D-Day Veteran Recalls Historic Day More Than 61 Years Later
By Staff Sgt. W. Wayne Marlow, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
NORMANDY, France, Nov. 8, 2005 The terrain at Omaha Beach remains as imposing today as it was on June 6, 1944, when the D-Day invasion gave the Allies the momentum necessary to march to victory.
D-Day survivor Ray Lambert stands with Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hunzeker, 1st Infantry Division commanding general, and military historian Sam Doss at Omaha Beach Oct. 5 as part of the 1st Infantry Division's staff ride to Normandy, France. On the beach, Lambert recounted his D-Day experiences to division leaders. Army photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
More than 61 years later, under dark gray skies and into a sweeping wind that mimicked D-Day conditions, a veteran of the battle tackles the beach and wins once again.
At 85, Ray Lambert trots quickly up the steep, rocky hills as if he were still a 24-year-old staff sergeant medic serving with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. Neither the Nazis nor time have been able to vanquish him. Lambert credits his remarkable health to an active lifestyle that includes golf, wood chopping and building fences.
"Every day 1,100 World War II veterans die," he said. "Every time I look in the mirror, I say, 'You made it to another day.'"
With his excellent physical and mental health, Lambert was able to lucidly recall the day he was part of the largest military offensive in history. For most on the 1st Infantry Division's staff ride to Normandy Oct. 3-6, Lambert's firsthand account was the trip's highlight. Proudly wearing a "D-Day Survivor" hat, Lambert gave a living history lesson to an attentive audience of Big Red One leaders.
He recalled training for the invasion, but said he and his men were unaware when or where it would take place. When the time finally came, his ship pulled up about 10 miles from the coast, under cover of darkness at 3 a.m. They next dropped into their Higgins boats to carry them the rest of the way. This would seem a mundane task, but nothing came easy on D-Day.
"We dropped anchor into very, very rough seas," Lambert said. "You had to go into the boats just so or your leg would break. The waves were that rough. You had to time it just right. The men already in the boat would tell you when to jump, and you had to be very careful."
The boats reeked of diesel fuel and if the waves didn't make you nauseous, your fellow soldiers would. "If you were not sick, some guy would throw up on you, and you would become sick," Lambert recalled.
The enormity of the invasion meant that Lambert went into the battle with more men than he normally had around him. "We had beefed up so when we got to the beach we would be able to have as many men as possible," he recalled. "But plans don't always go the way you think they will."
In fact, only seven of the 31 soldiers in his boat survived the day. The others were killed even before reaching shore.
"We hit the land about 6:30. I can't tell you the exact place or time. Water was over your head, and there was barbed wire and mines," Lambert said.
His voice occasionally faltered from emotion. But after a few breaths and some sips of water provided by 1st Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hunzeker, Lambert was ready to continue.
"We learned to have the best chance to live and reach the shore was to go as far under water as you could," he said. Lambert was the first of seven men from his boat to reach shore, where he was quickly wounded in the right elbow. But he kept going, helping bring fellow soldiers in from the waves. He saw horrors such as men in flames jumping overboard and stationary rocks being turned into lethal projectiles by exploding mortars.
And forget body armor - these soldiers lacked even hearing protection, even though they were subjected to what Lambert called noise 10 times louder than what was portrayed in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
Lambert said the soldiers remained brave despite the brutality and heavy losses.
"I never heard one word out there, never," he said. "I didn't hear any men crying. They were very good men, and they had experience, but we had lost a lot. Many of them were floating in the water."
Although he was able to rattle off many specifics of the day, at the time of the invasion it was all a blur, he said. "Time was meaningless," Lambert recalled. "And people ask, 'What did you see that day?' Well, it wasn't a place where you stood up and looked around."
Lambert was wounded a second time, and he knew if he continued, he would bleed to death. He was giving instructions to his replacement when the replacement was gunned down. So he picked another soldier to take over, only to see that one killed a short while later. Lambert eventually was sent to an Army hospital, where he ran into a soldier he knew well: his brother.
After the war, Lambert earned a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started two successful software businesses. He lived in the Boston area for many years before retiring to Fayetteville, N.C.
In the days before CNN and the Internet, Lambert said even wounded soldiers had very little knowledge of how the war was progressing. But the eventual allied victory is what he expected.
"Good always wins," Lambert said. "I still believe that."
(Army Staff Sgt. W. Wayne Marlow is assigned to 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs.)