At 98, This D-Day Survivor Has Written A Book And Is Making One Last Trip To Normandy
As he takes part in the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy invasion, Ray Lambert of Moore County, N.C. worries that his generation's values have eroded.
Thursday marks 75 years since the D-Day Invasion, the largest amphibious assault in history.
The few remaining American survivors are all older than 90, and only a handful will be able to make the trip to Normandy for what likely will be the last major anniversary ceremony while any are still alive.
Among them will be one who just found a way for his memories to live on: At age 98, when most of life's big surprises would seem to be behind you, Ray Lambert has become an author.
He's written a memoir of his war years, co-written with the man who helped write American Sniper. It's titled Every Man a Hero, a reference to the all men in his unit.
He agreed to write it, he said, partly because the values that held the country together seem to be eroding.
"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."
Lambert, who lives near Southern Pines, N.C., grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression.
His father was injured in sawmill accident, so Lambert dropped out of school, left home when he was barely in his teens, and began working - cutting timber and working on a river dredge.
In 1940 he 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.
A sober reunion, then a nightmarish fight
First, he particiapted in the invasion of North Africa in 1943, where he was wounded and won the Silver Star for bravery. Next, he was part of the invasion of Sicily, where he was wounded again.
Then, in 1944, as a 24-year-old staff sergeant leading a unit of medics, he was sent to England to board a transport ship for his third invasion: D-Day.
Aboard ship just minutes before climbing down into a landing craft to head ashore in the first wave of troops ashore on D-Day, 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."
These 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.
After the war, a new life
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.
"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.
Until Bill died nine years ago, their families often vacationed together.
Lambert has traveled back to Normandy more than a half dozen times and made friends in area. Last year, Colleville-sur-Mer, the town above the beach where the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located, dedicated a plaque with the names of the soldiers in Lambert's unit of medics. It's bolted onto the chunk of concrete where they sheltered the wounded.
It's known as Ray's Rock.
Now as Lambert heads back for what he says will be his last visit to Normandy, his publicist has asked him to promote his book there. Lambert will do his duty, as always.
"You know, if you do a book, you've got to do these interviews," he said.
But he's not excited about that. Instead, he wants to spend as much time as he can with other veterans and his friends in the village, and lift one more glass of the region's distinctive apple brandy.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.