Monday will mark the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, the day that more than 160,000 Allied troops invaded the beach in Normandy, France, to fight Nazi Germany. One of the soldiers who landed there was Charles Norman Shay, a Penobscot Indian and medic for the 1st U.S. Infantry Division.
Shay, who is almost 92, will deliver a speech at a ceremony in Normandy about his experience.
In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, Shay landed on Omaha Beach. He was almost 19 years old.
“That was my first day in combat,” he says.
Shay remembers the chaos of that day: the stormy sea, gunfire raining down on Allied troops, wading through chest-deep water to get to the beach.
“The seas were red with the blood of men who were wounded or sacrificed their lives,” he says. “It was very devastating. I had to cleanse my soul, well — not cleanse my soul, but I had to think a lot about it and push what I was experiencing out of my mind so I could function the way I was trained to function.”
Among black smoke and ear-splitting explosions, Shay pulled wounded men from the water so they wouldn’t drown. At one point, he came upon a friend and fellow medic, Edward Morocewitz.
“When I was walking the beach on the 6th of June 1944, I found him. He was wounded, we recognized each other. There was not much I could do for him, because he had a very bad stomach wound and I could not even bandage him properly,” Shay says. “I gave him a shot of morphine, and, well, we said goodbye to each other forever, because he died.”
He says that in his company alone, almost half of all the soldiers and seven out of nine officers were wounded or dead by noon.
After it was over, Shay didn’t talk about it. Not until his early 80s, when he returned to Normandy in 2007. And he’s gone back almost every year since, on a kind of mission.
“It’s my belief as an Indian that I can take up contact with my veterans that have paid the ultimate price. And they are still lost and wandering around, it is my belief, on the beaches of Omaha. And I try to take up contact with them, and let them know they’re not forgotten,” he says.
Shay says he always makes a stop at Morocewitz’s grave to say a few words to him. This year, Shay will also give a speech at a ceremony on the anniversary of D-Day.
“This was one of the biggest operations in military history. And it was a success. And, well, I was perhaps happy and sad to be a part of it,” he says.
Shay, 91, is one of a dwindling number of living World War II veterans. But he says as long as he can, he’ll return to Normandy to honor the sacrifices soldiers made and keep their memories alive.
This article originally appeared on Maine Public Broadcasting, MPBN.net. Reprinted here with permission.