“Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” Those words by General of the Armies John Pershing about the troops who stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, certainly rang true as I spoke with American veterans who landed at Omaha and Utah beaches. It was so powerful to meet these courageous men where, 75 years before, they carried out the largest and most difficult and dangerous amphibious assault in history and began their liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II.
Along with Sen. Angus King and 16 other senators, I was part of the official Senate delegation participating in the 75th anniversary of D-Day last week. As we looked at the high cliffs above Omaha that were heavily fortified by the Germans, we were in awe of the courage of the Americans who landed in chest-deep, cold water and immediately faced a barrage of machine-gun fire from the German soldiers from the high bluffs above them. Still the allied soldiers pressed on.
One of those brave soldiers was Charles Shay, an elder of the Penobscot tribe and a graduate of Old Town High School. Just 19 years old on D-Day, he was a medic who repeatedly risked his own life by rescuing wounded and drowning soldiers. Over and over, he returned to the cold water, dragging drowning men to the beach, staunching their bleeding from horrendous wounds, and comforting those who were dying. For his heroism that harrowing day, Shay was awarded a Silver Star. Two years ago, he was also honored at a ceremony dedicating the Charles Shay Indian Memorial in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer Park, which overlooks Omaha Beach.
As he showed me his medals, I called Shay a hero. He replied, “No, I am not a hero; I was just doing my job. The real heroes are those who are in that cemetery.”
I also met with World War II veteran Henry Breton of Augusta, who enlisted at age 18 along with three of his brothers. Breton not only was part of the second wave of landings on D-Day, but also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. My own father was wounded twice in that fierce battle.
After meeting his future wife on V-E Day (May 8, 1945), Breton returned home to Maine, becoming a small business owner and serving as president of La Club Calumet, Augusta’s Franco-American club. It was an honor to express my gratitude to him for his service.
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, rows and rows of white crosses interspersed with white Stars of David mark the graves of more than 9,380 Americans, including 83 Mainers, who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and the battles that followed. How proud I am that the superintendent of the Cemetery and Memorial is another Mainer, Scott Desjardins, a 1977 graduate of Madawaska High School.
Desjardins regards his care of the cemetery and memorial as a sacred duty. As he said to me, the families of those who lost their lives expect us to take exceptional care of their graves, and he wakes up every day thinking about that responsibility.
By the end of June 6, 1944, the Allies had succeeded in establishing a foothold in Nazi-occupied Europe. As a result of the extraordinary bravery of soldiers like Shay and Breton, the tide of the war turned, millions were liberated and the Nazis were defeated.
President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron both spoke at the D-Day ceremony about the sacrifices made by our armed forces. In a very moving gesture, Macron turned toward our veterans and expressed his heartfelt gratitude to them for liberating France. What an honor it was to commemorate this historic battle and to thank some of the extraordinary men who secured freedom for so many. Let us always remember those who sacrificed so much.
Susan Collins represents Maine in the US Senate.
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