An Indian Country Today special report by Dr. Harald E.L. Prins & Bunny McBride
“There are no words to fully describe the slaughterhouse called Omaha Beach,” Penobscot Indian combat veteran Charles Norman Shay told a large gathering on June 7th at the Normandy American Cemetery situated on a bluff above the beach.
One of three WWII veterans invited to speak at a ceremony featuring music and historical narratives, the 94-year-old tribal Elder from Indian Island, adorned with his medals earned and a Big Red One patch, counts among his ancestors the 17th-century Penobscot Grand Chief Madockawando and his French aristocratic son-in-law, the 3rd Baron de Saint Castin, who fought a common enemy invading his ancestral homeland.
In a deeply moving personal reflection on war and peace, Shay shared a few precious memories from his combat experience on D-Day, the Allied invasion of German-occupied France 75 years ago. Attached as a medic to an assault platoon in the 1st Infantry Division, he was an unarmed 19-year-old replacement soldier.
He had never experienced combat prior to June 6, 1944. Approaching Omaha Beach in dawn’s early light, he jumped into chest-high water and struggled ashore under heavy enemy fire coming from the 50-meter-high bluff ahead. There he treated countless wounded soldiers, including many who he rescued from drowning in the rising tide. Within a few hours, his company, one of the units spearheading the invasion of Normandy, was nearly annihilated.
Now, all these years later, looking out at the vast cemetery marked with more than 9,000 white marble crosses, the 94-year-old Native American combat veteran reminded everyone of the importance of the D-Day commemoration: “Multitudes of healthy young men were massacred,” he said. “I witnessed incredible heroism on the beach below this bluff, unbearable suffering, too.”
For gallantry displayed on the beach that day in 1944, the young Penobscot medic was awarded the Silver Star and soon promoted to Private First Class. At the time, as Shay told the audience, he had no idea there were about 500 American and Canadian Indians participating in that massive June 6th air- and seaborne invasion. An estimated 175 warriors from numerous tribes across the United States landed on the 8-kilometer-long beach code-named Omaha.
Thirty of them have now been identified as part of the 1st Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One. No doubt there were more. Others served in the 29th Infantry Division, Rangers, and in various attached army units, including combat engineers. At least three American Indian soldiers who struggled ashore on Omaha were killed here that day. Many more were wounded and at least one was captured. Of those tribesmen who survived the gruesome landing operation, many were later killed or wounded.
Three days before his June 7th talk at the cemetery, the Penobscot tribal elder led a Native American ceremony there to honor warriors from Turtle Island killed in the Battle of Normandy during the summer of 1944. In this commemoration, he solemnly read the names of 28 Native American fallen warriors buried in this hallowed ground.
When Shay finished, a Native man drummed and sang, and several Native women stepped forward in regalia to include beautifully-beaded moccasins, to perform a dance – including members of the United Indigenous Women’s Veterans, such as Julia Kelly of the Apsalooke Crow Nation, Angel Young, Lakota, Michele Alire, Ute, as well as Christy and Misty Jackson, Anishinaabeg.
After the dance and song, the group broke into three parties and dispersed across the vast cemetery to place flowers at the graves of the 28 fallen warriors. Vietnam War veteran Doug Taylor, Potawatomi, and two other war veterans performed a brief blessing at each marker, touching it with an eagle feather and sprinkling sacred tobacco at its base.
Only 24 hours before Shay’s memorable June 7th speech, he had sat on the Normandy Cemetery Memorial stage with 34 other D-Day veterans for the major June 6th commemorative event. Shay, who is probably the last survivor of the hundreds of warriors from Turtle Island who were dropped from the night sky or landed on the beaches on that historic day, was the only Native American among these brave old men. With eyes of 12,000 onlookers watching them, and oblivious to scores of television and other cameras capturing the spectacle for the world to see, these diehard veterans listened to carefully-scripted speeches presented by the Presidents of France and the United States. The heroic survivors easily out-starred any politician in pursuit of glory.
Shay made his first pilgrimage back to “Bloody Omaha” a dozen years ago. Soon after he returned home, he was inducted into the Legion of Honor by then French President Sarkozy. From that point on, he committed himself to drawing attention to sacrifices made by North American Indian soldiers and their communities. Beyond efforts in his own state, he made sure that the Indian memorial park named after him in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer would become a tribute to and gathering place for all Native American veterans and their communities.
At the 2017 inauguration of this small park, situated in the low dunes at the center of Omaha Beach, the Penobscot veteran ceremonially unveiled a granite turtle sculpture chiseled by his nephew Tim.
Two years later, on June 5, this turtle monument was the focus of a splendid Native American performance. Hundreds of onlookers congregated under grey clouds that parted often, allowing the sun to shine on the ceremony. French and American soldiers, including troops of the First Infantry Division in which Shay served, stood at attention in an arc, bearing flags and arms, their backs to the sea.
Then, a procession of Native people dressed in regalia and carrying eagle feather staffs and tribal flags filed into the park and took their places in front of the military sentinels. Ahead of them walked Shay, escorted by four-star Army general Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, backed by the 1st Infantry Division’s commander, two-star General John Kolaheski. Both top-ranking military officers offered brief but informative remarks, underscoring the significant roles played by Native Americans in WWII.
But Shay was the man everyone had come to see and hear. He had their full attention from the moment he stepped forward to begin his speech: “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,” the Penobscot elder said.
“May this sculpture, representing a powerful guardian spirit, serve as a symbolic reminder of the North American Indian contribution to the liberation of the French and other European nations in the past century … the drum sounding in the wind here above the crescent beach reminds us of the heartbeat of Turtle Island and Mother Earth."