Feted as a veteran of the liberation of Europe, Charles Shay unexpectedly finds himself in the footsteps of his French ancestry, being received in Basque villages, in the region of Castine. From Castine, Maine, and Indian Island on the Penobscot River to the beaches of Normandy and beyond, cross-cultural connections are discovered along with memories of living history.
In 2007 Charles Norman Shay went to Washington, DC, to receive the Legion of Honor medal from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The medal has joined the others bestowed on him, including a Silver Star and four bronze battle stars from World War II and the Korean War, in his home on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Old Town, Maine.
As a young Army medic he had been in the famed 1st Infantry Division that landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach, Normandy. He does not recall how many men he pulled from the water while bullets were streaming past him.
“We’ve all had our individual experiences, and none are more dramatic than the next,” said Shay, characteristically modest. Shay was a medic who saved many lives that D-day in 1944 when 3,000 Allied troops died and some 9,000 were injured or went missing. Shay repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically-wounded men to safety.
His book honors all who served but it was hard for him to recall the past while writing it. “My book is a journey into the past, a past that I would prefer to wipe out of my memory but this is not possible. At the very beginning on Omaha Beach, it was difficult for me to witness so much carnage and not be affected emotionally. It was necessary for me to close my mind to what I was experiencing in order for me to be effective at doing what I had been trained for. Once I had accomplished this, I was able to operate effectively and even saved a few lives,” said Shay.