MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Tomorrow marks 75 years since the largest amphibious assault in history - D-Day, the invasion of Europe by Allied forces. World leaders are gathering for the anniversary and so is 98-year-old D-Day veteran Ray Lambert of West End, N.C. We're going to hear what happened when NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met up with Lambert in Normandy. But first, Jay Price of member station WUNC brings us Lambert's story.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Ray Lambert answers the door of his lakefront home in a faded denim shirt.
RAY LAMBERT: Come on in.
PRICE: It's embroidered with the coat of arms of his beloved unit, the 16th regiment of the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
LAMBERT: When I first started going to the reunions every year and there was World War I guys there.
PRICE: His back is stiff from an old war injury, and he leads me carefully to a room overlooking his dock to tell me his story. Lambert grew up in rural Alabama during the Great Depression, dropping out of high school at age 14 to cut timber. In 1940, he enlisted in the Army mainly because he needed a steady job.
LAMBERT: I told them I wanted to get in a fighting unit, and I don't know how stupid that was.
PRICE: A year later, the United States went to war. In North Africa, Lambert says he was wounded by shrapnel, slashed by a German wielding a bayonet-tipped rifle in hand-to-hand fighting and had his jeep blown up by a mine. And he won the Silver Star for bravery. In Sicily, he was wounded again. Then in 1944, now a 24-year-old staff sergeant leading a unit of medics, he was sent to England for his third invasion - D-Day.
LAMBERT: Unbelievable - as far as you could see, it was ships, ships, ships.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Within steel and concrete emplacements four years in the making, the Germans have amassed every known weapon of defense. Whether those weapons are enough to stop the Allied onslaught will be proven in the struggle that lies ahead.
PRICE: Just minutes before heading ashore in the first wave of troops, he got a surprise.
LAMBERT: I went up on deck, and that's the first time that I saw my brother on that boat.
PRICE: His older brother Bill.
LAMBERT: My brother and I talked about our chances and kind of agreed that if one of us didn't make it that the other one would take care of the family.
PRICE: After so much combat, Lambert knew if he made it onto the beach alive, his job as a medic would keep him exposed, running around treating casualties. But first, he had to get to the beach.
LAMBERT: The wind was blowing, and the guys were throwing up in the boats and it was a mess.
PRICE: Things got worse as they neared shore.
LAMBERT: I told my guys to go underwater as far in as they could because the German - you could see the bullets just like hail hitting the water.
PRICE: The instant the ramp at the front of the boat dropped, Lambert was shot.
LAMBERT: It went through my right arm and shattered a bone. It was bleeding some.
PRICE: There was nothing to do but go forward or die.
LAMBERT: A wounded guy - you're trying to treat him, which is almost impossible. I had a couple of my men and myself trying to get these guys over behind that rock.
PRICE: A big chunk of concrete on the beach. Despite the chaos and his wound, Lambert kept moving from one wounded soldier to another. Then something massive hit his leg, opening it down to the bone. He'd put on a tourniquet, shot himself with morphine and tried to tell another medic how to take over for him.
LAMBERT: And we were yelling because all the noise and shells, you couldn't hear anything. And a bullet went right through his head.
PRICE: Somehow, Lambert went back into the water to pull out one soldier, then another. That's when a landing craft barreled up and dropped its ramp on them, crushing part of his spine.
LAMBERT: And it hit me right in the lower part of my back, the fourth and fifth vertebrae, and pushed us to the bottom.
PRICE: In one of those inexplicable twists of war, the boat's crew decided to back up and move. Lambert dragged the other man to the beach, and eventually, he was loaded onto a larger landing craft with other wounded. As it churned away from the beach, a doctor read his dog tags.
LAMBERT: And he said, we have another Lambert on here.
PRICE: His brother Bill. Bill's arm and leg had been mangled so badly the doctors were talking about amputating them.
LAMBERT: And I - I don't know why I said - I says, please, don't do that. I mean, I can remember this so vividly saying, please, don't do that.
PRICE: At a field hospital in England, Ray tried to stay awake while hour after hour. The doctors worked on his brother, but eventually, he nodded off.
LAMBERT: And the next morning when we woke up, he looked over and he saw me and he said, what are you doing here? And I said, the same thing you are. And he said, well, gosh, what's Mother going to think now?
PRICE: After the war, their wounds eventually healed. Ray took classes at MIT on the G.I. Bill. Both Lambert brothers went on to found successful electrical contracting companies, part of America's post-war boom. They had good lives, Lambert said.
LAMBERT: The way I'd like to be remembered is a guy that was willing to die for my family and for my country and a good soldier and a good person.
PRICE: Last year, a town above the beach dedicated a plaque to Lambert's unit of medics and bolted it onto the chunk of concrete where they had sheltered the wounded. It's known as Ray's Rock.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Eleanor Beardsley, and I'm on the wide, windswept Omaha Beach with Ray Lambert, standing beside that mound of concrete where he fought to save his men's lives 75 years ago. Lambert says he was honored last year when the mayor of the town called him to say they wanted to name the rock after him, but he had one condition.
LAMBERT: They wanted to put Ray Lambert, the hero, and I wouldn't agree to that. And so 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, and that's what they did.
BEARDSLEY: Lambert says for much of his life, he didn't talk about the war. But then he began returning to Normandy.
LAMBERT: I realized that if I didn't tell these stories about my men, that they couldn't do it. And I felt it my responsibility and obligation to them to try to talk to people and tell people about the war and what they did.
BEARDSLEY: Today, Lambert is surrounded not by gunfire but by admirers, well-wishers and the voices of children. A sixth-grade class from Paris is building sand sculptures for peace beside Ray's Rock. With their teacher, Pascale Hachi, they try to figure out how old Lambert was when he landed here if he's 98 today. Can you imagine coming to the coast of France at a little over 20 years old, she asked them.
PASCALE HACHI: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "You are going to be the transmitters of what happened here when they are gone," she tells her class. "Never forget that people came here, some from very far away countries, to fight for your freedom." Lambert says he's thankful that he can now pass this on to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the men who fought with him here.
LAMBERT: Tell them that their name is recognized, that people are grateful for what they did and their names are here permanently now and will ever be. And it makes me feel good.
BEARDSLEY: I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Normandy.
PRICE: And in West End, N.C., I'm Jay Price. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.