Book Review: In reminiscences, a uniquely American story
By WILLIAM DAVID BARRY –“PROJECT OMAHA BEACH: THE LIFE AND MILITARY SERVICE OF A PENOBSCOT INDIAN ELDER.” By Charles Norman Shay. Polar Bear & Co. 208 pages. $15.95.
“Project Omaha Beach: The Life and Military Service of a Penobscot Indian Elder” is a curious but honest volume notable for the unique information it freights. A book that should not be ignored.
In the foreword, Harold E.L. Prins and Bunny McBride of Kansas State University — two of the most incisive non-native writers on the life and history of Maine and maritime Native Americans — introduce the courtly author, Charles Norman Shay (born 1924). Meeting with him at Indian Island, Maine, on his 80th birthday in 2004, Prins and McBride were amazed by Shay’s recollections of D-Day, and resolved to find a way to return him to Omaha Beach. In 2007, such a journey was made possible by grants from the First Division Museum (Big Red One) in Wheaton, Ill., and the Maine Humanities Council.
A little context to orient the reader: Shay was one of nine children born to Leo and Florence Nicolar Shay, a hardworking Penobscot couple living in Bristol, Conn. As a result of the Great Depression, the family returned to their roots on Indian Island. Charles’ grandfather, Joseph Nicolar, wrote “The Life and Traditions of the Red Man” (1893), a classic publication.
The family had some trouble fitting back in. Florence was a Baptist, and helped start that religion in the thoroughly Catholic community, and Charles was sent to public school across the river. Still, it was a thoroughly Indian Island upbringing, and when World War II broke out, Maine’s Native Americans found themselves in the old double bind.
As Indians, they were not American citizens, and could not vote in state or federal elections. But they were required to register for the draft and serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
That became the determining factor in the author’s life, propelling him away from the Penobscot Nation and his family, though he continued to struggle and eventually was able to return. As a medic with the Big Red One on Omaha Beach, he served with distinction and skill before being captured in Germany late in the war.
With no opportunities at home, Shay re-enlisted, and met and married “the love of his life,” a beautiful Austrian, Lilli Bolliarth. Eventually, Shay made a career in the Air Force traveling the globe in exciting but not always easy circumstances.
In retirement, the author drove for a posh limousine service, and recounts (though not in detail) conversations between Kurt Waldheim and Roy Huffington. At the time, Shay mentioned not a word.
In 2003, the Shays retired to Indian Island, where Lilli died and a new saga emerged. Chronicled here in seven chapters, it opens with Omaha Beach, which the author, accompanied by Prins and McBride, toured. Shay was presented with the Legion of Honor medal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In subsequent chapters, the reader learns of Shay’s return pilgrimage in 2009 as one of the ambassadors of the Penobscot Nation to Bearn, France, marking the connection with Baron Jean Vincent de Saint-Castine (1652-1707), founder of Castine, as well as various other reminiscences, tribal historical material and more.
Shay’s core text is clear and charming, especially when written in the form of diary entries to his departed wife, Lilli. He is an extraordinary man who has witnessed much, understood much, and lived what seems to be an enjoyable and constructive life in spite of extraordinary obstacles.
Although a good editor could have worked on some of the sections or turned them into documentary back matter, “Project Omaha Beach” is still a key Maine volume.
William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.