What the last veterans can teach us all as D-Day fades from memory

<span>American D-Day veteran Charles Shay stands on a dune overlooking Omaha beach in Normandy where he landed as a 19-year-old.</span><span>Photograph: Kiran Ridley/The Observer</span>
American D-Day veteran Charles Shay stands on a dune overlooking Omaha beach in Normandy where he landed as a 19-year-old.Photograph: Kiran Ridley/The Observer

Next month will see the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France, when about 156,000 troops crossed the Channel to fight their way on to five Normandy beaches.

No one who took part in that day, 6 June 1944, the largest seaborne assault in history, would ever forget the experience. Indeed, many were haunted by memories of it for the rest of their lives. Yet no matter how momentous an event might be – in this case it amounted to nothing less than the securing of western Europe’s liberty – a kind of societal amnesia inevitably deepens with each new generation.

Last week a survey found that less than half of adults aged 18 to 34 recognised that D-day referred to the Allied invasion. Yet, before anyone reproaches the young for their ignorance, it should be acknowledged that few people of any age know what the “D” in D-day actually stands for (it’s “day”, which gives us the slightly comic tautology of Day-day).

There was small arms fire, artillery, mortars exploding. You could not expect not to be wounded

Similarly, while perhaps the majority of Britons will have heard of Omaha beach – the codenamed location of the bloodiest fighting and the famously realistic opening scene in Saving Private Ryan – they will probably struggle to recall Gold and Sword, the two beaches assigned to British forces. Juno (Canadian-dominated) and Utah (also American) complete the five. A further blow to our collective memory is that nearly all those who braved the terrifying might of the German defences are now dead.

All of which makes the testaments of the surviving handful of veterans a precious commodity if we want to appreciate the significance of that day. Among that select number is Charles Shay, who served as a medic in the first wave of infantry to hit the five-mile-long Omaha beach near Vierville-sur-Mer. A Native American from the Penobscot Nation, Shay now resides in Bretteville-l’Orgueilluse, a Normandy village just 20 miles from where he came ashore 80 years ago as a 19-year-old.

Although he will reach his centenary in July, he can still vividly recall that first contact with the French coast. “The weather was very bad,” he says, noting that the invasion had been due to take place a day earlier but was postponed because of a storm that had scarcely abated 24 hours later.

Having crossed to within a few miles of the coast on a troop-­carrying ship, Shay and his fellow infantrymen had to climb down rope ladders and jump into small landing craft, while the boats were being severely buffeted. The waves, he says, were two metres high, and if anyone mistimed their leap they risked breaking a leg or being crushed between the ship and the craft.

Once in the flat-bottomed craft, the effect of the high waves was dramatically increased and many soldiers were violently sick. But not Shay. “I grew up by the ocean and spent a lot of time as a child on fishing boats,” he explains.

If getting into the landing craft was fraught with danger, getting out of them was frighteningly more lethal. Around 6am, before the sun had come up, some of the landing craft came to a halt on hidden sand banks. Everyone assumed they had reached the shore’s seabed and the soldiers were instructed to make their way to the beach. Weighed down with kit and armaments, they instead sank beneath the waves as soon as they stepped off the banks.

For those who escaped that fate, German machine guns and snipers awaited. “The minute the ramps went down some of the men standing in front were immediately wounded or killed,” Shay recalls.

Others were hit in the sea. Whoever managed to wade ashore encountered a hellish vision of human suffering, with limbs blown off, heads shattered and lifeless bodies littering the sand.

Shay doesn’t dwell on such gory details but talks in a matter-of-fact way about what he witnessed. Chaos reigned, bullets hissed, men screamed in excruciating pain. “It was very loud,” says Shay. “There was small arms fire, artillery, mortars exploding.”

The plan had been for the air force to bomb the beaches beforehand, making craters in which the invading soldiers could find protection. But not a single bomb made contact with the beach. The soldiers from the First Infantry Division were utterly exposed. Their only choice was to dive on to the sand or run towards the machine gun fire.

For the majority of soldiers that day, including Shay, it was their first time in battle. Even with intense training, there’s no guarantee how an individual might respond to machine gun fire. “Condition Black” is a military term used to describe the kind of immobilised terror that struck many soldiers who landed that morning.

Shay says he wasn’t scared because he was well prepared. “You could not expect not to be wounded,” is how he puts it. Soldiers, of course, are not above reimagining their feelings once the battle has passed, but that’s not the impression Shay’s unsensational retelling conveys. Nor is it borne out by his actions.

Once on the beach, he saw that many of the wounded were in the water and the tide was coming in. “If those men stayed there, they were going to drown,” he recalls. “So I tried to drag the wounded men who could not up move up to the waterline.” As he did so, German machine-gunners sought to cut him down. While countless bullets whistled past, he was able to pull a number of the injured ashore. For these deeds he was later awarded the Silver Star.


The whole invasion plan, known as Operation Overlord, had been many months, even years, in gestation. It was unprecedented in size and required great secrecy, subterfuge and meticulous preparation.

By the spring of 1944, Nazi Germany was undoubtedly in decline, as its enormous eastern front retreated from the Soviet onslaught. Nonetheless there was no certainty that the invasion would be a success. For one thing, the Germans prided themselves on the “Atlantic Wall” of defence that stretched from Norway down to the Spanish border with France. And for another, the Allies had a disastrous track record in this particular arena.

There was Dunkirk four years earlier, when British forces were hastily evacuated from northern France and a humiliating defeat was turned into a national myth of doughty improvisation. Then in August 1942 a disastrous raid on Dieppe left more than half of a largely Canadian force of 6,000 men either killed, injured or taken prisoner. Finally, only weeks before D-day, a large-scale rehearsal at Slapton Sands in Devon resulted in 749 American deaths from a mixture of friendly fire and German naval attacks.

For D-day to succeed it had to establish a foothold for a full-scale liberation of France, then the Low Countries and finally the defeat of Germany itself. And that required an element of surprise (not easy when the invasion had been expected for months), an effective plan and, ideally, a complacent German response. Perhaps more than anything, though, it called for individual instances of extraordinary bravery in those crucial early hours. Put bluntly, the invasion would have failed without a critical mass of self-sacrifice. There had to be enough men who were prepared to ignore every normal human extinct for self-preservation and charge pill boxes and gun batteries while all around them their comrades were being cut down.

As with so many best-laid plans, there was no accounting for the weather. A week before D-day, it was all blue skies and temperatures of 30C. Now the cloud cover caused bombers to miss their targets, the rough seas meant that amphibious tanks upturned and sank, and vital communication links were ruined by saturated wireless systems.

On some beaches the job was made a little less daunting by the fact that the pill boxes and batteries were manned by Osttruppen, conscripts or volunteers from Poland and the Soviet Union. There were cases of them killing their German officers to enable their surrender.

The stiffest German resistance was on Omaha. The more casualties the Germans inflicted, the more work there was for medics such as Shay and his friend Edward Morozewicz, whom he had met in training. “He came from New Jersey,” says Shay, “but I didn’t know this at that time.”

Shay worked on the wounded from 6am through to 4pm, by which time the Americans had gained control of the beach, having suffered about 2,400 casualties. While tending to the fallen, Morozewicz was badly wounded himself.

“When I found him on the beach I knew he was dying,” Shay says. “And he knew it also. I bandaged him up as best I could, but while I was treating him he died in my arms.”

Fifty-six years later, Shay discovered that Morozewicz had a sister still living in New Jersey, and with a fellow veteran he travelled to visit her. “I prepared a picture frame with items that he received, including the Silver Star,” he says, which he was able to give to her at a ceremony in her brother’s honour. “We became good friends,” he says.

It’s a simple story, told again in the most artless language, and yet the fact of that six-decade gap between Morozewicz’s death and Shay’s visit to his sister reveals everything we need to know about the abiding legacy of that day in 1944.

In Saving Private Ryan – a film, like all war films, Shay has avoided seeing – the dying words of Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, to Private Ryan (Matt Damon) are “Earn it”. He means: live a life that’s worthy of the sacrifice made by those sent to rescue him.

Shay had already “earned it” as a teenager. For, as a Native American living on a reservation in Maine, he did not have the right to vote (that was not gained until 1954), yet he travelled thousands of miles to risk his life for the liberty of the French.

Shay took part in several more battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, before being taken prisoner by the Germans in March 1945. As they knew the war was lost, he was treated relatively well. After the war he continued in the military and served in the Korean war.

He then worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, both in Vienna. When his beloved wife Lily died, he returned to America and the Penobscot Nation, having been away for 40 years, but he suffered from loneliness and difficulty in securing good healthcare.

In 2007 he was awarded the Legion of Honour (France’s highest order of merit) and for the first time he began talking openly about his experiences during the war. It is only fitting, then, that in his old age the country has provided a home for Shay and takes care of his health.

There are numerous stories of exceptional courage on D-day that are documented in the history books, from the paratroopers who landed behind enemy lines to secure key bridges and roads to Lord Lovat’s Special Service Brigade who, accompanied by a bagpiper, stormed the guns at Sword beach. It becomes ever easier as time passes to relegate these tales to another age, a different era of patriotic duty and unquestioning service.

But this would be to drain these historic events of their all too human struggles, of resolve over fear, of fortune over tragedy, and ultimately of good over evil. Because as Shay, who experienced firsthand the denial of fundamental rights, once observed: “Democracy should never be taken for granted.”

There’s no need for deliberation in recognising men like Shay as heroes. But nor should we forget that they were also just like us, people with hopes and dreams and an unquenchable desire to go on living. The difference is their actions made it far more possible for us to pursue those universal ends.