WWII medic, prisoner of war shares experiences with medical community
September 10, 2009
- Retired Master Sgt. Charles Shay was part of the initial assault at Normandy on D-Day.
- Shay was a medic in the Army and Air Force for more than 20 years.
- Part of Shay's sense of duty comes from his background as a Penobscot Indian.
VILSECK, Germany - As part of the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment, retired Master Sgt. Charles Shay was part of the initial assault at Normandy on D-Day.
He was there at three o'clock in the morning when they were ordered to debark into small landing crafts; He was there at five o'clock in the morning when the orders came to proceed to the beach; And he was there at six o'clock in the morning when they hit the first obstacles the Germans had left in the water.
This is the experience Shay shared with the Soldiers at the Europe Regional Medical Command's Non-Commissioned Officer Conference held in Garmisch, Germany, last month. Shay has more than 20 years of service under his belt and had a highly decorated and war-intensive military career. However, he has only talked about his experience at Normandy for a couple of years now and said he could easily sum up the event in three words.
"It was hell," he said.
On June 6, 1944, orders came to debark the landing crafts and the invasion began, Shay said.
"When I jumped out of the landing craft I landed in water up to my chest," Shay said. "The Germans were sweeping the area with machine guns and small arms fire and many of the men standing at the forefront of the landing craft were struck. Some were killed immediately and some were seriously wounded and dropped into the water."
Shay managed to push his way forward to the beach and was able to use the obstacles as protection as he reached shallower water. His fellow Soldiers did the same and eventually large groups made it to the safety of the sand dunes on the beach. "I began immediately to do what I was trained to do," Shay said.
He was busy bandaging wounds, making makeshift splints, applying tourniquets, and giving morphine when he happened to glance back at the water and notice the tide was coming up quickly.
"I saw that many men who had been wounded were floundering in the water trying to stay afloat so I dropped what I was doing, went back into the water and tried to pull as many men as I could to safety above the water line," Shay said. "I was able to do it for some time. I don't know where my strength came from, but I was able to save the life of several comrades."
For his selfless actions that morning on the beach, Shay was later awarded the Silver Star.
"He did his duty without someone telling him to, without him thinking twice about it. And when men were rolling into the sea he went out there and got them and saved their lives because there was no one else to help," said. Brig. Gen. Keith Gallagher, ERMC commanding general. "He went out under extreme human sacrifice."
Part of Shay's sense of duty comes from his background as a Penobscot Indian.
"The Native American has always been supportive and stood shoulder to shoulder with their American and Canadian brothers since the Revolutionary War," Shay said.
When Shay was drafted into the Army in April 1943, he was living on a small Indian reservation in Maine. According to Shay, about 82 men of the 500 people living on the reservation either volunteered or were drafted into military service.
Shay himself chose to be drafted because he was supporting his mother, who was an advocate for legal rights for Native Americans. "One of the main reasons I chose to be drafted is because we had no right to vote," Shay said.
Shay was drafted into the military and shortly thereafter he was told he would be a medic in the Army.
"I never had any background or history in medicine," Shay said. "They just pointed out you're going to be a truck driver, you're going to be a medic, you're going to be a cook."
From that point forward, Shay lived the military life. He fought at Normandy on D-Day. He was part of every major battle the 16th Regiment fought in during WWII. Shortly before the war ended, he was even taken as a prisoner of war.
Although this amount of service would be enough for most people, it was not enough for Shay. He continued to serve as a medic in the Army during the Korean War.
"The only difference between the two wars was the terrain we had to fight in," Shay said. "When we had wounded warriors we had to climb up the mountains to get the wounded and the dead out."
When he finished his time in Korea, Shay decided two wars as part of the Infantry were enough and left the Army. He continued to serve as part of the Air Force Reserve and later went back to active duty as part of the Air Force. Eventually, he retired from military service altogether.
Following his military career, he worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency for 20 years, the Office of the High Commission for Refugees in Vienna, Austria, for two and a half years, and as a limousine driver and tour guide in Vienna for an additional 10 years. He recently moved back to Maine where he promotes the history of his family and speaks to groups about his military experience.
Although he is no longer a medic, he continues to share a bond with his medical brethren and offered his gratitude for their service.
"You are playing a very important role today and you will go down in history in the United States' war against terrorism," Shay said. "I would like to pay tribute to you for the sacrifices you make and what you endure for your country."