SAINT-LAURENT-SUR-MER, France, June 7, 2017 —
One of the few surviving American Indian World War II combat veterans returned to the country he helped to liberate to attend the dedication of a memorial in his honor here June 5.
"As one of the few surviving American Indian combat veterans who participated in the liberation of France, I speak here not only for myself but also on behalf of my comrades from Turtle Island," retired Army Master Sgt. Charles Norman Shay, said, citing the Native American name for North America.
Shay, a Penobscot Indian from Maine, was only 19 years old when he struggled ashore Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as a platoon medic serving in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. The 16th Infantry Regiment was one of three combat regiments in the 1st Infantry Division that spearheaded the assault on D-Day.
"On the evening of June 5, 1944, I was aboard the Henrico heading across the Channel, when I had a surprise visit from a Penobscot Indian warrior named Melvin Neptune," Shay recalled. "He didn't trouble me with his combat experience, nor did he offer me advice. Instead, we talked about home because he knew I had never been in combat … all hell was about to break loose on me."
"Only two of us appear to have survived the war without being wounded," Shay continued. "We were lucky. Call it what you want, fate, destiny, angels, spirits or God. All I know is that my mother prayed for me."
He said his mother prayed fervently for his other three brothers serving in World War II as well -- two in the U.S. Navy and one in the Army Air Corps as a B-17 gunner.
"There were mothers across Turtle Island praying for their brave sons," Shay said. "My heart breaks for those women who were never able to welcome their sons home again."
According to Dutch anthropologist Dr. Harald E.L. Prins, 175 Native Americans landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day -- but only 55 have been identified. The memorial dedication to Shay and his Native American comrades is part of an ongoing effort to recognize the Native American contributions to WWII.
"This is the reason why we decided together with the Mayor of Saint Laurent sur Mer and city council to honor the Native Americans who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day," Shay said.
The memorial unveiled in the June 5 ceremony is aptly named the "Turtle Monument" after the ancestral home of Shay and his fellow Native Americans. It is the first time that this site has been recognized as part of a D-Day commemoration.
"Every soldier who landed on this beach was a hero," said Shay, who also went on to serve in the Korean War. "There is now a plaque commemorating Indian soldiers who left Turtle Island to help liberate our ancient French allies. We will not forget their sacrifices."