Sam Elliott has one of the most unmistakable voices in all of Hollywood. One word from that rumbling baritone and you know exactly who it’s coming from.
On Memorial Day, the Academy Award nominee used that voice to pay tribute to an American hero — in the hero’s own words.
Sgt. Ray Lambert, a World War II veteran, isn’t just a member of the Greatest Generation. He was there on D-Day, a medic in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. As part of the 30th National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, Elliott read Lambert’s recollection of that terrifying day.
“We were headed to Omaha Beach,” Elliott began.
“I was glad. After all the fighting in Africa and Sicily, I just wanted to get this war over with.”
The African fighting may have been tough indeed for the Allies, but the Normandy invasion was immense. On that fateful day — June 6, 1944 — Lambert recalls wondering about their chances with his brother Bill and making a promise that if one of them didn’t survive, the other would take care of both their families. Then, it was off to Omaha Beach.
“On the way in, we could hear the battleships firing and see the big shells landing ahead of us. Guys were getting sick and vomiting from the choppy water and the diesel fumes. As we got in closer, the Germans had a bird’s-eye view of us coming in. We picked up machine gun fire. The bullets clanged against the metal ramp of the boat like hail.”
“Every time a shell whistled overhead all you could hear was the sound of a banshee screaming. Boats around us were burning. I saw men on fire. Even their shoes were on fire. Dead and wounded were floating on the waters. We had orders not to stop and pick anyone up. I told my men, ‘When the ramp drops, hit the water hard and keep as low as you can to dodge the bullets.’ We sank up over our heads.”
The results were brutal: “Thirty-one men jumped off that boat. Only seven made it to the beach.”
“It was total confusion,” Lambert recalled.
“Shells exploding, boats blowing up, people yelling because they couldn’t hear anything, machine gun bullets hitting the water all around you, the roar of the boats coming in.
“It’s like you’re all alone in the world of a million people because you’re concentrating on what you have to do.”
He talked about how he “hadn’t gone far when I felt a bullet go through my right arm.”
“I just kept going. I was thinking of only one thing: Getting to the men who needed me.”
Later, a piece of shrapnel hit him in his thigh. He “put a tourniquet on it, gave myself a shot of morphine and went back to work. You did the job you were trained to do. If you didn’t, you died.”
Lambert almost did: Two of his vertebrae were crushed by the ramp of a landing boat that struck him as he was pulling a soldier from the surf. It was only by the grace of God that he was able to make it out alive and back to England. By a stroke of luck, his brother Bill was in the cot next to him.
Lambert closed his recollection with a tribute to those who didn’t make it.
“People who have never been in a war should understand what soldiers give up,” he wrote.
“The guys we left on Omaha Beach never had a chance to live the lives they dreamed of. A day hasn’t gone by when I haven’t prayed for the men we lost and their families. I still wake up at night sometimes thinking about the guys. Every man that walked into those machine guns and that artillery fire on Omaha Beach that day — every man — was a hero. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t tell their stories?”
And that’s what Memorial Day is all about. For too many of us, it’s just a day off and a barbecue, maybe a few sporting events on television. Too many men and women who have earned us the right to spend a day in that manner, however, haven’t come back. There were no more days off, no more barbecues, nothing like that.
“It’s such an honor to tell your story,” Elliott said as he shook Lambert’s hand. At least he was able to give him that honor.
At a time when it can even be controversial to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States, it was a refreshing moment.
The rest of us should be wishing we could give him that honor, too.
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