Ray Lambert, D-Day Survivor, WWII Torch Bearer, Dies at 100
Ray Lambert, a former Army medic credited with saving the lives of at least 15 men during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, died Friday in his home near Southern Pines. He was 100 years old.
The causes of death were heart failure and cancer, according to the Associated Press.
Lambert had been one of those World War II veterans who was quiet about his experiences. But after what his co-author has described as months of persuading, he agreed to write a memoir of his war years, “Every Man a Hero”, a reference to the all men in his unit.
He was 98 years old when it was published and quickly made the New York Times best-sellers list.
Lambert agreed to write it, he said in a 2019 interview with WUNC, partly because the values that held the country together seem to be eroding.
I realized that if I didn't tell these stories about my men, that they couldn't do it. I felt it my responsibility and obligation to them to talk to people and tell people about the war and what they did.Ray Lambert
"Perhaps they should teach a little more in schools about World War II," Lambert said, "and how the generation at that time, my generation, loved the country and respected the flag and was willing to fight for our families and our country."
He also did it, he said, because he owed it to his unit.
"I realized that if I didn't tell these stories about my men, that they couldn't do it," he said. "I felt it my responsibility and obligation to them to talk to people and tell people about the war and what they did."
He had come to enjoy returning to France each year for commemorations of the invasion, and had made friends in the French town closest to where he landed on the beach.
In 2019, he was there, sitting on a stage as President Donald Trump told part of his story.
The President turned to Lambert and said: "Ray, the free world salutes you," Trump said.
Then Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron approached and both shook his hand.
Enlisting in a 'fighting unit'
Lambert grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression. After his father was injured in sawmill accident, he dropped out of school, left home and began working at age 14, cutting timber and working on a river dredge.
In 1940 Lambert enlisted in the Army, though the pay was small, and war loomed. Lambert said that he signed up mainly because he needed a steady job. But that didn't keep him from telling the recruiter not to put him in the Air Corps, where he might be made a mechanic.
"I told him I wanted to get in a fighting unit," Lambert said, laughing. "Now, I don't know how stupid that was. At that age... all we knew about, you know, you're gonna be a tough guy, you're going to be in the Army and fight."
Lambert had no idea just how much fighting that would get him into.
In 1943 he participated in invasion of North Africa, then was part of the invasion of Sicily.
Finally, as a staff sergeant leading a unit of medics, he was sent to England to prepare for his third invasion of the war: D-Day.
He was only 23 years old, but had already earned a Silver Star and Bronze star for valor — and three Purple Hearts.
My brother and I talked about our chances and kind of agreed that if one of us didn't make it, the other one would take care of their family.Ray Lambert
Aboard a transport ship just minutes before climbing down into a landing craft to head ashore in the first wave of troops, Ray Lambert spotted his brother, Bill, who also was a medic. They greeted each other soberly, as all around them a massive fleet of transports dropped anchor in the rough seas.
"We'd been through both the other two invasions," Lambert said. "I had been wounded in Africa, and he was wounded in Africa. And then I was wounded again and Sicily, and he was."
The combat-seasoned brothers had as much sense as anyone of how bad this battle was going to be.
"So my brother and I talked about our chances and kind of agreed that if one of us didn't make it, the other one would take care of their family," Lambert said.
Then a whistle blew - the signal to line up to climb nets into the landing craft bobbing in the rough seas.
"The wind was blowing, and the guys were throwing up in the boats, and it was a mess," Lambert said.
They could hear German artillery and see smoke as they approached the beach.
"I told my guys to go underwater as far in as they could," he said. "You could see the bullets hitting the water just like hail."
The instant the ramp at the front of the boat dropped so that the men could clamber off, Lambert was shot.
"It went through my right arm," he said, pointing to a scar.
But he drove forward into the water. There was, he said, nothing to do but go forward or die.
'The bullets were flying all over'
Where the boat dropped them, the water was over the men's heads.
"When we went under the water, they had barbed wire and you had to try to get through that, and there were mines tied to that," Lambert said. "So we had a lot of guys get tangled up. A lot of the underwater mines went off and killed some guys."
He got through that underwater nightmare, only to move onto the one on the beach.
A German machine gun crew on a hill had a clean shot down to the section of sand that Lambert and other soldiers were crawling onto.
"We had nothing between us, and the bullets were flying all over," Lambert said. "There was no place on Omaha Beach that I think a person could stand for five minutes and not get killed and wounded."
"These bodies that were dead would be washing in with the waves coming in, and then the guys that were hit, you'd try to put a tourniquet on a guy and the ... guy was wet, and everything he had on was wet," Lambert said. "We were doing all we could there, but it was just an impossible situation to try to properly treat things."
Lambert kept dashing into the surf, moving from one bobbing body to another, finding the wounded and dragging them out.
"I had a couple of my men and myself trying to get these guys over behind that rock," Lambert said, referring to a big chunk of concrete on the beach, probably left over from construction of the German fortifications.
At some point, something massive, probably shrapnel, hit his leg, opening it down to the bone. He put a tourniquet on, injected himself with morphine, and went back into the water to pull out more soldiers. Then, while pulling a man out of the surf, a landing craft rushed up and dropped a ramp on both of them, pinning them in four feet of water.
Before it backed away, two vertebrae in Lambert's back were crushed. He somehow dragged the wounded man ashore before losing consciousness.
He was eventually picked up by a landing craft with other wounded men, and as it churned away from the fighting, a doctor spotted him.
Lambert brothers wounded
"He came over and looked at my dog tags, and he said 'We have another Lambert on here,'" he said.
His brother was horribly wounded, with an arm and leg so badly mangled that doctors considered amputating them.
The brothers were taken to an American field hospital in England for surgery.
"I don't know how long it was before they brought Bill out. But they put him in the cot next to me. And the next morning, when we woke up, he looked over and he saw me ... and he said 'What are you doing here?' I said 'The same thing you are.'"
Doctors saved Bill Lambert's limbs, and his wounds eventually healed, though he needed several operations back in the U.S.
After the war, Lambert took classes at MIT on the GI Bill, and both he and his brother went on to found successful electrical contracting companies, becoming part of the fuel for America's post-war boom, a prosperity for the nation they had helped make possible.
The way I’d like to be remembered is a guy who was willing to die for my family and for my country, and a good soldier and a good person.Ray Lambert
Until Bill died 11 years ago, their families often vacationed together.
In the 2019 interview, asked how he would like to be remembered, Lambert paused briefly, as if, perhaps, the question had never occurred to him.
“The way I’d like to be remembered is a guy who was willing to die for my family and for my country, and a good soldier and a good person.”
Lambert had traveled back to Normandy more than a half dozen times and made friends in area. In 2018, the mayor of the town of Colleville-sur-Mer, just above the beach where the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located, called to say the town wanted to put a plaque on the chunk of weathered concrete where Lambert and his men had sheltered the wounded.
It would say “Ray Lambert: Hero.” Lambert said no, that if his named was on the plaque, he wanted those of his men on it, too. It's now bolted there now, and lists everyone in the unit.
But the modest hero couldn’t stop it from becoming known as “Ray's Rock.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.