WWII vet humbled by honor

It was a scramble over barbed wire, then a rush to drop that onerous field pack and start discarding items.

“We’d take the blanket, put the tent rope around it, throw it over our shoulders, and we didn’t keep all the other stuff they gave us,” said Lambert, 86, of Dawsonville, a staff sergeant whose 35th Infantry Division landed at Omaha Beach on July 5, 1944.

Then it was walk and dig, walk and dig. “If you were advancing and they stopped you, you automatically start digging in. You might not get half a dozen shovel loads and they’d say ‘go,’ and you’d go up another 100 yards and do the same thing. ... The Navy was pounding them night and day, you could hear it all night going zoom, zoom, zoom.”

On Thursday, when Lambert rejoins other veterans of that campaign, it will be under friendlier circumstances. Ten American soldiers from the Southeast who participated in the Normandy campaign will receive the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, in a ceremony at the state Capitol presided over by Pierre Vimont, French ambassador to the United States.

It will be an extraordinary day for Lambert, made all the more special because of the time that has passed since the invasion. Some 65 years after the fact, the French government is still seeking American GIs who fought on Omaha Beach and environs to offer praise and thanks.

“I’m always surprised when we organize these ceremonies how dynamic and in very good shape these men are,” said Claire Collobert, spokesperson for the Consulate General of France in Atlanta, host of the ceremony. “Some of them haven’t met each other in 60 to 65 years now, and they realize that they were in same division.”

It’s an emotional moment for the men, “and for us it is too,” she said.

Lambert, a member of the 320th Regiment, is proud of the award but humbled to be among the survivors of a division that suffered 90 percent casualties. The Army estimates that 209,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or declared missing in the Normandy campaign.

“I am one of the division and it takes all of us to make the division. I was just one of the guys,” he said

It was a heck of a division. The 35th fought through the hedgerows of Normandy, took St. Lo, crossed the Moselle River, captured Nancy and helped fight off four German divisions at Bastogne. Along the way, the 35th took heavy losses.

“We got every battle star in Europe — France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg on up,” said Lambert.

The retired electrician is proud of his service. But, like many World War II veterans, he never spoke about it much.

In fact, he never mentioned it to his second wife when they were courting. “I didn’t realize when I married him that he was a veteran, and he had been in all these battles and everything,” said Joyce Lambert, to whom Gene has been married 12 years.

It is only recently, with the increased attention to D-Day anniversaries, that he has begun to open up.

“He’s a fine man. He’s a Christian man, and he loves people, and he’s a humble man,” said Joyce Lambert.

Lambert’s first wife, Frances Fetter, died in 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. During that time, the French government was stepping up its efforts to locate American soldiers who participated in that cataclysmic operation, to submit their names to be considered for the Legion of Honor award.

“We contact veterans associations to try to get them to help us identify who fought in France,” said Collobert.

According to Collobert, France has bestowed the Legion of Honor on 1,069 World War II veterans since 2004.

Her country has a sense of urgency because these old soldiers are fading away fast. According to Tom Beaty, founder and managing director of the Atlanta-based Witness to War Foundation, a World War II vet dies every 90 seconds. Of the 16.1 million veterans who served in that conflict, about 2.5 million are still alive, he said. There will be fewer than 100,000 by 2024, and only a handful 12 years later.

Of the French effort to offer their thanks, Beaty said, “It is a very honorable desire to recognize these men and demonstrate their appreciation for them.”

Willie Eugene “Gene” Lambert was born on St. Valentine’s Day in 1923 and grew up in downtown Atlanta. After attending Tech High, he entered the Army in 1943. He trained in California, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and New Jersey before being sent abroad in the summer of 1944.

Before leaving the country, he and Frances were married. He learned of the birth of their daughter, Carol Jean, by telegram.

His experiences in the Battle of the Bulge were eerie, frightening and indelible, he said. He remembers that the German forces, lacking gasoline to run supply trucks, were hauling ammunition and supplies to the front lines by horse-drawn wagon.

After one particular battle, he faced a heartbreaking sight: “I saw all these beautiful horses out there that had been killed.”

It was in a snow-covered Bastogne, Belgium, that Lambert was knocked head-first into a foxhole by a tree-burst — a mortar round that exploded at treetop level, spraying the men below with shrapnel and shards of wood.

That event sent him to the hospital, earned him a Purple Heart and separated him from his division for an agonizing period. By the time he rejoined, the war was winding down. Lambert came back home on the Queen Mary, and he and Frances promptly had three more children.

A few soldiers from the division organized a trip back to France several years ago, to retrace their steps from Normandy Beach. Lambert was impressed with their reception.

“Every town we went through, they had banners across the streets and the dignitaries, they would carry us into these buildings and have these long-stemmed wine glasses and, boy, it was really nice.

“They told us they were teaching their kids what the Americans did and they would never forget what we had done. It really did touch our hearts.”

Along with Lambert, the French will honor Crawford Ferguson from Charlotte (8th Air Force); James Brothers from Elizabeth City, N.C. (104th Infantry); Leonard A. Gardner from Myrtle Beach, S.C. (90th Infantry Division); Ken L. Faulkner from Birmingham (137th Infantry); Robert P. Mechling from Brentwood, Tenn. (8th Air Force); James L. Miller from Byhalia, Miss. (27th Armored Infantry Battalion); Marsh C. Pickett from Greenwood, Miss. (18th Corps Artillery); and William J. Tiller, from Liberty, Miss. (347th Infantry).

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