D-Day Native American hero honored with park dedication in France

By Ken Luchterhand

One moment in history changed the world forever.
That moment is known as D-Day, when Allied forces surged ahead on the beaches of Normandy, France, to begin taking land back from the occupying German forces during World War II.
To mark that occasion, Ona Garvin, Department of Health director, traveled to Normandy France for a ceremony for the dedication of  the Charles Shay Indian Memorial and the sacrifices made by Native Americans at the site on that day.
Taking place on June 5, 1944, D-Day was one of the most pivotal points in humankind’s history. It also was one of the bloodiest, with many of the infantrymen cut down with a firestorm of bullets by German military situated in concrete pillboxes on the hillside above the beach.
Allied forces overtook those beaches, but with a heavy cost of American, Canadian and British lives. Allied casualties were at least 10,000. There were 170 Native Americans who came ashore that day. Of those, only 50 are known. Gavin believes that some of those unknown Native Americans are Ho-Chunk. If anyone knows of their identity, Garvin encourages those people to contact her.
Garvin’s travels began when Harald Prins, professor at Kansas University, contacted Garvin via email, asking her if she was the daughter of George White Wing. When she replied that she was, he answered that she was the only Native American woman in the United States who is a goddaughter of a whole battalion. Prins offered the following:
"Daughter of the Battalion"
“Little Ona Mae Whitewing is almost a year old now and probably is the only child who can boast of an entire Battalion for god-parents.  On December 12, 1943, with all personnel of  the 822nd present, Ona was christened  in the Chapel at Camp Breckinridge, Ky. Lt. Colonel S. L. Mains championed the  idea,  appropriately dubbed Ona "A Daughter of the 822." Ona Mae is the daughter of George E. Whitewing, formerly of Company A, now a member of Headquarters Company.”
Prins told her about the upcoming park dedication for Charles Shay and invited her to attend.
Garvin arrived in France on July 3, joining a group of 25 people who came for the ceremony. Marie-Pascale Legrand, a French woman whose uncle was saved by Charles Shay, served the group a meal that night.
The group honored fallen soldiers and laid flowers at the U.S. Cemetery the morning of June 5, then attended the ceremony to dedicate the Charles Shay Indian Memorial in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer Park, overlooking Omaha Beach. Shay was honored at a ceremony dedicating the Charles Shay Indian Memorial in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer Park, on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
Lunch for the Shay delegation was served at La Cremailliere, and then the group had free time on Omaha Beach before dinner at Marie-Pascale Legrand’s home that evening.
Penobscot Tribal Elder Charles Shay served as a combat medic in the First Division Infantry, and was one of the first to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Shay will turn 93 this year. Despite his years, during his annual trips to France, he’s also been re-establishing Penobscot-French relations that reach back to France’s alliance with Maine Indians in the colonial period, according to an article on the dedication written by Ramona du Houx.
Shay is a direct descendent of the French military officer and aristocrat Baron de St. Castin, for whom the small seaport of Castine, Maine, is named, and his Penobscot Indian wife, Pidianiske, the daughter of the famous Grand Chief Madockawando.
Shay wrote an autobiography, “Project Omaha Beach: The Life and Military Service of a Penobscot Indian Elder.”
Shay was 19 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach, serving as a platoon medic in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. The 16th Infantry Regiment was one of three combat regiments in the 1st Infantry Division that spearheaded the assault on D-Day, according to du Houx.
“On the evening of June 5, 1944, I was aboard the Henrico heading across the Channel, when I had a surprise visit from a Penobscot Indian warrior named Melvin Neptune,” Shay said. “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 said that only two of them survived the war without being wounded.
“We were lucky. Call it what you want, fate, destiny, angels, spirits or God. All I know is that my mother prayed for me,” Shay said.
Every year since 2007, Shay returns to pay tribute to his fallen comrades on the beach in Normandy. There he performs a Native American sage ceremony.
This year, French and American dignitaries attended the dedication event, including Penobscot Indian Nation representatives. Penobscot language instructor Gabe Paul sang the traditional Penobscot Honor Song, and Maine singer-songwriter Lisa Redfern sang her ballad written about Shay, according to Houx.
Senator Angus King of Maine, Shay’s home state, sent a letter and it was read at the ceremony.
“While no words can truly thank you for the courage you showed as a medic on that beach, please know that this park will act as a timeless reminder to generations to come that democracy triumphed over tyranny - than good triumphed over evil - because soldiers, like you and your Native American comrades, selflessly served and sacrificed in the face of great odds in the D-Day invasion,” King wrote.
Shay has given many talks in France and in the U.S. about his military service and Indian heritage in the last 10 years. On one of his trips he met In Normandy, Madame Marie Legrand. Shortly thereafter, Legrand launched an effort to establish a memorial park honoring all North American Indians who landed on the shores of Normandy on D-Day.
In 2007, Shay made his first pilgrimage to Omaha Beach and several other major World War II battlefields. For the first time, Shay spoke about his war experiences, including being a comfort to many who didn’t survive and saving wounded soldiers on the beach, Houx wrote.
The newly-dedicated park features a bench, a large turtle carved out of blue granite by Shay’s nephew Penobscot artist Tim Shay, and a plaque inscribed in English with a French translation. The opening line  reads: “In honor of Charles Norman Shay and in grateful memory of the 500 American and Canadian Indian soldiers who participated in Operation Neptune for the liberation of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”
The mayor of the nearby French city spoke at the ceremony, along with Shay. Members of the Native American Church sang an honor song and a children’s choir sang the United States and French anthems. Paratroopers from Great Britain and Poland dropped from overhead during the ceremony to symbolize the arrival of troops that day 73 years ago.
Many schoolchildren rushed to Shay and gave him honor and respect, treating him as a hero, Garvin said.
After that ceremony, Garvin went with the group to another ceremony at the nearby cemetery for the fallen soldiers of D-Day.
There are more than 9,000 troops laid to rest at the site. At the ceremony, wreaths were placed in remembrance of the fallen heroes.
“It is a peaceful and reverent site above the beach,” Garvin said. “It is the perfect place to be at peace.”
Following that observance, the group went down to the beach where Shay explained to the group what happened on the day. His words were interpreted through a translator for those people in attendance who spoke French.
They then went on to Utah Beach, where the United States flag was raised and the national anthem sung.
“Everyone was treated like V.I.P.s,” Garvin said.
“Going to the park dedication and honoring the Native Americans were my reasons for going,” she said. “It was a moving and spiritual experience to be at the exact location where so many people had fought and died.”
During the ceremony, Marie Legrand spoke about the sacrifices so many people made that day. One quote remains in Garvin’s memories.
“She said, ‘We dedicate the cemetery. We are the children they never had.’ This is because they were all in their 20s and never had a chance to have a family of their own.”
At one of the monuments, an inscription moved Garvin. It read in part, “We will take care of you forever …,” meaning the remains of the fallen soldiers.
“They really dedicated and paid homage to the Native American soldiers,” Garvin said. She never would have had the same experience as a tourist, she said.