MANHATTAN, Kan. - Charles Norman Shay received remarkable news the day he returned to his Penobscot reservation home in Maine from a journey to Omaha Beach and other battlefields where he soldiered as a young combat medic in the Second World War: During his first official visit to the United States Nov. 6, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was expected to award him an honorary knighthood in the Legion d'Honneur, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It is a fitting honor for a man who acted heroically in the war - and whose ancestors include Penobscot Chief Madockawando, whose daughter married a French baron in the 17th century.
In early October, the 83-year-old tribal elder returned to Normandy, his first entry since the invasion of 1944. He found his way to a 16th century manor in Crepon, a few miles from the coast, where he received a grand dinner from an honored host.
Sixty-three years ago, Shay had received a sharply different welcome to Normandy: a hail of bullets and shrapnel amid the smoke and noise of explosions and screams of wounded comrades.
Shay drove to the seacoast and gestured to the face of a low-slung dune. ''This was full of men. The tide was coming in real fast. Wounded men were unable to move to dry ground. The water was red,'' he said, referring to D-Day.
At the time, Private Shay was a combat medic attached to a battalion in the 1st Infantry Division's 16th Regiment. On June 5, 1944, his platoon boarded a troop transport ship for a night crossing of the English Channel - part of a large armada heading for the Normandy coast in stormy weather. At sea, Shay had one of the most memorable reunions of his life: a surprise encounter with Melvin Neptune, a battle-hardened 25-year-old from his own small reservation. Also in the Big Red One, Neptune formed part of the 26th Regiment, scheduled to land a dozen hours after Charles would face his baptism by fire. Avoiding talking about impending bloodshed, both Penobscots reminisced about home and said goodbye. In the months ahead, they would always be within 15 miles of one another, but did not meet again during the war.
Before dawn, some 12 miles offshore, the ships stopped and the assault troops climbed into landing crafts. As they moved towards the coast, naval artillery began bombing German military positions. The enemy had placed large obstacles on the sea floor near the shore, forcing the first wave of troops to disembark 400 yards from the beach. Jumping from the ramp, Shay landed in water up to his waist.
''Even before the ramps went down, all hell had broken loose on the ships. Some were hit before they hit the water - with machine gun fire, mortars, gunshots. It was every man for himself. We used the obstacles as much as we could for protection. I don't know how I made it to the beach. It was complete chaos. On the beach there was a 3- to 4-foot-high dune where we could get some shelter. Once I was on the shore and in cover of the embankment, I took care of the wounded in the area where I was.''
Glancing toward the sea, Shay spotted many corpses rolling in the surf and lying on the beach. Wounded soldiers were about to drown in the rising tide.
''I went back to the water and pulled them up to the shoreline. I pulled as many as I could until I was exhausted. Then I paused and began again, until I couldn't do more. I have no idea how many I saved.'' He did this under an ongoing barrage of fire.
Late that day, separated from his platoon and dazed by the brutal reality of war, Shay staggered from the beach to an uphill trail, passing dead Americans and Germans. Unbeknownst to him, his friend Neptune crossed his path when the 26th Regiment marched up the same wooded gully to the hedgerow country swarming with enemy snipers. Charles remembers spending the night alone somewhere. The following morning, he found the regimental medical aid station set up in a tent in Coleville sur Mer. He also reconnected with his own F Company, finding that only two of its nine officers and 112 of the original 218 soldiers were present for duty. It was among the hardest-hit companies in a regiment that suffered nearly 1,000 casualties at Omaha, including 34 medics, seven of whom were killed. Weeks later, while the fighting continued, Shay and the other men were awarded with the Silver Star.
After Normandy, Shay continued serving as a medic in the battles of Mons (Belgium); Aachen and Huertgen Forest Battle (Germany); and the Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes) - earning an additional four Bronze Battle stars. Always on the front line, he treated a never-ending stream of wounded comrades. He was called ''Doc'' by fellow soldiers, but typically, he said, ''If you were an Indian, other soldiers referred to you as 'chief.'''
On March 25, 1945, after crossing the Rhine River near Remagen, Shay was captured by German troops in a rural hamlet and spent the last month of the war as a prisoner of war. Taken for interrogation, he recalls, ''I gave only my name, rank and serial number. My interrogator asked me my nationality - maybe he thought I looked different. I told him I was American Indian.''
In the weeks that followed, the German army continued its retreat, forcing Shay and other captives to move at night. On April 18, the camp guards were suddenly gone and American troops arrived. Liberated, Shay returned to the Penobscot reservation, where he finally saw Neptune again. But they never spoke of their wartime experiences.
Shay did not speak of the war to anyone until 2004, when he said he was disappointed to have missed the 60-year anniversary of the D-Day landings. His comment launched plans for the recently completed Normandy pilgrimage. During the journey, the Penobscot veteran performed a silent spiritual ceremony on Omaha Beach, burning tobacco, sage and sweetgrass in honor of comrades who lie buried in the vast American cemetery on the ridge above the sea. Earlier, while walking along the shore, he had turned his eyes to the stones underfoot, polished by countless tides. Picking up and discarding one after another, he selected one as a keepsake. He walked to the water's edge, rinsed the smooth round stone, and said he intended to engrave it for Neptune's son, since his comrade passed away a few years ago. When he turned the stone over, there was a small circle on its face - the mark of Gluskabe, the Penobscot tribe's legendary culture hero.