On D-Day, one Native American is left standing for the hundreds who fought

Why We Wrote This

Charles Shay may be the last living Native American World War II veteran who participated in D-Day. His return to the theater of war is a chance to honor the 500 Native American and First Nations soldiers who also served.

Bunny McBride
World War II veteran Charles Shay, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, presides over a commemorative gathering June 5 to honor fallen Native veterans buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Spectacular eagle feather staffs and colorful flags were hoisted high as combat veteran Charles Shay, erect and solemn, read aloud the names of the Native American soldiers buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Mr. Shay is one of up to 50,000 North American Indians who served in World War II. As a combat medic, Private Shay treated countless wounded soldiers, including many whom he rescued from drowning in the rising tide on D-Day in 1944.

At this week’s ceremony, traditionally-dressed dancers in beaded moccasins were accompanied by drumming and singing. Flowers were placed and Native American veterans performed a blessing at each headstone, touching it with an eagle feather and sprinkling sacred tobacco at the base.

Mr. Shay is likely the last survivor of the 500 North American Indian warriors who dropped from the night sky or landed on the beaches on D-Day. James Francis, a tribal historian for the Penobscot Indian Nation, of which Mr. Shay is a member, says he’s been thinking about how “Charles especially exemplifies valor. It’s fitting that he is the last Native American veteran on hand to close the D-Day chapter of the biggest war ever fought on the planet.”

The flag of the Penobscot Indian Nation flies above the low dunes at Omaha Beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. At the base of the flagpole stands a sculptured granite turtle. This monument is the focus of a tribute to the 175 Native American soldiers who struggled up this shore on D-Day 75 years ago. On Wednesday, a delegation representing numerous tribal nations gathered here for a commemorative ceremony led by Charles Norman Shay, the World War II combat veteran for whom the small memorial park is named.

“We are gathered here at the turtle monument to ensure that the great sacrifices made by Native American nations in the Second World War are no longer ignored and never forgotten,” Mr. Shay told the large crowd of observers. A 94-year-old elder of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, he was among a total of some 500 American and Canadian Indian soldiers who invaded Normandy in boats, parachutes, and gliders in 1944. Mr. Shay “represents all American Indians well,” says Lanny Asepermy, a Comanche tribal historian and decorated Vietnam War veteran who is here with a delegation of Comanche code talker relatives.

French and American soldiers, including troops of the 1st Infantry Division in which Mr. Shay served, stood at attention at the Charles Shay Indian Memorial. A procession of Native Americans took position, and town Mayor Philippe Laillier spoke movingly about how Mr. Shay, as a young soldier, felt protected on D-Day under the “maternal wing” of his mother’s prayers and the spirit of the turtle’s shell.

The Penobscot veteran was one of up to 50,000 North American Indians who served in World War II. As a 19-year-old combat medic attached to an assault platoon storming Omaha Beach at dawn, Private Shay treated countless wounded soldiers, including many whom he rescued from drowning in the rising tide. For gallantry displayed on the beach that day, he was awarded the Silver Star. He served in subsequent key battles in France, Belgium, and Germany until he was captured after crossing the Rhine just weeks before peace was restored.    

After his first pilgrimage back to Omaha Beach 12 years ago, Mr. Shay was inducted into the Legion of Honor by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since then, the Penobscot elder has committed himself to drawing attention to sacrifices made by North American Indian soldiers and their communities.

This year, close to 100 Native Americans representing more than 20 tribal communities across the U.S. have descended upon Normandy with Mr. Shay to mark the anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. He is a key figure in a dozen Native American commemorative events being held in this week of remembrance.

Harald E.L. Prins
Native American veterans on Omaha Beach on June 3, at the conclusion of the D-Day commemoration at the Charles Shay Memorial and turtle monument, just prior to sprinkling sacred tobacco into the sea, a ritual that cannot be photographed.

At an event on Monday, the Penobscot veteran stood at the center of a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. In this 172-acre burial ground, at least 28 of the white marble crosses among more than 9,300 headstones mark the graves of Native Americans who died in the Battle of Normandy, beginning on D-Day.

For this ceremony, some 30 Native American men and women, half of whom served in more recent wars, carried spectacular eagle feather staffs or colorful flags representing their tribes. They hoisted them high as Mr. Shay, erect and solemn, read aloud the names of the Native American soldiers buried here.

Traditionally-dressed women stepped forward in beaded moccasins to perform an historic dance, as Justin Young of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Affiliated Tribes drummed and sang. Then the group moved through the cemetery to place flowers at the 28 Native graves. Several Native American veterans performed a brief blessing at each headstone, touching it with an eagle feather and sprinkling sacred tobacco at its base.

At yet another event, Mr. Shay spoke to a crowd about freedom: “What I do care about is the price of freedom – a simple seven-letter word. Seven is a sacred number in my Penobscot culture, as it is in many Native American traditions and numerous other cultures across the globe. Liberty also has seven letters. These hallowed words represent our inherent dignity and inalienable natural right as human beings, regardless of our race, nationality, or religion. Treasure them, for these precious concepts remind us of great sacrifices and inspire ­­us to remain forever vigilant.”

Among World War II veterans still alive, Mr. Shay is likely the last survivor of the 500 North American Indian warriors who dropped from the night sky or landed on the beaches on D-Day. Commenting on this, Penobscot tribal historian James Francis says, “Looking at the ‘Faith, Purity, Valor’ motto on the Penobscot flag I carried in the Turtle Monument ceremony, I thought how Charles especially exemplifies valor. It’s fitting that he is the last Native American veteran on hand to close the D-Day chapter of the biggest war ever fought on the planet.”

Thursday, Mr. Shay put all the praise he receives into perspective at the major event of the week, presided over by presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump with an audience of about 12,000. While he and other veterans sat on stage waiting for the presidents to arrive, a short film about D-Day played on several large screens, sending Mr. Shay’s voice across the cemetery: “I am not a hero. I just did my job. The real heroes are laying here in the cemetery. These are our heroes and we should never forget them.”

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.