D-Day, Native American soldiers honored in Schaumburg on anniversary
The 77th anniversary of D-Day and the specific contributions of Native American soldiers were commemorated Saturday at the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg with the screening of an award-winning documentary about the 75th anniversary, as well as the opening of a related exhibit at the museum.
"D-Day Warriors: It Was Our War Too" tells the story of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, largely from the perspective of the now 97-year-old Charles Shay, a member of the Penobscot Nation from Maine who survived the first wave as a medic in the First Infantry Division.
"I still to this day do not know how I was never wounded," Shay says in the film, unable to come up with any explanation other than his mother's prayers.
Trickster Gallery officials first met Shay in 2015 through historian and retired Army Col. Paul Herbert, who was then director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. He knew Shay as a result of the museum's research work.
Herbert, Trickster Gallery employees, local Native American veterans of various time periods and their families were among a 70-member delegation that accompanied Shay during the 75th anniversary ceremonies in France, where he had recently moved.
Hopes that Shay would be able to Zoom in for Saturday's event in Schaumburg went unfulfilled. However, he was being toasted by military officials in France, where other American D-Day veterans reportedly were held back from attending this year by lingering COVID-19 travel restrictions.
But the documentary crew and other members of the delegation shared their memories of the trip two years ago. Even the historian Herbert, who narrated the film, said he'd never looked at those events specifically from a Native American perspective before. He found the most moving aspect of the trip to be when the delegation performed ceremonial visits to every Native American grave near the invasion sites, believing such a thing never had happened before.
"What an honor it was for me to be a part of it," Herbert said. "It was truly powerful. It was something I'll never forget."
Emily Farr of South Elgin, who directed the film, said the project began for her with the intention of making just a seven-minute video of Shay's involvement with the 74th anniversary in 2018.
"It was a huge honor to be part of this project, really from beginning to end," Farr said. "It was an amazing experience."
Photographer David Temper said that even as an American and military veteran himself, he learned a lot of new information about D-Day on the trip and was amazed by how France treated those 1944 soldiers like royalty.
"I didn't think it would affect me as much as it did," Temper said. "It's one of the highlights of my career."
In the film, Shay describes how his parents moved back to their nation's reservation in Maine after being hurt by the start of the Great Depression in Connecticut. His mother campaigned for Native American voting rights as a fair exchange for any expectation of military service, and he felt he was helping her cause by accepting his draft.
The documentary cuts between Herbert's general description of the nightmarish situation all the D-Day soldiers faced and Shay's own experiences.
As a medic, Shay encountered so many wounded men that all of his supplies to treat them were quickly exhausted. In fact, he could do no more for his best buddy's stomach wound than give him morphine to ease his pain.
"I could not save his life, and he passed on," Shay said. "It was every man for himself. Survival was on the minds of everyone. I went from one obstacle to the next ... and I made it."
Of the 130,000 who fought on D-Day, 10,000 Americans lost their lives and 175 Native Americans were among them.
"I think it's a good idea to recognize Native Americans because they have done a lot for this country," Shay said in the film.
As the documentary is still up for -- and winning -- awards, it's available for purchase only at tricksterculturalcenter.org, said Trickster Center Founder and CEO Joe Podlasek, the film's executive producer.