June 6, 1944. Nothing could have prepared 19-year-old Charles Shay for what happened 75 years ago in northern France. It was D-Day, one of the most significant 24-hour periods of the 20th century, the tipping point in World War II.
That morning, Shay couldn’t understand what the event would mean. He was more concerned with the wounded soldiers and the machine-gun fire and shells all around him.
“My vision of the beach was very small. I could only experience what I could see,” he says, speaking from the now-glimmering Omaha Beach, where he landed 75 years ago today.
International leaders gathered this week to honor the dwindling number of D-Day veterans. U.S. President Donald Trump traveled to Normandy and the U.S. cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which stands on a bluff overlooking the English Channel where some 160,000 soldiers made the perilous D-Day crossing.
Shay plans to be among the crowd today to welcome President Trump as he pays tribute to 9,388 dead Americans, most of whom lost their lives on D-Day or in the aftermath of the Normandy offensive.
With the wisdom of his 94 years, Shay knows another war can never be discounted. “Some men cannot get enough of power,” he says. “And it still continues today.”
American soldiers took Omaha and Utah Beaches, but British and Canadian troops made similar acts of sacrifice and heroism on three other beachheads to the east. In all, the invasion covered 50 miles of French shoreline.
Shay survived, but he did not talk about the experience for well over half a century. “So many dead,” he says. “It was difficult to see and absorb.”
Few soldiers in the first wave fully realized the risks of their daring attack. Shay can still recount that day as if it just happened. When the ramp to shore dropped, Shay landed in water up to his chest. Many soldiers were overloaded with equipment. Sadly, they “sank immediately and a lot of men drowned,” he says.
Those who stayed afloat had to face German gunfire. Shay, a medic, sought cover behind the “high portions” of the beach and started treating the wounded. “I happened to look back out to the water,” he says. Many wounded men were lying on the beach as the tide began rising. Without help, they would drown.
“I dropped what I was doing, and I returned to the water,” Shay says. Germans were still shooting at any American who moved under their protected bunker above Omaha Beach. With bullets hitting the sand, Shay started pulling men out of the water. He received the Silver Star for his bravery.
When Shay left the beach late that afternoon, his company had lost dozens of men. But from that moment on, the war moved in the Allies’ favor.
D-Day also started a race against the Soviets to control as much territory as possible by the time Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. The competition between the Allies and the Soviets set the stage for the Cold War lines that defined Europe for the next five decades.
All these decades later, Shay is back at the same shores, walking across pristine lawns covered with white gravestones and pondering the sacrifice.
“Definitely it was worth it,” he says. “It was a rogue regime that was trying to take over the world, and the people had to be stopped.”
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. — John 15:13
(World War II and D-Day veteran Charles Norman Shay, poses on a dune at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Shay was a medic who on June 6, 1944, landed on Omaha Beach, where he helped drag wounded soldiers out of the rising tide, saving them from drowning. For his courage, he was awarded the Silver Star. AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)