On D-Day, 19-year-old medic Charles Shay was ready to give his life, and save as many as he could (2024)

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D-Day veteran Charles Shay is about to take part next month in the 80th celebrations of the landings in Normandy that led to the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi Germany occupation


BRETTEVILLE-L'ORGUEILLEUSE, France (AP) — On D-Day, Charles Shay was a 19-year-old U.S. Army medic who was ready to give his life — and save as many as he could.

Now 99, he’s spreading a message of peace with tireless dedication as he’s about to take part in the 80th anniversary commemorations of the landings in Normandy that led to the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi Germany occupation.

“I guess I was prepared to give my life if I had to. Fortunately, I did not have to,” Shay said in an interview with The Associated Press.

A Penobscot tribe citizen from Indian Island in the U.S. state of Maine, Shay has been living in France since 2018, not far from the shores of Normandy where many world leaders are expected to come next month. Solemn ceremonies will be honoring the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the U.S., Canada and other nations who landed on June 6, 1944.

Nothing could have prepared Shay for what happened that morning on Omaha Beach: bleeding soldiers, body parts and corpses strewn around him, machine-gun fire and shells filling the air.

“I had been given a job, and the way I looked at it, it was up to me to complete my job," he recalled. "I did not have time to worry about my situation of being there and perhaps losing my life. There was no time for this.”

Shay was awarded the Silver Star for repeatedly plunging into the sea and carrying critically wounded soldiers to relative safety, saving them from drowning. He also received France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, in 2007.

Still, Shay could not save his good friend, Pvt. Edward Morozewicz. The sad memory remains vivid in his mind as he describes seeing his 22-year-old comrade lying on the beach with a serious stomach wound.

“He had a wound that I could not help him with because I did not have the proper instruments ... He was bleeding to death. And I knew that he was dying. I tried to comfort him. And I tried to do what I could for him, but there was no help," he said. "And while I was treating him, he died in my arms.”

“I lost many close friends,” he added.

A total of 4,414 Allied troops were killed on D-Day itself, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded.

Shay survived. At night, exhausted, he eventually fell asleep in a grove above the beach.

“When I woke up in the morning. It was like I was sleeping in a graveyard because there were dead Americans and Germans surrounding me,” he recalled. “I stayed there for not very long and I continued on my way.”

Shay then pursued his mission in Normandy for several weeks, rescuing those wounded, before heading with American troops to eastern France and Germany, where he was taken prisoner in March 1945 and liberated a few weeks later.

After World War II, Shay reenlisted in the military because the situation of Native Americans in his home state of Maine was too precarious due to poverty and discrimination.

“I tried to cope with the situation of not having enough work or not being able to help support my mother and father. Well, there was just no chance for young American Indian boys to gain proper labor and earn a good job,” he said.

Maine would not allow individuals living on Native American reservations to vote until 1954.

Shay continued to witness history — returning to combat as a medic during the Korean War, participating in U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and later working at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.

For over 60 years, he did not talk about his WWII experience.

But he began attending D-Day commemorations in 2007 and in recent years, he has seized many occasions to give his powerful testimony. A book about his life, “Spirits are guiding” by author Marie-Pascale Legrand, is about to be released this month.

In 2018, he moved from Maine to Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, a French small town in the Normandy region to stay at a friend’s home.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, coming from his nearby home, he was among the few veterans able to attend commemorations. He stood up for all others who could not make the trip amid restrictions.

Shay also used to lead a Native American ritual each year on D-Day, burning sage in homage to those who died. In 2022, he handed over the remembrance task to another Native American, Julia Kelly, a Gulf War veteran from the Crow tribe, who since has performed the ritual in his presence.

The Charles Shay Memorial on Omaha Beach pays tribute to the 175 Native Americans who landed there on D-Day.

Often, Shay expressed his sadness at seeing wars still waging in the world and what he considers the senseless loss of lives.

Shay said he had hoped D-Day would bring global peace. “But it has not, because you see that we go from one war to the next. There will always be wars. People and nations cannot get along with each other."

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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On D-Day, 19-year-old medic Charles Shay was ready to give his life, and save as many as he could (2024)
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