Or perhaps “Rarely Sung Heroes” in these modern times of growing (or struggling?) decency in the United States. I say that with caution and some hesitation. Let me explain.
Back on June 6, 2019, the 75th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France honoring all the Allied soldiers who participated, fought, died, and survived in that historic amphibious invasion to liberate Nazi Europe, I published my blog-post Five Hundred Yards. It was my attempt for readers to bring an acute perspective and emotion what the landings on Omaha Beach was like that June morning for the thousands of 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-year old boys had gone through as they hit the water or beach. If you have the opportunity to read or reread Five Hundred Yards, please do. It will set the stage and context for this post.
Some/Many caucasian Euro-American descendants born and living in our 50-states today have a generic, basic knowledge of how indigenous North American peoples/Indians were either exterminated, moved from their homelands, or abusively treated and deceived by the U.S. government, military, and new settlers between 1778 and 1911, during the official existence of the United States. Between 1539 and 1774 thousands upon thousands of Indigenous peoples were massacred by European colonists and their armed forces. By far the biggest killer of North American Indians were all the lethal diseases European colonists/invaders brought within them and spread. Ironically, similar to what former President Trump accused the Chinese of doing with COVID-19. Nevertheless, it is estimated that from the Pre-Columbian Era (1325–1492) to the final massacre in 1911 in Washoe County, Nevada, between 95,000,000 to 114,000,000 Native American people, that’s millions not thousands, were wiped out by Europeans.
Despite this horrific background and constant inhumane atrocities committed upon them by Europeans and Euro-American descendants, during our first and second European World Wars more than 12,000 Native American Indians fought in Europe for the U.S. in World War I. More than 44,000 fought for the U.S. in World War II. Keep in mind, this is only one to three generations after the exterminations and removals from their own ancestral homelands over a 600-year timespan. Think about that. The numbers of your own people gradually and drastically dying, massacred, and disappearing all around you. With that in mind, these Native American men who, like their African-American WW1 and WW2 military counterparts, volunteered to go fight and risk their lives on a far away continent for a nation who at the time and well before did not love them or treat them as equals and far from justly. Nor did this nation welcome their survivors home as heroes the same as their own caucasian Euro-Americans and yet still went and did their patriotic (tribal) duty and did it bravely, honorably as the warriors they had always been.
I want to commemorate in a small way those Normandy, D-Day Native American warriors who did not come home, those who were wounded and maimed, and those who survived the entire war who did come back home, but nonetheless were still scarred and mentally wounded by those 2–3 years in Nazi Europe. Scarred perhaps too by six centuries of war upon their people by Europeans and Euro-Americans. Here is one of many partial accounts of that June morning on Omaha Beach, 1944 by Army Medic and 19-year old Private of Fox Company in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division who were the first frontline units to hit Omaha Beach.
In my June 6, 2019 blog-post Five Hundred Yards, I wrote about how many casualties were sustained by the first wave hitting the beach or head-high water of Omaha in the first 15-minutes and hour of landing. What I didn’t mention in that blog-post was that decades later German Wehrmacht testimonies stated they were firing their MG-42’s, 5cm and 8cm mortars, and rocket-launching Nebelwerfers so much, non-stop that the barrels were all overheating, even when they rotated them with extra barrels they had, 3-4 extras in some units. The German gun-crews were astonished by how many Allied soldiers kept coming and falling, coming and falling, over and over, endlessly as they quickly exhausted their entire stores of ammunition. On the American side with the 1st Division known as “The Big Red One,” they sustained over 2,000 casualties in the first hour of landings.
One particular Army Medic who was one of 14 total Medics in his regiment made it far enough up the 300-400 yards of flat beach and took cover. However, as he looked back from where he had come he realized he was all alone. No one in his company had made it safely as far as he had. He then noticed many of his fellow infantrymen lying on the beach wounded, screaming, and in the rising tide carrying their 60-75 lbs of gear, most were struggling or unable to pull themselves up the sand so as not to drown. Without hesitation he ran back some 300-400 yards again under heavy fire with his two satchels of medical supplies to those wounded and drowning, pulling many of them 10-11 yards up on the beach and began giving first aid. Another Corp man reported to his officers that this one Medic pulled about eighteen wounded out of the water that were twice or three-times his size and their uniforms and gear heavily soaked. Charles Norman Shay is a Penobscot Indian from the state of Maine and was that one remarkable Army Medic. He tells in his own words what happened:
“The seas were red with the blood. At the very beginning, it was difficult for me to witness so much carnage. I had to push what I was experiencing out of my mind, so I could function the way I was trained to function. Then I was able to operate effectively and even saved a few lives. I have always been proud to be a medic. It’s a special privilege.”
Shay remembers cradling those critically wounded to give them some comfort. When he found one he recognized, badly wounded with an open abdomen, he stayed with Private Edward Morozewicz, one of his closest friends, to ease him in his last few breaths. In 2017 Shay visited Morozewicz’s family, making sure they knew of Edward’s courage. Charles participated in a special ceremony honoring his fellow fallen medic. Shay still questions why he lived when Morozewicz and most of his unit were killed. “I knew [Edward] was slowly dying. I bandaged his wounds and gave him morphine. But I knew there was no help for him,” says a somber Shay.
Most of the American 1st and 29th Division’s first waves onto Omaha Beach perished, cut-down and slaughtered by the precise, heavily supplied and experienced 352nd German Infantry Division. The 352nd was assembled with many battle-tested soldiers pulled from worn-out or disbanded Wehrmacht divisions that had served on the Eastern front in Russia. By 12-noon on D-Day over half the men and most of the officers in Shay’s Company were either seriously wounded or dead. Up to 3,000 Allied troops died, and some 9,000 were injured or classified as missing that day, unidentifiable, or lost to the sea. Of Shay’s Regimental Medical Detachment of 42 medics, seven were killed and 24 severely wounded. After so many of his regiment and company fell or were killed, he later struggled many times with Survivors Remorse.
“My heart breaks for those mothers who prayed for their brave sons but never welcomed their sons home again,” says Shay wiping away a tear. “I can never forget the men who never had the chance to experience life as it was meant to be, a wife and a family, but instead were destined to depart this life in some far-off [European] land.”
Shay often says it was random, crazy luck that he survived D-Day, the rest of the war, and later the Korean War that he volunteered for service just five years later. After the war in Europe ended, the U.S. Army awarded Shay a Silver Star for his actions, and the French government appointed him a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, the highest honor given to non-citizens of France. But despite those medals this humble Penobscot Indian veteran always refers back to fellow warriors who paid the ultimate price and sacrifice for their country, homeland, Native tribes and family. Shay says there were many just like him.
Recently there has been new memorials and ceremonies finally recognizing the heroic contributions and sacrifices of Native American WW2 veteran warriors. Charles Shay makes annual trips back to Normandy to pay his ceremonial respects and honor his fellow Indians lost there with Eagle feathers, sage, and tobacco. He does so to bring heightened awareness to the younger public, particularly back in the United States. He lets his fellow Indian warriors lost, buried there under row after row of white crosses that they are not forgotten.
In the Normandy American Cemetery at least 29 Native American soldiers are buried. In the Brittany American Cemetery at least nine Native American soldiers are buried. And at the Utah Beach American Cemetery 30 Comanche soldiers, Code Talkers, from the Oklahoma Reservation are memorialized there. According to Dr. Harald E. L. Prins, an anthropologist and researcher at Kansas State University, 175 Native American soldiers landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Over 75-years later only around 55 have been identified.
For an extensive telling of Shay’s gallant service on D-Day go here. Many of the past stories of that day in June, a lot of the later accompanying military field narratives describing the Omaha ordeal are sanitized versions of the original field unit notes. And as S.L.A. Marshall writes for The Atlantic magazine in his provocative, transparently graphic article “First Wave at Omaha Beach,“ he says even “Cornelius Ryan’s epic film The Longest Day misses the essence of the unfiltered Omaha story.” I highly recommend his article.
It is my opinion, reflecting back this June 6th, 2021 anniversary of D-Day, given these Native American warriors pre-war histories they had every justifiable reason not to lift a finger for a white-man’s faraway war. They did not have to do any patriotic service for a 1940’s Euro-American country that treats them and had treated them as second- or third-class people without the same identical privileges and human rights afforded White America. Today, I think these Native American warriors are overdue, deserving the utmost respect, honor, and ceremony up to or beyond any other homage given to any Euro-American veterans of any U.S. wars! May they all receive many sacred Eagle feathers, burnt sage, and tobacco so all of their spirits rest in peace and receive (at minimum) equal remembrance and honor by all Americans; every single one of us without exception. Unmeasurable gratitude for all of you Native American warrior veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, past and present.
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