Charles Norman Shay served as a combat medic during World War II, and he saved several lives during the D-Day landing at Normandy.
Charles Norman Shay, a decorated D-Day veteran and Penobscot Nation elder, salutes after laying a wreath at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, in June 2020. The new Matinicus Island ferry will be named in honor of Shay and his people's historic connection to the island. Credit: Virginia Mayo / AP

The new Matinicus Island ferry, currently under construction in Alabama, is expected to start serving the tiny speck of dry land, 22 miles off the Knox County coast, sometime in 2024.

Until recently, the boat didn’t have a name. Now it does: The M/V Charles Norman Shay.

The vessel’s designation is meant to honor both the famous, 99-year-old, decorated World War II and Korean War veteran from the Penobscot Nation and his people’s historic presence on the island.

“Charles Norman Shay is a Mainer of undeniable reputation, a war hero, a medic who saved lives on the beach at D-Day,” said Eva Murray, the island’s representative to the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board.

Last winter, Murray was tasked with polling folks on Matinicus and coming up with a name everyone could get behind. It wasn’t easy. She got tons of suggestions, but no two were alike.

“We had no consensus,” she said.

But Murray found a substantial chunk of folks who wanted to somehow honor their island’s original Penobscot inhabitants, especially given the troubling and violent tale of Matinicus’ first European settler, Ebenezer Hall.

Murray and island historian Suzanne Rankin cite Charles A.E. Long’s 1926 book “Matinicus Isle: Its story and its people,” which contends Penobscots historically used the island as a place to fish, hunt birds and seals and pick berries.

That changed around 1750, when Hall showed up claiming the island for himself.

“He was basically a squatter and, by all accounts, a real jerk,” Murray said.

After burning the island to make way for agriculture, Hall reportedly shot and killed two Penobscots who ventured onto the island, then buried them in his garden. Penobscot officials wrote to Massachusetts Gov. William Phipps asking that Hall be removed from Matinicus, but the colonial government ignored them.

Then, in 1757, as the murky story goes, a band of Penobscots arrived on Matinicus, shot and killed Hall, burned his house and hauled his wife and four children away as captives. The Penobscot victory was short lived, however. Before long, there were too many white settlers to overcome. Indigenous connections to the island ended centuries ago.

Murray and other current island residents hope the ferry name will draw attention to those who lived there first.

“We want to recognize that they were here, and not just as a politically correct way to shine our own shoes,” Murray said. “We hope it leads to a real relationship with the Penobscot Nation.”

While Murray and her fellow islanders knew they wanted to honor the Penobscots, they still didn’t know how to translate that wish into a name. That’s when they turned to the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department and its director, James Francis.

“They suggested Charles Norman Shay,” Murray said.

A call to Francis for comment was not immediately returned, but the Historic Preservation Department’s website gives Shay’s story.

He grew up on Indian Island and was drafted into the U.S. Army a few months after graduating from Old Town High School in 1943. Trained as a combat medic, Shay was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One.

Shay went ashore at Normandy on D-Day with the first wave of attack on June 6, 1944. There, under fire, he saved several wounded men from drowning and earned the Silver Star. Later, on the frontlines in Europe, he was captured and spent a month in German prison camps before being liberated. When the war was over, Shay was awarded four bronze battle stars and demobilized.

With job prospects bleak back home in Maine, he reenlisted the following year. In November 1950, Shay landed in North Korea where his division fought against the invading Chinese army. After the fighting, he was promoted to master sergeant and received the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters for valor and was nominated for a second Silver Star.

He remained in the armed forces reserves until 1964, at which time he went to work for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria, where his wife Lilli Shay was from. In the 1980s, after working for the United Nations in Europe for 20 years, Shay retired to Indian Island, where he’d been spending vacations.

Now at almost 100 years old, Shay is reportedly living in France. There, near the beaches he helped liberate, stands a bronze bust in Shay’s likeness as part of the Charles Shay Indian Memorial.

After Shay’s name was suggested, Murray said support for naming the ferry after him was nearly unanimous.

“Nobody had anything close to a better suggestion,” she said.

Murray and Rankin are hoping they can convince the state to place a plaque on the new boat explaining Shay’s story, as well as his nation’s historic presence on the island.  

“It will definitely be of interest to ferry riders, and everyone should know who Charles Shay is,” Murray said.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.