NORMANDY, France -- The Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard and select Soldiers from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, were on hand June 5 during a ceremony to honor "Big Red One" veteran Charles Shay, one of the few living American Indian World War II combat veterans.
The midday ceremony, held on the historic Omaha Beach at the site of the Charles Shay Memorial in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, was conducted as a joint effort between the Penobscot Nation, local French authorities and the U.S. military. A brief downpour and chilling wind set the tone of hardship and sacrifice that the group was there to commemorate.
"I would like to start with a quote from the man we're here to honor; please listen to these words and understand the humility, the honor and the tradition that come out," said Brig. Gen. Robert S. Cooley, 353D Civil Affairs Command commanding general, who spoke to the crowd. "'On the evening of 5 June, 1944, I was aboard the (U.S.S.) Henrico, heading across the channel when I got a surprise visit -- a Penobscot Indian warrior named Melvin Neptune. He didn't trouble me with his combat experience nor did he offer me advice, instead we talked about home because he knew I had never been in combat; all hell was about to break loose on me.'"
Shay, a Native American of the Penobscot Tribe from Maine, earned the Silver Star for heroism as a combat medic on June 6, 1944, while serving in Company F, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Inf. Div.
Shay joined the Army in April of 1943 to be a medical technician, Cooley said.
"Charles Norman Shay was one of the many men who stepped off the landing crafts and into the frigid waters of Omaha Beach," Cooley said. "Shay was a young man then, only 19 years old when he landed here… Unfortunately Shay's unit suffered tremendously. They lost all of their officers and a significant amount of their Soldiers. He was one of the few combat medics to not have perished or sustained injuries during the first wave of attacks."
Cooley spoke about the importance of Shay's decision to return to the military during the Korean War.
"What is also important is that Charles continued to serve his country even after World War II had ended," Cooley said. "If you notice on his hat it says WWII and Korea veteran. His continued service demonstrates what we call today 'Soldier for Life,' those who answer our nations call for a lifetime of service."
Shay was one of 175 American Indians known to have participated in the initial battle on D-Day.
"Charles is one of the most humble people I know," said James Francis, Penobscot Tribe historian and director of cultural historic preservation. "For example, this park isn't about him, but about others, Native American veterans."
After describing Shay's accomplishments, Cooley spoke about Native Americans, who served in the war in the largest per capita participation in WWII of any demographic.
"We are also here today to pay respects to all of the Native Americans who participated in WWII," Cooley said. "In all, 45,000 Native Americans fought. They had the highest volunteer rate of all communities in America. In some cases 70 percent of the tribe volunteered to fight."
In attendance with Shay were Native American veterans from multiple conflicts including Vietnam, many holding flags to represent Native American tribes from across the United States.
"His tradition of honoring others through his honoring is why I'm here today," Francis said. "I represent the Penobscot Nation, my tribe, Charles' tribe.
The memorial itself includes a stone turtle which is symbolic of Native American creation lore. On June 21, the installation of a matching turtle on Indian Island, Maine, will join the two communities separated by 3,100 miles, Francis said.
Finally, Cooley emphasized the importance of commemorating veterans like Shay for protecting the nation's way of life.
"Our nation owes a great debt of service to Mr. Charles Shay, our Native Americans and all of the vets who have served," he said. "Without them we wouldn't have served. Without them we wouldn't have the stories of courage, innovation, collaboration, dedication and sense of pride to country and liberty."