My family and ancestors have lived, hunted and fished along Maine’s seacoast and in the valley of the Penobscot River since the Ice Age. Migrating between the coast and inland forests, they paddled bark canoes on rivers, across lakes and along salt-water bays, pausing to set up camp for a few weeks or months at a time. One of my forefathers was Chief Madockawando who camped seasonally at the headwaters of the Bagaduce (now called Walker Pond), just a few miles from Eggemoggin Reach. One of his daughters, my foremother Pidianiske, married young French military officer Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie, who was stationed at Fort Pentagoet toward the end of the 17th century.
This French colonial stronghold stood at a strategic location guarding the mouth of the Penobscot River. The marriage of Pidianiske and Jean-Vincent connected two families from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Because his older brother died without children, Jean-Vincent inherited the family castle in Bearn and his father’s title of Baron de Saint-Castin. He and Pidianiske had many children together, including several daughters, one of whom had a son named Joseph Orono who led our Penobscot Indian nation with distinction as chief in the late 1700s. I also descend from John Neptune, a great hunter, shaman, and diplomat who led our tribe for many decades in the early 1800s. One of his many grandsons, Joseph Nicolar, served our people as a tribal representative to the Maine Legislature for several decades. A year before his death in 1894, Nicolar published an important book about the history of my people, titled “The Life and Traditions of the Red Man” (1893). The youngest of his three daughters, Florence, married a Penobscot named Leo Shay, and I am one of their seven children.
Lacking work opportunities on Indian Island, our ancient tribal village in the Penobscot River opposite Old Town, Maine, my parents found temporary jobs in Bristol, Connecticut, where I was born in 1924. In 1930, just before I turned six, our family returned to Indian Island. I attended schools across the river in Old Town, graduating from high school in 1942. At the time, the United States was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, and many young Penobscots entered the military to serve our country.
In April of 1943 I myself was drafted into the military and was selected for training as a medical technician with courses in basic surgery. Joining the Medical Detachment of the First Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, I was attached as a platoon medic to Fox Company. Encamped in southern England, this Division had already fought in North Africa and Sicily and was now training for the invasion of Nazi-German occupied France. Named after our shoulder patch, the Big Red One formed part of a huge armada crossing the Channel on the night of 5-6 June 1944, a date that has become known as D-Day. My company formed part of our regiment’s second battalion and as such I served as a combat medic in the first wave of the landing at Omaha Beach. Fox Company suffered enormous casualties, lost all its officers, and was nearly wiped out. Many combat medics were also wounded or killed on that infamous day. Feeling sustained by my mother’s prayers, I found the strength to come to the rescue of my fallen comrades wounded by enemy fire and drowning in the rising tide. Like everyone else, I did what I was trained to do. For my service to my comrades on that day, I was awarded the Silver Star. At the time, such a military distinction meant little to me or to comrades similarly decorated. What mattered was survival and winning the war.
As a combat medic I bandaged wounds, injected morphine, and otherwise treated far too many bleeding GIs in too many battles to count. Foreign place names meant little or nothing to Privates like me and we did not know which enemy divisions were facing us in fierce, now famous fights such as the Battle of Aachen, Huertgen Forest, or the Ardennes (“Battle of the Bulge”). After storming through the Siegfried Line and crossing the Rhine River in March 1945, my regiment was poised to participate in a final offensive to defeat Nazi-Germany. Attached to a reconnaissance squad, I crossed a railroad bridge over the Sieg River, a tributary of the Rhine. Scouting out the farming village of Auel (whose name and exact location I did not know until many years after the war), GIs walking ahead of me turned into an alley and found the 88-mm gun barrel of a big German Panzer (Tiger tank) trained at them, with some 20 enemy soldiers ready to fire. My comrades dropped their weapons. As a medic, all I had was my first-aid kit and white armband with its red-cross — both confiscated by the Germans. Soon after our capture, American artillery shelled the village and we dove for cover. What happened to my comrades after that, I do not know to this day. I myself was taken away for a brief interrogation. Seeing I looked different from other captured GIs, a German officer asked me my race and I answered “American Indian.” The next few days were spent marching, to where I knew not – always by night, to avoid being strafed by Allied fighter planes. Our column grew larger as other captured GIs joined. We finally arrived in a small German POW camp known by its German name as Stalag VI-G, just outside Neubergstadt. (Again, I only found out about this name in recent years as a result of research for a book on my adventures.  For us, the end of the war came on 12 April when American troops had encircled a large German Army, trapping 350,000 enemy soldiers in what has become known as the Ruhr Pocket, and liberated our POW camp. I returned home and saw my parents. Soon, the Japanese also capitulated and my three brothers all returned home safe from the war. Several Penobscots from Indian Island were wounded or killed on battlefields overseas.
Because there were few employment opportunities for American Indian veterans like myself, I re-enlisted in 1946 and served as a medic with a Military Police Battalion in Vienna, Austria, then still occupied by the Americans and our allies. There I met and married my lovely wife, Lilli. Soon after the Korean War broke out in mid-1950, I joined the 3rd Division’s 7th Infantry Regiment as a medic and was shipped to Japan. A few months later, my regiment went into battle in Korea and I served again as a combat medic. Promoted to Master Sergeant, I was awarded the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters.
Following the Korean War, I joined the US Air Force and was assigned to a Weather Squadron based at the Tinker Air force base in Oklahoma. One of my more memorable assignments was “Operation Castle,” a series of high-energy thermonuclear weapon design tests at Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls in the Marshall Islands, then part of the US Pacific Proving Grounds, which took place in the early months of 1954. Upon my retirement as a Master Sergeant in 1964, after 20 years in the military, I moved back to Vienna, the home city of my wife Lilli. There I worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency until 1984. Not liking to be unproductive, I built my own beautiful house in the hills outside of Vienna and for six years worked as a limousine chauffeur-guide in the city. In 2003, having inherited the home of my mother’s sister Lucy (better known as Princess Watahwaso) on Indian Island, Lilli and I relocated to my ancestral village in the Penobscot Valley. Our joy together in Maine was too short, as she died soon after our arrival.
The following summer, I was disappointed not to have joined fellow WWII veterans for the 60th Anniversary commemoration of D-Day in Normandy. But three years later, I had the opportunity to reconnect with the veterans of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry regiment and attended its annual reunion in Colorado. For the first time, I was beginning to open up about my wartime experiences, aware that the ranks of surviving WWII veterans are becoming thinner every day. I felt a particular calling to give voice to the contributions of the many American Indian veterans whose service seemed all but unnoticed. I set my sights on doing something about this in my home state. My efforts, aided by many others, resulted in the Governor of Maine proclaiming 6 June 2007 as Native American Veteran’s History Day. Four months later I made it back to Normandy in the company of two friends. I visited the graves of fallen comrades and performed a traditional Native ceremony near the salt-waterline where the now quiet and peaceful beach was once red with American blood. I thought of my mother now long gone, but also of my old Penobscot friend Melvin Neptune, a battle-hardened rifleman in our 1st Division who had fought in North Africa and Sicily and landed 12 hours after me on Omaha Beach.
With my two friends, I also journeyed to other places where I had been in the war, passing through Mons and the Ardennes in Belgium, and then on to Aachen and Huertgen Forest. After crossing the Rhine, I revisited Auel, now a beautiful and prosperous farming village in a quiet valley. After a few wonderful days in Paris, I returned to Indian Island. My first day back, I received a call from the French consul in Boston with remarkable news: an invitation from the President of France to come to the Embassy in Washington, DC, to receive the Legion d’Honneur with six other WWII veterans. In his speech, the French President even made a brief reference to my own forefather, the Baron de Saint-Castin. So, while not a baron, I am now an honorary knight, the first American Indian in Maine with the distinction of being a French chevalier. This surely would have pleased my mother and my wife.
Since returning home, I have received many honors, but none more dear to my heart than my induction as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment (DMOR) at Fort Riley, Kansas, now the home base of the Big Red One, by fellow veterans of the 16th regiment in 2008. A year later, I spearheaded the push for official recognition of veterans belonging to Maine’s four tribal communities and this resulted in the State of Maine officially designating 21 June as Native American Veterans Day, the first state in the nation to do so. During the past few years, I have accepted many invitations to speak, not only in the USA, but also in France, Germany, and even Austria, for decades my adopted homeland.
And last but not least, I also restored the two-story wooden “Teepee” erected as an Indian novelty shop by my aunt Lucy and her Kiowa Indian husband Chief Bruce Poolaw. Now it is a small Family Museum dedicated to the memory of my ancestors and close relatives, as well as to the culture and history of the Penobscot Indian Nation. You can’t miss this red-and-white teepee, for it is the first building one comes to when crossing the bridge to Indian Island. If you’re lucky, you’ll find me there. . . – Charles Norman Shay