The Last Medic

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Alex Kershaw
June 17, 2024
Troops from Charles Shay’s unit land on Omaha Beach.

I’ll never forget the first time I met Charles Shay, the last living medic from Omaha Beach on D-Day. I was leading a tour of Normandy and I’d spent the day at my “church” – on the golden sands where over nine hundred Americans gave their lives on 6 June 1944 to set Europe free.

Charles Shay was my big surprise for a group of travelers - to mark the 75th anniversary of the greatest invasion in modern history. My guests had spent an emotional week visiting battlefields. They had cried. They had swelled with pride. They had placed roses at graves of the fallen above Omaha Beach. And then, just before dinner on our last evening in Normandy, I asked them to come meet a special guest.    

Charles Shay during WWII.

Charles, as I now know him, was seated quietly, his Big Red One badge hanging proudly around his neck, looking remarkably young. Earlier, my guests had stood and stared at a statue of him near Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach, close to where he had suddenly found himself in a slaughter-house on D-Day. When they actually set eyes on Charles, my guests were stunned, overwhelmed. Some were speechless as they shook his hand, even forgetting to thank him.

Charles Shay on Omaha Beach in 2019.

Just a few weeks ago, this May, another lucky group, traveling with Friends of the National World War II Memorial on our Victory in Europe tour, also got to gasp in amazement and to hold the hand of a unique American. They too listened in awe as they learned how Charles lost a close friend on D-Day, Private Edward Morozewicz, who “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 died in my arms.”

A proud Penobscot tribal member, Charles grew up in remote, impoverished Maine during the Depression. He entered service in 1943 and was just nineteen when he landed on Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach with the first wave, a member of F Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the Big Red One – the First Infantry Division.

On D-Day, F Company was ripped apart, with around half the men killed or wounded. More would have died if Shay had not repeatedly braved machine gun fire and mortars to pull badly wounded men from the bloody shallows. That took enormous guts and compassion. He was, let’s not forget, unarmed, and woefully underequipped to deal with the carnage. But he did and went on to save more lives in the bitter hedgerow fighting that followed, then at the battle for Aachen, in the Huertgen Forest, and in the Ardennes.

Robert Capa’s famous photograph of troops from Shay’s unit landing where he saved lives on D Day.

Shay eventually broke down mentally but carried on regardless, becoming a POW toward the end of the war. He was liberated on 12 April 1945 and then repatriated. He’d done his time, earned his points. But back home, as was the case for so many of his fellow native Americans, he struggled to find a job - to escape poverty and disillusionment. He re-enlisted and was sent back to Europe. While stationed in Vienna, he fell in love and in 1950 married a beautiful young woman, Lilli Bollarth. She passed away in 2003.

A year after his wedding, Charles joined the 3rd Division's 7th Infantry Regiment as a medic during the Korean War. He saved more lives, gained promotion to master sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters. Charles then served in the Foreign Service  for three decades.

Charles’ last days are spent - in of all places - Normandy, where he is cared for by an exceptional woman, Marie-Pascale Legrand. She took him under her wing in 2018 after finding him in Maine in a miserable state, and decided to take him back to Normandy to live with her so he could receive the best care.

Celebrating Allied success on D-Day.

I have such wonderful memories of Charles during his time with Marie-Pascale: several long, laughter-filled dinners in Normandy; seeing him write a beautiful thank you message to me for writing the foreword to his recently published autobiography; and even a surprise encounter in Honolulu during the 80th anniversary commemorations of Pearl Harbor.

Charles, this May, to the right of Marie-Pascale Legrand. To the far left is Deirdre Daly, daughter of Medal of Honor recipient Michael Daly, who landed with Charles’s division on Omaha Beach on D Day.

Last month, in the dining room of a grand chateau, I watched as Charles, again seated beside Marie-Pascale, beamed with joy after blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Even though he does not turn 100 until this 27 June, we at Friends of the National World War II Memorial had decided to celebrate his century while we had the opportunity. How could we not? Among those seated at his table, singing happy birthday, were two women whose fathers fought with the Big Red One on Easy Red Sector on D-Day. Had these men been wounded, they could well have been saved or treated by Charles.

Charles Shay with Amy Chaisson, whose father also landed with the first wave from the Big Red One on D-Day.

Charles has defied so many odds for so long but is now, I have just learned, in palliative care, at the very end of a profoundly honorable life of kindness, service and sacrifice. And so, on his birthday this 27 June, I beseech you: spare a thought for Charles…and for those like him from the Greatest Generation who gave us everything.