in Vienna, still an Army medic. He served in Korea and earned another bronze star, followed by a 1953 stint in the Marshall Islands during Operation Castle: the atomic bomb testing program.
Shay spent most of the next 45 years in Vienna, working for the Atomic Energy Commission. He married an Austrian woman, Lilli, and had a son, Jonny. He is now a grandfather.
Despite so many years living in Europe, Shay had never revisited his own combat sites until last month, when several grants made possible a pilgrimage to France, Belgium, and Germany. He was accompanied by Harald Prins, a Kansas State University scholar of indigenous peoples, and Bunny McBride, a writer who has researched the story of the women in Shay's family.
The trip was bittersweet.
"A lot of men lost their lives fighting for the freedom of Europe," he says. "Some of them probably never even heard of the towns or cities where they died. A lot of these backwoods boys ... they gave their lives for the freedom of the people there."
Reflecting on today's Europe, Shay says, "I'm sorry to see that the US has lost so much respect in Europe. In 1944 and in the 1950s, you were proud to say you were an American, and everyone looked up to you. It's not like that today."
Shay's face glows, however, when he talks about the honor of lowering the flag in a ceremony at the American cemetery in Normandy. He also found the grave marker of Edward Moroseweicz.
"He was a medic attached to 2nd Battalion. We met in England," says Shay. "He was wounded on D-day. I saw him and treated him on the beach ... bandaged his stomach wounds ... gave him morphine.... I had to move on. We said good bye, knowing I probably wouldn't see him again."
Shay also describes his own private observance on the actual beach with a tone of reverence.
"I held a typical native American ceremony, burning sage, tobacco, sweet grass, praying to all four directions," says Shay. "I prayed for their souls.... I remembered my ancestors and my family and tried to console myself that they were all taken care of in the spiritual world – and waiting for me to join them and lead me into their new realm. I'll be greeted by my comrades, ancestors, and family."
The day after his return from Europe last month, Shay was greeted by news of the Legion of Honor award.
Reflecting on that, he says, "A little bit of recognition for things you have done makes you feel good sometimes."