Charles Shay, a Penobscot Indian from Old Town, was among the first wave of Allies who landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Today, the 89-year-old former Army medic is among the last survivors still willing and able to talk about what he saw and what he did that morning. When troops jumped out of transport boats and stormed the beach that morning, they suffered thousands of casualties, but helped turn World War II in favor of the Allies.
“I saw a lot of carnage and a lot of dead Americans, and a lot of dead Germans. It was devastating. It took a little bit of time for me to adjust so I could do the job I was prepared to do. Once I got over that, I performed well,” he said.
Shay will tell his story in a movie that South Portland-based Lone Wolf Documentary Group is making about D-Day for the History Channel. The movie is likely to air over two nights around the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which is June 6.
Lone Wolf is in the final stage of the movie. The company will film a few sequences next weekend at Pine Point beach in Scarborough, said producer Adam Costa.
Lone Wolf tells most of the story with archival footage and interviews with historians and veterans. The scenes that will be filmed at Pine Point, beginning at low tide on the morning of March 23, are what Costa called “small moments,” involving fewer than a dozen re-enactors. The landings at Normandy were the largest amphibious landings of Allied infantry and armored divisions ever attempted. There will be no landing vessels or any suggestion of invasion in Scarborough, however.
“We’re not doing anything near ‘Private Ryan,’ ” Costa said, referencing the epic Tom Hanks movie “Saving Private Ryan.” “We’re looking for a few very specific shots that will cut between sections of archival footage.”
He cautioned that people who show up to watch the filming might be disappointed with what they see because of the small scale. The area of the filming will be roped off.
The documentary is told mostly through the words and voices of veterans like Shay. Their stories include personal and specific anecdotes that cannot be told with footage that was shot during the actual invasion. In those instances, Lone Wolf hired re-enactors to help recreate specific scenes.
They filmed some scenes in Louisiana, but saved the final beach scenes for Maine. At Pine Point, they will film the story of one veteran, who told of his gun being struck by a bullet and blown in two when he hit the sand. The soldier dropped his weapon and moved forward. A fallen comrade picked up the discarded pieces and crawled after the soldier, imploring him to keep his gun.
“The moment of the gun breaking and the gentleman giving it back to him are what we are going to re-create,” Costa said.
Those moments are the “connecting tissue” that will hold the veterans’ stories together with the existing archival footage, he said.
Lone Wolf is using an 8-mm camera and film, which is similar to what was used to record the 1944 invasion. It hired a company to process the film and transfer it to high-definition format, so it will look authentic.
Lone Wolf has made many films for TV, including the History Channel, Animal Planet and Discovery. Its latest project, “Ice Cold Gold,” is about a group of American miners in a remote part of Greenland. It premieres April 21 on Animal Planet. A film about the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination aired on History.
This movie, which has a working title of “D-Day in HD,” will be four hours long. The History Channel has told Lone Wolf that it will probably air over two nights on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, beginning June 6. But that air date is tentative, Costa said.
Costa said the History Channel signed off on the movie after it saw footage of Lone Wolf’s interview with Shay, who was among the first to land at 6:30 a.m.
“His interview was so good, that the History Channel said, ‘We want more vets,’ ” he said.
Lone Wolf traveled across the country to interview a dozen veterans, who ranged in age from 88 to 95.
“They have the most incredible stories, and this will probably be the last time these interviews will happen. A lot of these guys won’t be around for the 75th anniversary,” Costa said. “It’s a really wonderful experience to tell their stories one last time.”
Shay was happy to tell his story. He’s written books and appeared on TV many times, but this documentary may be the first time he will be on national TV, he said.
“I’ve been interviewed by French television,” he said. “They visited my house this past summer. But this was my first experience with the History Channel, and I found it very interesting. Very informative. I met a lot of nice people who were congenial and polite.”
Shay will be in France for the 70th anniversary, back in Normandy and Omaha Beach.
“I want to be present for the anniversary, on Omaha beach,” he said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: