A large stone turtle on France’s Normandy coast faces the sea, its head turned west toward Indian Island, far across the Atlantic. Next to this granite memorial on a dune overlooking Omaha Beach is a simple wooden bench. Here, World War II veterans can sit and reflect on D-Day—June 6, 1944—when they participated in the massive assault to liberate France from Nazi-German military occupation. Those still alive are now in their 90s, the last brave men of their generation.
We, too, may sit beside the turtle and reflect on the ordeal that unfolded here—how in just one day, some 3,000 young Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Poles lost their lives, while another 6,000 were wounded. We don’t know how it felt to plunge into cold water reddened by the blood of comrades; to run, crawl or cower on a beach littered with dying men and body parts vanishing in a rising tide; to cry out amid a hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel; to smell the stench of burning bodies and vehicles; to look at all this carnage through eyes stung by thick smoke.
Charles Norman Shay, a 93-year-old Penobscot tribal elder from Indian Island, Maine, well remembers his gruesome experiences as a 19-year-old combat medic attached to an assault platoon storming Omaha Beach at dawn in the first wave of the Normandy invasion. By noon, almost half of the soldiers and most of the officers in his company were wounded or dead. On that day, his first in combat, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy machine-gun strafing to rescue fallen comrades. For his gallantry, Private Shay was awarded the Silver Star. He was never wounded, but was captured after many months of frontline duty. Liberated from a German prisoner-of-war camp in April 1945, he returned home. His three brothers also survived their service in the war, as did all but two other Penobscot Indian warriors who fought overseas.
Eager to resume normal life, Shay avoided thinking about the war. This changed a decade ago, when he made his first pilgrimage back to Omaha Beach. Wearing a deer-hide vest with a large turtle beaded on its back, he quietly performed a ceremony, burning sage, tobacco and sweet grass to honor comrades now buried in the vast American war cemetery on the ridge above the sea. Fanning the sweet smoke with an eagle feather, he addressed the spirit world beyond. . .
Since then, Shay has returned to Normandy almost every year to mark D-Day and pay homage to fellow soldiers buried there. Back home, he now peruses photographs of his most recent journey—a landmark trip that included the dedication of the new Charles Shay Indian Memorial Park overlooking Omaha Beach. The memorial is the brainchild of a Normandy citizen, Marie Legrand. Like so many of her compatriots, she feels gratitude for the sacrifice American soldiers placed on the altar of freedom. Inspired by Shay’s heroism, and aware the French president had inducted him into the Legion of Honor in 2007, she took the initiative to publicly memorialize this American Indian war veteran. Her proposal gained allure as it became known that he is a descendant of an adventurous 17th-century French baron who settled in seacoast Maine and married the Penobscot tribal grand chief’s daughter.
The park dedication took place on June 5, 2017. Nearly 300 people crowded into the small area for the ceremony—WWII veterans, French and American officials, military officers and soldiers, along with a Native American delegation comprising Ho-Chunk, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Ojibwe, and many others. Reviewing photos of the ceremony, Shay relives each moment—the distribution of tobacco, the carrying of an Eagle Staff and the raising of flags, the unveiling of the plaque and turtle sculpture, the prayer and sacred fire ritual offered by his nephew Tim Shay, an artist and spiritual leader, and, finally, his favorite ballad sung by Lisa Redfern. He sees various speakers, including Maj. Gen. Timothy McGuire (Deputy Commander of U.S. Army Europe), U.S. Consul Sara Harriger, and then himself, solemnly reading aloud the names of American Indian soldiers now known to have been with him on Omaha. He enjoys the spectacle of dozens of French paratroopers dropping from the sky onto the beach and photos of the young Penobscot Kapol Paul drumming and singing.
In his speech, the Penobscot Elder underscored that while this memorial park has his name and photo as a young combat medic on the plaque, it is dedicated to fellow American Indian soldiers: “Every soldier on this beach was a hero, regardless of military unit, rank, or wave. An estimated 500 tribesmen participated in Operation Neptune (D-Day), as paratroopers or as ground troops landing on the beaches code-named Juno, Utah and Omaha. About 175 of these young men came ashore here, with me, on Omaha on June 6, 1944. Today, we remember more than 50 of my Native brothers by their name and tribal identity. With the exception of one, perhaps two, all these brave men have passed into the spirit world. We will not forget their sacrifice.”
People felt moved by Shay’s speech and recitation of the names and tribes of fellow Native soldiers. But when asked what the highlight was for him, the old veteran says without hesitation, “The unveiling of the turtle.” He mentions that this is a sacred animal representing wisdom and longevity and that Turtle Island is the name many tribes use to describe North America. What he likes most is that it was sculpted by his nephew Tim—and that it is looking toward him at Indian Island.