By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Born near the end of World War I, Alexander Shay risked death on D-Day in World War II.
Shay, who rose quickly to the rank of chief petty officer, marked his 100th birthday Sunday.
Bombs landed around his landing craft at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“But I didn’t see the bombs,” Shay said. “I was in the engine room the whole time.”
Shay grew up in Chicago and had a hankering to join the Navy since childhood. Bombings at Pearl Harbor and other sites in the South Pacific put America in the war.
He faced being drafted into the Army, and, he recalled, the Navy only took single men. Since the Shays didn’t have children, he was later allowed to enlist.
Asked by an officer what the Navy had planned for him, Shay said a merchant ship crossing the Atlantic.
“Good luck,” the officer said.
But the Navy needed mechanics, and Shay had studied that for two years in high school — thus saving him from the dangerous crossings.
The next day, he was sent to diesel school at Navy Pier, he recalled. He turned out to be top in the class.
He also studied engines in Cleveland.
In October 1942, he was assigned to Landing Ship Tank 61. He spent much of the war in the engine room as a chief petty officer with training duties.
In 1943, just before the invasion of Sicily, German planes attacked a large group of LSTs. For once, he had to take a look.
“A bomb went off about 50 feet away,” he said.
If he’d opened the door, he would have been hit with shrapnel.
“God was with me that night,” he wrote in an account of his Navy service. “I heard the clatter of shrapnel hit the side of the door. I opened up the door” and saw jagged, red-hot shrapnel on the LST.
He felt blessed: If he’d been drafted into the Army, he would have eaten cold meals and slept in a hole. Instead, the Navy gave him hot food and a warm bed.
Between the invasion of North Africa, Sicily and France, “we made 75 trips back and forth.”
“I never carried a gun, and I never got shot at,” he said.
Sadly, when he returned from his years of service, his father had died and his first wife had divorced him because she felt he left her alone by enlisting rather than waiting to be drafted.
He and his wife Bea both lost their spouses in 1982. They both liked golf, among other things.
After playing golf together in Florida and Arizona, the Shays moved here in 2002.
They remain happily married — and in their own home, which is a blessing Bea treasures.
Shay still recalls his address growing up in Chicago, but recently has had memory issues about the war. He dictated some of his life story to former resident Amy Liu, and Bea uses that to fill in some details.
Shay remains modest about D-Day, saying he almost never left the engine room.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.