Charles Norman Shay was just a young private in the 1st Infantry Division when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. He was in the first wave, landing some time around 6:30 while the German defenses were still untouched, firing artillery and machine guns into the open holds of boats as American troops attempted to land.
Shay was relatively lucky, landing in chest-deep water and finding small obstacles to take cover behind as he made his way to the sands. Still, that meant he had to move forward with minimal cover as German rounds and shells rained down. On the most hotly contested beaches of Normandy, entire companies were cut down before firing a shot.
Shay and the other medics on the beaches had the option of sticking to cover or trying to survive in the water, floating with just their nostrils exposed to minimize the chance that German machine guns found them.
Shay, instead, started transiting into and out of the water, grabbing wounded and drowning men and pulling them to shore where he and others could render aid. This was an extremely hazardous move. While unarmed medics rendering aid are technically protected by the Geneva Convention, another medic on the beach organized a similar effort and many of the soldiers who helped him were gunned down for their efforts.
The young medic would later receive America’s Silver Star and France’s Légion d’Honneur for his valor in Europe in World War II.
Today, Shay is a 90-something year old tribal elder of the Penobscot Tribe in Maine. There’s a memorial park on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach named for him that honors the sacrifices of American Indians who landed at Normandy.
The Allies landed 156,000 troops on D-Day across five beachheads. It was the fulfillment of a promise to the Soviet Union to open a new front against Germany as Soviet forces fought on the opposite side of Europe. Less than a year after D-Day, as the armies landed at Normandy crunched onward toward Berlin, Hitler killed himself in a bunker and German leaders sued for peace, ending the war in Europe.