Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, a decorated Army medic and Penobscot elder is keeping his history alive.
Charles Norman Shay is a descendant of the third Baron de Saint-Castin, of France, who married a Penobscot chief’s daughter in the 1600s (and lent his name to a coastal Maine town: Castine).
By Will Grunewald Photographs courtesy of Charles Norman Shay
Charles Norman Shay grew up on the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island reservation, near Old Town. Every summer, his family made a living by selling handmade baskets beside Route 1, down along the coast. In 1943, a year after he graduated from high school, he was drafted and trained as an Army medic. Now, as 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of V-E day, Shay is still keeping alive his history — and the history of the thousands of other Native Americans who fought in World War II.
Shay, a draftee, landed at Omaha Beach in the first wave of the D-Day invasion. “Subordinating personal safety to the welfare of his comrades, Private Shay repeatedly plunged into the treacherous sea and carried critically wounded men to safety,” read the citation for the Silver Star he earned that day.
Across the Rhine, German forces took Shay prisoner. He was freed three weeks before war’s end, and he reenlisted the following year.
Shay married an Austrian woman, Lilli Bollarth, while stationed in Vienna. Then, he deployed to the Korean War for 11 months.
Shay started a job at the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, where he and Lilli lived until moving back to Indian Island in 2003. Lilli died soon after the move.
Visiting Normandy for the first time since the war, Shay burned sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco where he’d taken cover behind sand dunes, in memory of fallen comrades. A month later, at the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., President Nicolas Sarkozy inducted him into the Légion d’Honneur.
A small memorial, named for Shay, was established at Omaha Beach to commemorate Native American contributions to the invasion. A granite turtle sculpted by Shay’s nephew, Tim, faces toward Maine.
Two years ago, Shay left for Normandy again, this time to live there. On June 5, a bronze bust of the now-95-year-old will be unveiled at his namesake memorial, with a delegation of 70 Native Americans set to attend.