For much of his life, Ray Lambert wouldn’t talk about World War II. But then the 98-year-old veteran army medic began returning to Normandy, where, on June 6, 1944, he led a unit of medics as a 24-year-old staff sergeant in the allied invasion of western Europe.
“I realized that if I didn’t tell these stories about my men, that they couldn’t do it,” he says. “I felt it my responsibility and obligation to them to talk to people and tell people about the war and what they did.”
Lambert’s part of a dying generation: veterans who bore witness to the largest amphibious assault during World War II. An estimated 10,000 allied forces were killed, wounded or counted missing that day, including more than 6,600 Americans.
This week, as he’s done in recent years, Lambert traveled to Omaha Beach to join world leaders for the solemn commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Above the beach landing sites, the town has dedicated a plaque to Lambert’s unit of medics and bolted it onto the chunk of concrete where they sheltered the wounded. “Ray’s Rock,” as it’s known, is where he fought to save the lives of his men more than seven decades ago.
Lambert says that when the mayor of the town called him last year to say they wanted to name the rock after him, he had one condition: Don’t call me a hero.
“They wanted to put ‘Ray Lambert the hero,’ and I wouldn’t agree to that,” he says. “I said that if you’re going to do it, I will agree to it if you put the plaque on with my men’s name[s], and that’s what they did.”
Lambert grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression. At age 14, he dropped out of high school to cut timber. In 1940, he enlisted in the Army, mainly because he needed a steady job. The following year, the U.S. went to war, and so did he.
In North Africa, where he won the Silver Star for bravery after driving a jeep in the middle of a firefight to retrieve his wounded troops, Lambert says he was wounded by shrapnel, slashed by a German wielding a bayonet-tipped rifle in hand-to-hand fighting. In Sicily, he was wounded again.
By 1944, Lambert was sent to England, and that June, he joined roughly 73,000 other Americans for what would be his third ever invasion: D-Day.
On the day of the invasion, fleets of ships swarmed the ocean’s surface as far as he could see, Lambert recalls.
Just minutes before heading ashore in the first wave of troops, he went up to the deck, where he was caught by surprise: His older brother, Bill Lambert, was also on board. With the battle approaching, they processed the consequences of the mission ahead.
“My brother and I talked about our chances and kind of agreed — that it if one of us didn’t make it, that the other one would take care of their family,” he says.
Lambert remembers the wind blowing, and other soldiers on board throwing up in the boats. “It was a mess,” he said.
Things only got worse the closer they got to shore.
“I told my guys to go underwater as far in as they could,” Lambert says. “Because the Germans, you could see the bullets just like hail, hitting the water.”
The instant the ramp at the front of the boat dropped on the beach, Lambert was hit. A German machine gun crew on a hill had a clean shot down to the section of sand where Lambert was crawling ashore.
“It went through my right arm and shattered the bone, and it was bleeding some,” he says.
There was nothing to do but go forward or die.
Despite his wounds and the chaos around him, Lambert kept moving from soldier to soldier, racing to save as many men as he could.
Then suddenly, something massive hit his leg, opening it down to the bone. He put a tourniquet on, shot himself with morphine, and tried to tell another medic how to take over for him.
“We were yelling because of all the noise and shells — you couldn’t hear anything,” Lambert says. “And the bullet went right through [the other medic’s] head.”
Lambert continued on. He managed to go back into the water to rescue wounded soldiers.
That’s when a landing craft barreled up and dropped its ramp on him, crushing part of Lambert’s spine and thrusting him into the sea’s bottom.
“It hit me right in the lower part of my back — the fourth and fifth vertebrae,” he said.
In an inexplicable twist of war, the boat’s crew decided to back up and move. Lambert dragged a wounded soldier from the water.
Eventually he made it onto another boat. As the ship churned away from the fighting, a doctor read Lambert’s dog tags.
“He said, we have another Lambert on here” he recalls.
Bill was being treated — his arm and leg had been mangled so badly the doctors were talking about amputating them.
“And I said ‘Don’t do that!’ ” Lambert says. “I don’t know why. I mean, I can remember this so vividly, saying ‘Please don’t do that.’ ”
After the war
The brothers were treated at a field hospital in England, and made their way home. Lambert took classes at MIT on the GI Bill. Both he and Bill went on to found successful electrical contracting companies, part of America’s post-war boom. Until Bill died nine years ago, their families would go on vacation together, driving around the country.
They had good lives, Lambert says.
Today, Lambert resides in his lakefront home in West End, N.C. He says he’s thankful that he’ll leave behind the Ray’s Rock memorial for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the men who fought with him there.
And while he may be reluctant to call himself a hero, he does want to be remembered for his sacrifice.
“The way I’d like to be remembered was a guy that was willing to die for my family and for my country, and a good soldier and a good person.”
Jay Price is a reporter covering the military at North Carolina Public Radio member station, WUNC.
NPR’s Sam Gringlas produced the audio version of this story.