Charles Shay, 1st Division, 16th Regiment: Actions on D-Day, Military History, & Life Story
This is Charles Shay. Mr. Shay, born in 1924 as a member of the Penobscot Indian Tribe, grew up on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. As a teenager, Mr. Shay was required to register for the draft, but at the time, his tribe had no voting rights in the United States (they could fight for our country, but weren’t allowed to vote). He was the second-youngest of four boys. All four Shay boys served in the U.S. military during World War II. Two of his brothers served in the U.S. Navy, one in the U.S. Army Air Corps (now the Air Force), and Charles was drafted into the U.S. Army. He entered military service in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, completed Basic Training at Camp Pickett, Virginia, and following Basic Training, he was selected to become a medic. With no previous medical experience, he was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana for his medical training, where he was assigned as a surgical technician. After medical training, he was given a few days leave, then he reported to New York, where he boarded the Queen Elizabeth and sailed to England.
Upon arrival in England, Charles was assigned to a replacement depot, where he spent a few days before being transferred to the 1st Division, 16th Infantry Regiment, Second Medical Battalion, stationed in Bridport, England (southern England). He was then assigned to D Company, a combat company, as a medic. He arrived in fall of 1943, and immediately began training for amphibious assaults/invasions with his company at Slapton Sands.
In late-May, Charles and his company were pulled into one of the containment yards in Southern England, where they were briefed on the upcoming invasion, as part of Operation Overlord. They boarded the ship on June third and set sail on June fourth. Extreme weather delayed the invasion for twenty-four hours, resulting in several days of misery for the soldiers on-board. Early in the morning on June sixth, Charles and his fellow soldiers boarded the Higgins boats and set sail for Omaha Beach, the stoutly-defended German-held beach along the coast of Normandy.
Charles and his company landed on Omaha Beach, Easy Red Sector, near the German fighting position known as WN 62, the heaviest fortified position along Omaha Beach. Facing relentless fire, Charles witnessed the death of hundreds of his brothers that day. He utilized the German obstacles to avoid German fire and eventually made it to the shingle/sea wall, a natural sand embankment, which Charles used as a barrier to treat wounded soldiers. As he was treating wounded soldiers, Charles looked toward the sea and saw many wounded men laying on the beach, unable to move. As the tide rose, they were being washed out to sea and were drowning. Charles immediately ran back into the water and began dragging the wounded men to safety, one at a time. He worked himself into a state of exhaustion, but continued to save as many men as possible, pulling them up to the high-water mark.
His company’s objective on D-Day was Colleville-sur-Mer. On D-Day, his company sustained a 75% casualty rate. Charles became separated from his unit and eventually managed to find his way off the beach and through the draw in-route to Colleville-sur-Mer. He reached Colleville the next day and rejoined his company. Following Omaha Beach, Mr. Shay and his company fought in the hedgerows of Normandy for the next three months, participating in many battles including St. Lo. Eventually, they broke out and moved east, eventually capturing Aachen, the first city captured by the Allies in Germany.
Charles survived the war and eventually returned to the U.S., after marrying and living in Europe for several years. He stayed in the Army and eventually deployed to Korea, where he trained and experienced combat again in 1950 in the Korean War, as his division assisted the 1st Marine Division, isolated in North Korea after the Chinese entered the war.
In 1965, Charles retired from the U.S. Military. He worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency (United Nations) in Vienna, Austria for twenty years, before eventually returning to his reservation in Maine in 2003. He returned to the United States on May 31st and his wife passed away on September 3rd.
Mr. Shay returned to Normandy for the first time in 2009, where he received a hero’s welcome. He began returning each year in June to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day. Eventually, Charles met a young lady, Marie, who offered to take care of Charles if he had an interest in moving to Normandy permanently. In 2018, Charles made the move to Normandy, where he continues to reside today under Marie’s care. In 2017, Marie honored Charles, his heritage, and all who made the ultimate sacrifice by constructing a monument overlooking Omaha Beach. A beautiful tribute to an incredible man.
This interview details Charles’ story, in his own words. From his childhood, military service, actions on Omaha Beach, and his life after the military, his story is simply incredible. Thank you, Charles, for allowing all of us to enjoy the greatest privilege in the world: freedom.