By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
AUGUSTA, Me. - On the eve of June 6, 1944, Charles Norman Shay, a 19-year old Penobscot serving with the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, ran into his friend Melvin Neptune, a fellow Penobscot and member of the division's 26th Regiment. They were on the ship that carried the troops to their rendezvous with German forces the next morning on what would become known as D-Day.
The two men did not see each other again until they returned home to Indian Island reservation after the war.
But 63 three years later, Shay, now 83, paid homage to the late Neptune during a ceremony at which Maine Gov. John Baldacci honored Shay and all of Maine's Native veterans with a proclamation naming June 6, as Native American Veterans History Day.
''We did not discuss the campaign that was about to take place,'' Shay recalled of the night before the historic allied invasion of France, ''but instead we talked about home and the young men and boys we grew up with and were wondering where they were and what they were now doing. From our small community of 500 individuals, 85 young men and women had volunteered for all branches of the military to fight for this country''
Shay's unit was among the first to make the difficult landing on Omaha Beach. Pre-landing air bombardments and naval gunfire had not dislodged the German defenses from their positions on bluffs as high as 170 feet above the beach. During the hard-won battle that day, Shay's division lost about 1,000 men.
Shay earned a Silver Star for his unselfish heroism that day, subordinating ''personal safety to the welfare of his comrades, [having] plunged repeatedly into the treacherous sea and carried critically wounded men to safety,'' Baldacci read from the proclamation.
Shay was captured by Nazis in 1945, surviving the German POW camps; but he returned to action in the Korean War where he served as a combat medic and master sergeant with the 3rd Medical Platoon, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, ''distinguishing himself by courageous rescue of wounded comrades under heavy enemy fire, earning a Bronze Star with Two Oak Leaf Clusters for Valor,'' Baldacci read.
In 1950, Shay joined the U.S. Air Force and participated in the atomic bomb test in the Marshall Islands, retiring in 1964. He returned to Vienna to work for the International Atomic Energy Agency for 20 years and then for three years as security officer for the Vienna Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees until 1988. He returned home in 2002.
''Mr. Shay seeks no recognition for himself except as it helps to bring attention to the bravery and sacrifice of other Native Americans whose service to the United States is at risk of being lost to history. It is clear that Mr. Shay is deserving of recognition, as are the other Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac veterans of this country's wars,'' Baldacci said.
More than 150 members of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac nations were among the more than 30,000 American Indians who enlisted in the military during World War II.
Shay said he was honored to represent the state's American Indian veterans.
''[They] have served in all branches of the military of the United States [and] have fought side by side with other Americans since the birth of the United States,'' Shay said.
Chief Joseph Orono, Shay's direct ancestor, offered Penobscot military support to Gen. George Washington when the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Shay said.
''Together with other Wabanaki chiefs and warriors, Chief Orono's support helped secure that the territory of Maine would become part of the United States. Since then, Penobscot and other Wabanaki warriors have repeatedly fought side by side with their American brothers in arms on battlefields all over the world.''
Following the governor's ceremony, Shay was presented with legislative ''sentiment'' sponsored by Penobscot Tribal Representative Donna Loring, herself a Vietnam War veteran, and was signed by almost every legislator. The document acknowledged Shay's ''extraordinary dedication and service to our Nation'' and wished him well on his current project.
Shay is returning for the first time to the WWII battlefields with a video camera, sound recorder and notepad in a history project to help document his story and the stories of other American Indians who have served in the U.S. military.
Former Penobscot Chief Jim Sappier invited Shay to testify before Congress' Appropriations Committee in 2005.
''Toward the end of my testimony, I introduced Charles and recall his opening statement: 'I'm an American Indian veteran and the only benefits I know that we get is a grave and a marker; some receive a military funeral service. I believe it is time for American Indian veterans and their families to be allowed all those services that everyone talks about.' We, Penobscots, were the only ones who testified on behalf of our American Indian veterans that day,'' Sappier said.