Feature   Observances

Native American Fought With Distinction in World War II and Korea

Nov. 1, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The Defense Department and the nation are celebrating National Native American Heritage Month, which is every November.

It's a time to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices Native Americans have made to the United States, not just in the military, but in all walks of life.

WWII veteran shakes hands with guests.
Veteran Handshake
World War II veteran Charles Shay greets people attending a Memorial Day and World War I centennial commemoration ceremony at Normandy American Cemetery, France, May 27, 2018.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Russell R. Rhodes
VIRIN: 180527-N-UJ417-007Y

Charles Norman Shay, a Native American  of the Penobscot tribe in Maine, was drafted into the Army in 1943 at the age of 19.

He trained as a combat medic and was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, aka the "Big Red One."

On June 6, 1944, during the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, Shay waded ashore on Omaha Beach. He was soon busy tending to the many wounded.

A man in military uniform hands a veteran a coin during a memorial ceremony.
D-Day Ceremony
Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, presents Charles Shay with a U.S. Army Europe and Africa command coin at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial during the International D-Day Ceremony on June 6, 2021, in Normandy, France.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Joseph Mcdonald
VIRIN: 210606-A-MC340-727

Later in the war, he applied his medical skills to the wounded at the Battles of Aachen, Hurtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge.

Shay was later attached to a reconnaissance squadron near the village of Auel, close to the Sieg River in Germany. The squadron encountered about 20 German soldiers accompanied by a tank with an 88mm weapon and were forced to surrender. 

The squadron was then marched about 60 miles, moving only by night, to the POW Camp Stalag VI-G. The column of prisoners steadily grew along the way as more Americans were captured. Shay was interrogated and held there until April 12, 1945, when U.S. troops encircled the camp, trapping 350,000 enemy soldiers and liberating the camp. 

People hold flags at a memorial ceremony on Omaha Beach.
Charles Shay Memorial Ceremony
Flags representing all Native American tribes are held at the Charles Shay Memorial ceremony on Omaha Beach, France on June 5, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Dominique Washington
VIRIN: 190605-A-OH153-487

Upon returning stateside after the war, Shay was unable to find work so he reenlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Vienna, Austria, serving as a medic with a military police unit. 

On June 25, 1950, the Korean War started. Shay was assigned to the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division as a combat medic.

A World War II memorial on a beach in Normandy, France.
Charles Shay Indian Memorial
Charles Shay Indian Memorial on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France in 2017.
Photo By: Courtesy of Romain Bréget
VIRIN: 170606-O-D0439-002

His many awards include a Silver Star Medal and a Bronze Star Medal with two oak leaf clusters. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honour.

Shay remained in the Army and retired as a master sergeant.

Today, Shay is an elder member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine. He currently lives in France, and he is active in a number of American veteran projects.