VANCOUVER, Wash. — When Willard “Wink” Lamb broke the 220-yard Washington state swimming record in 1940 as a senior at Longview’s R.A. Long High School, he never imagined he would hold the title 82 years later. Lamb, now 99, certainly didn’t imagine he would one day hold 73 individual and 13 relay world records, making him one of the most decorated masters swimmers of all time.
The son of a Columbia River mill town straddling the Washington-Oregon border, Lamb took the 220-yard freestyle record in 2 minutes, 23.4 seconds the year after leading the underdog Lumberjacks to the 1939 Washington state high school swimming title. Years later, 220-yard races were shortened to 200 yards, ensuring Lamb’s record would forever remain untouched.
The record was set in the University of Washington’s Pavilion Pool, a state-of-the-art natatorium with viewing balconies, stepped bench seating and space for 1,000 spectators at the eastern edge of campus, in the heart of Husky athletics. There were more shiny tiles and swim bleachers than Lamb had ever seen, he said, coming from a town dinged and dented from the Great Depression.
Lamb’s record-setting freestyle foreshadowed an illustrious career in the pool — but he didn’t swim in a straight line to ascend the ranks of masters swimming. A tour as an elite World War II paratrooper and a life of sleeves-rolled-up work meant he wouldn’t return to competition for decades.
Lamb’s stint as a Husky
The UW began its men’s swim program in 1932; the original coach, Jack Torney, saw Lamb’s freestyle record and asked him to swim for the Huskies after high school. “Sorry, coach, I don’t have any money,” Lamb remembers explaining.
Torney didn’t want to lose this timber town kid, so he looked into an on-campus job. That summer, Lamb worked at Weyerhaeuser making 76.5 cents an hour to save up for tuition. “And every half-cent counted,” Lamb said.
By fall, he had saved up $600. He hitchhiked from Longview to Seattle, attended classes and trained in the world-class Pavilion Pool, proudly earning a varsity letterman sweater as a freshman. The sweater is in mint condition; Lamb “never got the chance to wear it,” he explains with a smile.
“I was busy swimming, coming home with red eyes,” Lamb said, as goggles were not yet used by swimmers at the time, “plus, every night I had work as a janitor.” He made $30 a month working on campus to cover tuition.
Undefeated that fall as a Husky, Lamb’s first semester showcased soaring potential for his aquatic racing career. Fate had other plans. Lamb’s first semester was his last, one of innumerable ripples expanding across the Pacific Ocean from the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
A draft notice followed Lamb home at the end of the semester. He hoped to join the Navy, of course, but military branches were first come, first served the day he reported to Fort Lewis outside Tacoma. “The Navy and Marine spots were full first, so I was stuck with the Army,” Lamb said.
Upon learning that paratroopers earned an extra $50 a month, Lamb joined the Army Airborne. Two weeks later he was at Camp Toccoa training for war.
Lessons of another uniform
“When we got off the train in Georgia, we had to do 25 push-ups on the platform,” Lamb said.
Paratroopers were required to pass the Army IQ test with a score of no less than 110. Lamb then completed 13 weeks of Airborne Basic Training, followed by six weeks of Jump School at Georgia’s Fort Benning. To receive his Jump Wings, Lamb and his fellow troops needed five successful parachute jumps of various heights, during daylight and at night.
“Out of a perfectly good airplane,” goes the paratrooper joke.
In describing the training and conditioning regimen, including daily runs up 1,735-foot Currahee Mountain, Lamb exposed his habit of understatement: “We were in pretty good shape.”
Historian Jeremy C. Holm, author of “When Angels Fall: From Toccoa to Tokyo,” went a step further when describing Lamb’s elite regiment.
“The 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment were gutsy, well-trained paratroopers — truly the best of the best — who lived the motto, ‘Jump, Fight, Win!,’” Holm said. “General Walter C. Krueger described them as ‘the goddamned fightingest outfit I have ever seen.’”
Despite his precise recollection of dates, names and troop movement in the Pacific theater, Lamb omits the qualitative details when speaking about his service with the regiment, comprising three battalions hand-picked from the 505th, 502nd and 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiments, plus the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The 511th was part of the vaunted 11th Airborne Division.
On May 8, 1944, the troop transport SS Sea Pike sailed due west under the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco Bay as Lamb deployed to the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
The UW swimmer turned 81-mm mortar man and his fellow 511th paratroopers were the prime force in reducing two enemy divisions in the Leyte Campaign in the Philippines, where they lived three men to a foxhole in the mountainous jungle for more than a month. The only thing more unholy than the monsoon season mud was the deadly combat and the inability to resupply the troops. “I swear I went three weeks actually without having anything to eat,” Lamb said.
When Lamb made his next jump from a C-47, he landed on Tagaytay Ridge, Luzon, on Feb. 3, 1945, where a young Filipina girl met him with a bright red tomato. Lamb happily traded for his silk parachute. “That was a real treat,” he said, his face lighting up 77 years later. “To have a fresh tomato.”
The 511th saw fierce combat in Luzon and in the Los Baños Raid. The fighting in the jungle — along with decay, dysentery and insects — did not abate until after word arrived of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Aug. 11, 1945, Lamb and his regiment flew to Okinawa as leaders drew up terms for armistice. By the 30th, Lamb was a part of the first group of Americans to land on mainland Japan. He watched World War II end while guarding the delegation on the U.S.S. Missouri.
Lamb spent Christmas Eve 1945 — his 23rd birthday — on a homebound ship on the Pacific Ocean. Back in Washington state, he married the sweetheart he had left behind in Longview, Jean, and got a job as a longshoreman. He later helped build the Weyerhaeuser Kraft pulp mill and the Linnton Plywood Mill in Portland, where he worked for 51 years. He would have two fine sons and a dear 63-year marriage to Jean, who died in 2009. He retired at age 80 when the mill closed. His friends tabulate that Lamb’s complaints in all those years wouldn’t fill a thimble.
Since retiring in Vancouver, Washington, Lamb continues to keep his wood shop in tidy order. He mows his lawn, with posture that would make his 511th colonel proud. He grows tomatoes to share with friends, delicious heirloom varieties that rival the perfect tomato Lamb received that day on Tagaytay Ridge.
Lamb models his life not on those 204 days of fighting in the Pacific theater, but on the hard-fought peace that sacrifice delivered. Lamb has the medals to prove it was a peace that he, the 511th and the Greatest Generation had won.
Years later, he would begin racking up medals yet again.
Diving back into swimming
In a lifetime of honest work and quiet service, Lamb further distinguished himself by signing up for his first swim meet as an adult. At the age of 83.
Lamb picked up where he left off as a promising UW freshman, returning to the pool to break records. Dozens of them.
As cataloged by U.S. Masters Swimming, Lamb continues to set records in many lanes: record speeds at every distance in meters and yards, with different swim strokes and in multiple categories for swimmers aged 90-94, 95-99 and 100-104 (turning 100 this winter, he competes in some 100-104 events). He holds world records in 73 individual events and 13 relay events, accolades earned swimming in meets like the Bellevue Club Masters Mile. Training includes 59 flip turns — to swim a mile — every practice. He swims three times weekly at the Clark County Family YMCA.
Lamb won’t brag about himself, or the fact that on Sept. 13, 2019, at 96, he was inducted into the Masters International Swimming Hall of Fame, recognized for his achievements and inspiration to “live an active and healthy lifestyle by swimming.” Others are thrilled to salute the veteran athlete.
“Like so many World War II veterans, Willard ‘Wink’ Lamb’s story is one of incredible integrity, courage and relentlessness,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “At 99 years old, Wink is still racing, holds a number of world records in freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and has etched his legacy into our nation’s history.”
Basia Belza, director of the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging at Lamb’s one-semester alma mater, applauded the decorated swimmer as an “impressive individual” and an example for active aging. “We have strong evidence for the multitude of physical, psychological, social and cognitive health benefits that engaging in physical activity provides for older adults like Wink,” she said.
Lamb’s wake is felt in the masters swimming community and beyond.
“Wink is an inspiration to all our members, as well as swimmers across the world,” said U.S. Masters Swimming CEO Dawson Hughes. “The joy he demonstrates when he is in the pool is infectious. For him to still be swimming competitively and having this much fun at 99 years old is amazing.”
Of course, Lamb has his eyes on that next race: the 2022 Summer National Championship this August in Richmond, Virginia, where he will likely notch new records. After the meet, Lamb plans to visit the National Museum of the United States Army outside Washington, D.C., then tour the White House. He’ll wear a WWII veteran cap with laurel leaves on the visor and pins on the front panel representing the sacrifice of the 511th in the battles of Ormoc and Luzon that preceded the liberation of Manila. Back when the world came off its axis and Lamb was plucked from his swim career, barely old enough to buy a beer.
His advice to a young person today? “Turn out for the swim team,” Lamb said, with the laugh he’s always quick to offer.
Some heroes earn chapters in history books; others walk quietly amongst us. Washingtonian Wink Lamb is both. Warmly ordinary and immutably extraordinary, lumber-country humble and lionhearted as ever, Lamb just keeps swimming and lets a lifetime of mettle and medals speak for itself.