D-Day Vets Reflect, Keeping a Fading Memory Alive
SEVEN LAKES, N.C. (AP) — Seventy years later, Ray Lambert is still haunted by waves.
Listening to the waters of Lake Auman lapping against the dock behind his pine-shaded home, the 93-year-old is transported back to a beach on the northern coast of France. With a faraway look in his eyes, Lambert is suddenly a young soldier again, racing frantically among the wounded and dying as German rockets on the cliffs above erupt with tongues of fire and a sound “like women screaming.”
“You can hear the boats hitting the waves, and you can hear guys calling for a medic on those waves,” the retired bank director says. “And I still, after all these years, I wake up at night sometimes, thinking about the guys …”
It is, he says, “as if the waves are telling me stories that I already knew.”
They are stories of D-Day – June 6, 1944.
That stormy morning, 156,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel and into the maw of Adolf Hitler’s killing machine. The assault by 7,000 ships and landing craft along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast remains the largest amphibious invasion in history.
Lambert, a combat medic, was with the 1st Infantry Division, which accounted for more than half of the 32,000-strong U.S. force that landed on Omaha Beach. Of the more than 16,000 members of the “Big Red One” who staggered out of the landing craft, 3,000 were killed, wounded or captured. Today, only Lambert and a couple dozen others are known to remain.
Many of those who survived that “longest day” have felt compelled over the years to bear witness for those who didn’t make it. As their own candles begin to falter, that need burns fiercer than ever.
Some don’t trust future generations to keep that flame alive.
“They don’t talk about it in schools,” says 92-year-old James Krucas of Racine, Wisconsin, whose actions earned him the Silver Star. “In 20 years, there will be no veterans around to tell them this was the day that saved the world.”
After months of planning and waiting for the right conditions, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower gave the green light to “Operation Overlord.” The plan was to land 133,000 American, British and Canadian troops on five Normandy beaches, code-named Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah.
The attack was supposed to have commenced on June 5, but rain and high seas in the English Channel forced planners to push things back a day. The night before, at Cottesmore Airdrome north of London, PFC Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr. and the other members of H Co., 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne were all geared up when they got the word to stand down.
The paratroopers were disappointed, said the retired architect from Horsham, Pennsylvania. But late on the 5th, the order came to assemble, and soon the sound of planes all winding up their engines simultaneously was like thunder.
As the Douglas C-47 carrying him and his 21 fellow paratroopers moved over the Channel, Cruise looked down to see the outlines of thousands of ships, “all sizes and kinds,” on the water below.
Awaiting orders in the troop ships and landing craft bobbing offshore, men read Bibles, played cards and wrote letters home. Others tried to choke down what some were calling the “last supper” of powdered eggs, oranges and little sausages.
“There was a saying going around,” recalls Richard Crum of Williamston, Michigan. “`They’re fattening us up for the slaughter.’”
Aboard the USS Chase after a sleepless night, the men were given the opportunity to be received by a chaplain. Two lines formed.
“It was about four in the morning, and you could hear a pin drop,” recalled Cpl. Bill Falcone, now 94, a former New York City police officer.
Nearby, on the attack transport ship USS Henrico, Staff Sgt. Ray Lambert and his older brother, Euel, also a medic with 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, prepared for their third major invasion. They had been with Gen. Omar Bradley in north Africa and had also made the landing in Sicily.
Unable to eat, the brothers went up on the deck and talked of their families back home. Ray’s first child, Arnold Raymond Jr., was born in January 1942, while he was in Africa. He’d yet to hold his namesake. The brothers vowed that whichever of them survived would take care of the other’s family.
“So we shook hands and wished each other well and then went down the nets and got into the Higgins boat,” Ray says.
Just getting into the landing craft was dangerous.
“We had waves 4 to 6 to 8 feet,” says Charles Shay, another combat medic and a member of the Penobscot Indian tribe who lives on the reservation at Old Town, Maine. “We had to jump into the boat when it was at its highest point to avoid breaking our legs.”
Shay, 89, recalls the sound of shells passing overhead – both from the Germans ashore and their own ships behind them. Falcone could see the German tracers carving paths up the beach. Heading toward shore, the assault force was seasick, terrified – and angry.
“Get me on land!” Falcone recalls shouting.
The craft carrying Command Sgt. Maj. William F. Ryan took a direct hit from a German 88 mm artillery piece.
“All I remember is the boat going up and over,” the 89-year-old from Melbourne, Florida, says. “I cracked my skull against the bulkhead.”
Still, he waded into the water several times to retrieve the wounded and dead. Finally, two men, seeing he was losing consciousness, dragged him ashore.
The Germans had fortified the beach with railroad cross ties, barbed wire and heavy steel fences known as “Belgian gates.” Unable to pass, many landing craft disgorged their cargo – human and mechanical – into the open water.
Shay says many men standing at the front when the ramps dropped were immediately killed. Others were pulled down by their heavy equipment and waterlogged clothes. Landing in chest-deep water, Shay dragged himself past the dead and floundering and made it to shore.
“You could not expect help from anybody, because it was a matter of survival,” he says, half defensively. “We had to get to the beach.”
While men were clawing their way across the sand and loose stones, others were hoping to catch the Germans in the rear.
Looking at a map of France, Cruise points out where he and his fellow paratroopers were: heading toward the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, which juts into the Channel. The others had jumped into Sicily and Italy, he says, “but I had no idea what to expect.”
As soon as the planes passed the coastline, flak from German anti-aircraft batteries began bursting in the air around them. Suddenly, a red light flashed in the plane’s violently vibrating belly.
The colonel shouted to stand, get ready, sound off.
Cruise was in the No. 9 position. “Nine, OK,” he screamed over the din.
At the drop zone – over the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise – a green light flashed.
“Let’s go,” the colonel yelled. And they leaped into the dark Norman night.
Seeing silhouettes drifting around him, Cruise remembers fretting about losing the gear tethered to his harness. He managed to clear a 30-foot hedgerow and slammed backward into the French soil.
“My helmet came forward,” he says. “Hit me on the nose.”
Many were not so lucky.
Passing through the area in coming days with the 294th Combat Engineer Battalion, Dickinson Debevoise recalls seeing the bodies of paratroopers dangling from trees and floating in the flooded ditches along the causeway.
By then, not much fazed him.
“There were bodies all over the place,” says the former sergeant, now a federal judge living in Summit, New Jersey. “So, unfortunately, that was not an unusual sight.”
Back on Omaha Beach, Shay sprinted from barrier to barrier and at last made it to the relative safety of an embankment.
“That gave us time to rest and regain our senses,” he says.
He recognized Ray Lambert, the man who’d trained him as a replacement back in England. The Jeep carrying Lambert’s medical chests and the rest of his gear had sunk to the bottom of the Channel. Working with what he was carrying, he began sorting the floating wounded from the dead and dragging them ashore.
Lambert was applying tourniquets and doling out morphine when something – a bullet or piece of shrapnel, he’s not sure which – passed through his right arm, just above the elbow. The arm went numb, but he continued his grim work.
Then a piece of shrapnel “about the size of my hand” struck him in the fleshy part of his left thigh, opening a huge gash. Lambert packed the wound, wrapped a tourniquet around his leg and went back to work, but he was running out of supplies.
Weakened by blood loss, Lambert found one of his men – Cpl. Raymond Lepore.
“I’m not going to make it much longer,” he said. “You better try to get the men together and see what you can do about treating some of these guys.”
Lambert had barely finished giving the order when Lepore “got a bullet right through his head and fell against my shoulder.”
1st Sgt. Euel Lambert was in Co. G, the same unit as Krucas, a 2nd lieutenant. When the elder Lambert went down with massive wounds to his right arm and leg, his comrades stacked corpses around him to shield him from the withering fire, according to a unit history.
The company commander, Capt. Joe Dawson, took a few men, blew a gap in the barbed wire and took out a machine-gun nest with hand grenades, easing the pressure on the guys below, Ray Lambert recalls.
Some of the Navy fire control teams had lost their radios during the landing. Ryan, the sergeant major from Florida, says a young soldier from battalion headquarters – an Eagle Scout with a merit badge for Morse code – found a signal lamp lying on the beach and established communications with a destroyer.
“And even though he wasn’t trained as a forward observer, he directed fire on the hill,” Ryan says. “And that’s what saved us.”
In the chaos, Shay became detached from his company. Roaming the beach, looking for men to help, he came across a fellow medic whom he knew. The man was bleeding from a stomach wound. They both knew he was dying.
“I bandaged him as best I could,” Shay says softly. “I gave him a shot of morphine, and we said goodbye to each other – forever.”
By the time the fourth wave approached the beach, the German fire had diminished greatly. But so many corpses covered the beach that the craft were having difficulty discharging their men and equipment.
Besides, says Lambert, “It was very bad for morale, with the guys coming in from the other boats.”
A bulldozer gouged out a trench near the beach road, and the bodies were collected there. “Terrible,” he says, but necessary.
Lambert again waded into the water to help a man struggling in the surf. Just as he seized the man with his good arm, a landing craft lowered its ramp onto Lambert’s back. He didn’t know it until later, but the blow had crushed his fourth and fifth vertebrae. Despite excruciating pain, he managed to drag himself and the wounded soldier ashore.
Soon afterward, he passed out.
He awoke some time later on a landing craft, heading out to sea. Somewhere among the other wounded was his brother, Euel, also being evacuated.
It was still too early to know whether the D-Day invasion would succeed. But for the Lambert brothers, the war was over.
For many survivors, that day remains the most important of their long lives.
“Stuff after was frost on the cake,” says Krucas, who retired from Racine Boiler and Tank and is working on his memoir.
To Debevoise, it was a pivotally important day in the life of the nation.
“Germany would’ve taken over all of Europe, Russia, I think, eventually, the United States,” says the judge. “We would never have known the life that we know.”
Even so, he says he doesn’t expect people to be “jumping up and down about a war that was 70 years ago.”
“Memories are short,” he says. “You do your duty in your day, and other people will be doing their duty in their day.”
On a shelf in Ray Lambert’s living room, a shadow box holds his medals: The Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters; a Bronze Star with one oak leaf cluster; the Purple Heart, with three oak leaf clusters. The awards fill him with pride, but also remind him of those he was unable to save.
He remembers one in particular. The man lay at the water’s edge, grasping in vain at his nearly severed arm as it floated in and out with the rolling tide. Lambert lifted the soldier’s head and searched for some words of comfort.
The man died in his arms.
“And when I look down that beach now, I can see that spot,” he says, his voice cracking slightly. Despite everything he did that day, Lambert can’t help feeling that “I should have done more.”
In 1995, his regiment made him a “distinguished member.” With the honor comes the responsibility to carry the message for those who’ve passed. But, sometimes, he gets discouraged.
A couple of years ago, he was eating at a local restaurant when the waitress overheard him discussing an upcoming trip to Omaha Beach. He asked if she knew where that was.
“And she thought for a minute and she said, `Well, I think it’s down near Myrtle Beach, isn’t it?’” he says with a sigh.
Lambert will be marking the 70th anniversary at Fort Riley, Kansas, the 1st Division’s current home. Others will make the journey back to France.
Ryan has returned to Normandy every year since 1994. It never gets any easier.
“I don’t care how tough you are,” he says, his eyes welling with tears. “It gets you. It gets you.”
Cruise expects to be there when the restored “Whiskey 7″ – the C-47 that carried him across the Channel – once again drops American parachutists over Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Shay plans to be at Omaha Beach. As he has done in years past, the tribal elder will wake early, while the tourists and dignitaries are still abed, and walk to the water. At 6:30 a.m., about the time the invasion began for him, he will perform a solemn Penobscot ceremony, the details of which are only for himself and “the men that have remained there.”
“I try to remember the spirits of the men that are still there,” he says, “and try to communicate with them.”
He cares little whether, after he’s gone, people will remember his part that day.
“But,” he says, “I hope that the men who paid the ultimate price – the true heroes – will never be forgotten.”
Contributing to this story were AP video journalists Ted Shaffrey in Summit, N.J., and Tony Winton in Delray Beach, Fla.; AP Writers Suzette Laboy in Melbourne, Fla., Kathy Matheson in Horsham, Pa., M.L. Johnson in Racine, Wis., and Mike Householder in Williamston, Mich.; and AP photographer Robert F. Bukaty in Old Town, Maine.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed .