COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France (AP) — Ray Lambert was waiting at the baggage carousel at Raleigh-Durham International Airport when a woman asked if she could kiss him. Of course, the World War II veteran said.
“That was the 1,456th kiss I’ve gotten this week,” Lambert told Darrell Simpkins, his friend, personal doctor and traveling companion.
It was not much of an exaggeration.
The Seven Lakes, North Carolina, man had just come back from a weeklong visit to Normandy. Seventy-five years before — as a medic with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the Army’s 1st Division’ known as the “Big Red One” — Lambert was in the first wave to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Returning to help mark the anniversary, the 98-year-old veteran was exhausted by a seemingly endless parade of speeches, dinners, selfies, kisses and toasts. But there are so few of these liberators left, and Lambert is fueled with the need to represent those who have gone before.
“I did what I was called to do,” he wrote in “Every Man A Hero,” his first book, published just 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.”
Wherever he goes, Lambert wears his purple cap with the words “D-Day Survivor” embroidered in gold. And wherever he goes, he is celebrated.
When, en route to France, his fellow travelers learned who he was, the gate erupted in a long ovation. The Delta flight crew immediately upgraded Lambert to first class.
On his first full day in France, he visited an elementary school class. The kids had so many questions: What did soldiers 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 said. “Our belief was that we were the good guys, fighting to destroy evil.”
Another asked if Lambert had nightmares about Normandy. Waking dreams, when he looks out from the beach, he replied.
“When I look at the Channel and the water is rough, I, it seems at times that I can hear voices,” he said.
Afterward, there were kisses from the teachers and parents, cookies and a friendship bracelet from the children.
In the days that followed, there would be a series of television interviews and appearances. There was a stop at the Big Red One Museum in Colleville-sur-Mer, an exhibit created over the past 30 years by a local man, Pierre-Louis Gosselin. Lambert presented Gosselin with a medal designating him an honorary member of the 1st Division (“Conduct yourself accordingly, as a good soldier would,” he told Gosselin) and then took a stroll through the museum.
Just inside was a large piece of rusted, pockmarked metal. It was the ramp of a Higgins landing craft — just like the one that nearly killed him 75 years ago.
Lambert had waded out to help a soldier tangled in the wire when a boat dropped its ramp, pushing them to the bottom. Lambert asked God to “give me a chance to save the one more man.”
The ramp went up, and the two men made it to the beach. Then Lambert passed out. He awoke on a ship back to England. The blow had crushed two vertebrae, ending his service.
On the actual anniversary, Lambert was seated in the front row on the dais, behind President Donald J. Trump. Halfway through Trump’s speech, the former staff sergeant heard his own name.
“Ray was only 23, but he had already earned three Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars for fighting in North Africa and Sicily,” Trump told the hushed crowd. That was before “Bloody Omaha.”
“Again and again, Ray ran back into the water,” Trump continued. “He was shot through the arm. His leg was ripped open by shrapnel. His back was broken. He nearly drowned.”
Then, he turned toward Lambert and said, “Ray. The free world salutes you.”
Sitting later amid the ruler-straight rows of gleaming white crosses and Stars of David, Lambert wondered why the commander in chief should single him out.
“I’m just a soldier,” he said.
A day later, Lambert made one last pilgrimage to the beach — to “Ray’s Rock.” On that day 75 years ago, this chunk of leftover German concrete was the only place he could find shelter behind which to treat the wounded. Last year, a plaque was added with the names of Lambert’s men.
It was cold and wet, and Lambert’s hands were turning blue. Simpkins urged him to leave, but Lambert caught sight of a group of British soldiers in fatigues.
Rejuvenated, he regaled the group with stories and posed for photos.
“All soldiers are brothers,” he said.
Back home after his week-long journey, Lambert has already begun making plans to return to Normandy next year. But he knows that’s unlikely.
He’s down to 145 pounds, 30 pounds off his normal weight. His doctors don’t know why. “I seem to be just fading away,” he said.
But, after all, he knows that is what old soldiers do.