A bronze likeness of Charles Shay has been placed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, guaranteeing he will be a face of the D-Day invasion for decades to come.

It could not be more fitting.

The Penobscot Nation elder, now 96, was a 19-year-old medic when he went into the water off France at 6:30 on the morning on June 5, 1944. He was part of the first wave of what was the largest seaborne invasion in history — and one of the most consequential military operations ever.

Trapped between the sea and German fortifications, the Americans who landed at Omaha Beach faced withering fire. Troop transports had trouble getting to land, and many men were dumped in deep water, where they struggled under the weight of their packs and the relentless German guns.

Shay pulled man after man from the water that day — dozens if not hundreds over the course of several hours.

When the day was over, the Allies were secure on the beach. But it would take several more weeks of heavy fighting before D-Day could be considered a success. By the next spring, the Allies were bearing down on Berlin, which would fall in April, ending the war in Europe.

All because nations were willing to work together for a worthy cause, and young men, like Shay and those who served alongside him, were willing to risk and often give their lives for it.

For his action, Shay was awarded Silver and Bronze stars as well as the French Legion d’Honneur.

He only became active in veterans events later, following the death of his wife soon after they returned to Maine in 2003. But since then he has become a regular at D-Day commemorations — his voice narrated a video montage shown at the 75th anniversary event last year.

In 2014, Shay told documentary filmmakers, “I go back to remember all the comrades in arms I left there that are still wandering around the beach.”

Now, his bust stands at the Charles Shay Indian Memorial, just above the beach where he helped so many of his fellow soldiers, in conditions that are impossible to imagine. It will forever be a reminder of what it took to win that day.

Shay was joined on Omaha beach by Americans of all backgrounds, who also took the beach codenamed Utah. British and Canadian forces took the lead at three other beaches.

In addition, there were soldiers from 10 other nations involved at the D-Day. It’s hard to overstate what they accomplished together.

Both the Allies and the Germans knew an invasion was necessary at some point. Both had been preparing for it for years. A failure at that point in the war would have been devastating to the Allies. Who knows what the world would like today if those men had been turned back.

But to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Normandy was the place where the world held together — truly together — against fascism. The Nazis bet that people of different nations and cultures banding together on behalf of freedom could never be as strong as those connected by ideas of nationalism and racial purity. They lost big.

Charles Shay is one of the few people alive who can still testify to the monumental effort necessary to defeat the Nazis, and to the cooperation and sacrifices that it took to pull it off.

Someday, however, he’ll be gone too, like the other D-Day veterans before him. Thankfully, we’ll always have his memorial to remind us.

 


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