COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Wherever he goes, Ray Lambert wears his purple cap with the words “D-Day Survivor” embroidered in gold. And wherever he goes, he is celebrated.
The handshakes and selfie requests begin the moment he arrives at the gate at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He is on his way to Normandy to mark the moment 75 years ago when he earned the right to wear that cap, to join what will likely be the last great reunion of heroes of the liberation of Europe.
He is, at 98, a celebrity traveler.
Capt. Mark Paul asks him to come to the check-in desk, then takes the microphone in hand: “Mr. Lambert was with the 1st Infantry Division at Omaha Beach on D-Day,” he says. “We’re really honored to have him on our flight out to Paris today. So if you could give him a big hand, we’d really appreciate it.”
The crowd at the gate stands and gives Lambert a long ovation.
Crewmembers pose for a photo with him. He’s handed a miniature flag.
“God bless you,” purser Gena Poulos says, clutching his hand.
In June 1944, the Seven Lakes, North Carolina, man was a medic with 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the Army’s 1st Division — the “Big Red One.” For many years, Lambert would not talk of the horrors he saw and experienced. But now he feels it is his sacred duty to share his story.
Over the next week, he will do just that. He also will be feted by the president of the United States, kissed by women from all over the world, embraced as a brother by current-day soldiers. And he will relive the glory and the nightmare of his heroic moment.
“I did what I was called to do,” he writes in “Every Man A Hero,” his first book, published weeks before the anniversary. “As a combat medic, my job was to save people, and to lead others who did the same. I was proud of that job and remain so. But I was always an ordinary man, not one who liked being at the head of a parade ...
“My job now is to remember, not for my sake, but for the sake of others.”
Though Lambert does not want for money — he was a successful businessman after the war — he and Darrell Simpkins, Lambert’s neighbor, friend and personal physician, have chosen to fly coach. But the flight crew will have none of it, upgrading Lambert to first class.
A Delta attendant wheels him onto the plane. “I hope this trip over is a whole lot better than the previous one,” the man says.
“Well, it certainly will be,” Lambert says with a chuckle. “MUCH better.”
Before take-off, there is another announcement about their special guest — and another round of applause.
It is an eight-hour flight. But between the constant well-wishing and anticipation, Lambert gets barely 20 minutes of sleep.
June 4 — D-Day Minus Two:
The classroom at the Ecole Publique, in the ancient stone town of Nonant, is festooned with the flags of the Allied powers. On the wall beside the door is a photo of Lambert in uniform, his Army garrison cap cocked at a rakish angle, a thin mustache on his upper lip.
Lambert is accompanied, as always, by his host and best friend, Christophe Coquel. Lambert met the former French Army tank commander and lieutenant colonel in the Gendarmerie 15 years ago, when Coquel served as an informal interpreter during the 60th anniversary commemoration.
In all his many visits to France, Lambert has never picked up more than a smattering of the language. So Coquel would act as go-between with the children.
A child asks about his strongest memories of the war. Lambert tells of disobeying orders to rescue two men from a burning tank, just before it exploded, and of going out into a minefield to retrieve a man who had been injured — an action for which Gen. Omar Bradley himself would award Lambert the second of his Silver Stars.
He tells of how, on D-Day, when the landing craft ramp dropped off Omaha, he was almost immediately hit in the right arm, and of plunging as deep into the water as he could to avoid machine gun fire.
The children ask: What did they eat? Did it hurt when you were wounded? Were you afraid of dying?
“When you’re in battle, you are not thinking of death so much,” Lambert tells the children. “Our belief was that we were the good guys, fighting to destroy evil. ... This country at that time was governed by evil. And our job was to come here and fight for your country and get rid of that evil.”
Another child asks if Lambert had nightmares about Normandy.
“When I go to look at the beaches at Omaha, I remember all my friends that were killed there. And when I look at the Channel and the water is rough, I, it seems at times that I can hear voices. But that’s just in my mind, of course.”
At program’s end, the children swarm the front table. They present him with a box of chocolates and a tin of cookies stamped with a D-Day photo and the words, “Thanks Guys.” One girl ties a purple-and-orange friendship bracelet on his right wrist.
Principal Ribera Cecile plants “les bisous” on his flushed cheeks. He exclaims, “I get two kisses in France!”
“It was a great honor,” Cecile says. “And I hope the children will remember this for the rest of their lives.”
June 5 — D-Day Minus One:
When Lambert arrives at the Big Red One Museum above Omaha Beach, a wiry man with a black polo shirt and punk haircut rushes to greet him — Pierre-Louis Gosselin, the museum’s founder.
The weather the day before had been cold and windy. Lambert had spent nearly three hours on the beach as the succession of news crews waited for their windows to film. That evening, back at Coquel’s home, Lambert was racked with a fit of vomiting.
But Lambert felt duty-bound to honor the young man who had done so much to honor the memory of his beloved 1st Division.
The small museum in Colleville-sur-Mer is the result of Gosselin’s 30-year obsession. The collection contains things as small as a soldier’s letter home to the twisted iron “hedgehogs” with which the Germans had laced the coast in their vain attempt to thwart an Allied landing.
“It has gotten now to a time in our lives when most of the World War II guys of my age are passing away and going on,” Lambert tells the crowd assembled at the museum. “And in the future, it will be very important that we have representation here in France.”
Lambert solemnly drapes a medal around Gosselin’s neck, and the crowd applauds. The acolyte embraces his idol, then kisses him on the cheek.
“Now, he is an honorary member of the 1st Division,” Lambert tells the crowd. “And so you have to stand up to now to the qualifications of the 1st Division. Duty first and all those kinds of things, and conduct yourself accordingly, as a good soldier would.”
Asked what this honor, and Lambert, mean to him, Gosselin searches for the right words.
“My life,” he says. “I dedicated my life to the Big Red 1.”
Lambert looks around the museum. Just inside the door is a large piece of rusted, pockmarked metal. It is the ramp of a Higgins landing craft — just like the one that nearly killed him 75 years ago.
During the battle, Lambert had noticed a man struggling in the deep water. He had become tangled in the barbed wire the Germans had submerged all along the beach.
Lambert waded out to him and made several dives before finally freeing the man. As they headed toward shore, a landing craft had floated up behind them; it dropped its ramp, pushing Lambert and the other man to the bottom.
Pinned beneath the metal, Lambert prayed to God to “give me a chance to save the one more man.”
Suddenly, the ramp lifted, and the two men bobbed to the surface. Lambert got the man to the beach, gave some orders to his men, then passed out from pain and loss of blood.
He awoke later on a ship back to England. He would later learn that the ramp had crushed two of his vertebrae.
As Coquel drives the group away, the car passes a large, haunting photo of the D-Day assault.
Across the bottom are the words, “Les vrais heroes ne meurent jamais!” — “The real heroes never die.”
June 6 — D-Day:
Lambert is seated in the front row of the dais beside Pvt. Russell Pickett, the last known surviving member of Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the Virginia National Guard — the so-called “Bedford Boys.” Despite the sunshine, it is cold, and Lambert spreads a purple blanket over his and Pickett’s laps.
He is unprepared when, halfway through his speech, President Donald Trump speaks the words, “Staff Sgt. Ray Lambert.”
“Ray was only 23, but he had already earned three Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars for fighting in North Africa and Sicily,” Trump tells the hushed crowd. That was before the medic from Alabama landed in the first wave at Omaha Beach.
“They came to the sector, right here below us,” Trump continues. “’Easy Red’ it was called. Again and again, Ray ran back into the water. He dragged out one man after another. He was shot through the arm. His leg was ripped open by shrapnel. His back was broken. He nearly drowned.”
Then, he turns his head toward the risers behind him.
“Ray,” he says. “The free world salutes you.”
As waves of applause wash over him, Lambert doffs his purple cap and waves it at the crowd.
After the ceremony, as a friend wheels him past the ruler-straight rows of gleaming white crosses and Stars of David in the American Military Cemetery overlooking Omaha Lambert marvels that the president of the United States — his commander in chief — should single him out for such praise.
“I’m nothing,” he says. “I’m just a soldier.”
June 7 — D-Day Plus One:
Once again, Lambert is on Omaha Beach. Once again, he is beside “my rock.”
That morning, 75 years ago, as bullets zinged and mortars sent up showers of sand and water, Lambert scanned the beach for something, anything behind which he could safely treat the wounded. Suddenly, he spotted it — a lump of leftover German concrete, about 8 feet wide and 4 feet high.
“It was my salvation,” he says.
The rough lump has come to be known as “Ray’s Rock.” Last year, a plaque was attached with the names of the combat medics of the 16th Regiment.
Mayor Patrick Thomines has asked Lambert to come for a wreath-laying ceremony. It is another cold, wet day, and Lambert’s hands are turning blue.
He is about to leave when a large group of soldiers in fatigues approaches. They are members of the 12th Regiment Royal Artillery, an air defense unit stationed near Portsmouth, England.
As if hit with a jolt of electricity, Lambert is renewed.
Lambert spends about 15 more minutes on the beach, telling his stories and fielding questions. He tells them about his rock.
“This was the only thing we could find on the beach to try to get casualties behind to treat them,” he says. “You can imagine coming in that distance, where the waves are, with guys shot down, drowning and dead all over this beach.”
After shaking hands and posing for many photos, Lambert prepares to leave. He turns to the soldiers.
“We love you all,” he says. “And you’re all our brothers. All soldiers are brothers. And thank you so much for being here today in our American sector.”
After a few more photos, Simpkins says it’s time to go. Flanked by the doctor and the gendarme, Lambert makes his way toward the bluff — farther than he made it in 1944.
June 9 — D-Day Plus Three:
After a week of parties and dinners and toasts with calvados, it is back to Charles De Gaulle Airport.
One more round of selfies with the flight crew. One more kiss on the cheek from a pretty lady. One more upgrade to first class. One more ovation from his fellow passengers.
Back on the ground in Raleigh, Lambert is waiting for his bags when a woman approaches and touches his shoulder.
“When I heard you were on the plane, I was hoping I would get a chance to meet you,” says Caroline Wright, an IT company employee from nearby Holly Springs. “Thank you for your service, sir.”
Wright tells Lambert that her grandfather, Clyde Hunt, also served in France during the war.
“He died before I was born,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. “And to meet someone of that generation ...”
“I know that you’re proud of what he did,” Lambert says sweetly. “And I appreciate you coming over. I’ll get emotional, too. We could have a little crying party right here.”
Lambert is already making plans to return to Normandy next year. But he knows how unlikely that is.
Two years ago, Lambert weighed 173 pounds. Today, he’s down to 145, and the doctors can’t figure out why.
“My blood pressure is OK, and I’ve had physicals,” he said. “But I seem to be just fading away.”
But, after all, he knows that is what old soldiers do.