Every Man can be a Hero

Back in early September 2015, my family and I rented a car in Paris to spend a day in Normandy. I had always dreamt of visiting Juno Beach, where we fellow Canadians landed 77 years ago today. While strolling on the sand, I kept thinking about the level of bravery and heroism required to conduct such an unusual task. Because running to a possible and likely death is certainly not an ordinary action.

Ever since, I have tried to read as much as I can about the men of June 6, 1944. I reviewed Alex Kershaw’s and Giles Milton’s excellent books here. Late last night, I finished reading The Hero Code by retired Admiral William McRaven and Peter Caddick-Adams’ Sand and Steel is on my summer reading list.

Earlier this week, I finished reading the gripping D-Day memoir Every Man a Hero by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (William Morrow). I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with Admiral McRaven’s book, which I plan to review soon on this blog, but let’s just say that I found the answer to a lingering question between these covers.

Right when the United States started rebuilding and expanding its armed forces before its official entry in World War II, a young man from the “rural farmland of Alabama” enlisted in the US Army, telling the recruiter ““I want to be on the front lines”. Arnold Raymond “Ray” Lambert would serve as a medic in the First Division. After serving in North Africa and Sicily, Ray Lambert returned to England, getting ready to serve on the “day of days”. He was to land at Omaha Beach on the fateful day.

Conventional wisdom has it that, to survive and fight, any soldier had to hide from the bullets. But the medic is the guy tasked with the most dangerous position on the battlefield, since he is the one “[…] who rushes to help a freshly wounded soldier in battle.” Kind of running after trouble. And trouble found Ray Lambert on June 6. As he was helping a badly wounded soldier, a “[…] landing craft dropped its ramp directly […]” on them. He survived, but the war was over for him.

The goal here is not to resume the whole story detailed in the book. I think that if you nourish an interest toward D-Day, you should immediately get yourself a copy. But what is interesting is the fact that the author initially “[…] didn’t think his story was worth telling.” What convinced him to take the pen is the fact that he “[…] rightfully feared that as veterans of the war passed away, so too would the memory of their struggle.”

Ray Lambert’s memoir is a powerful antidote, in an age where too many people are satisfied with levelling down and not investing too much effort. One of the passages of the book to that effect is worth quoting:

“Everything I had been through, from the Depression to my father’s injury to my boyhood to my work experiences, to cutting trees to doing laundry, to joining the army, to Africa, to Sicily, to Tunisia, to Troina – not only had they brought me here, but they pushed me on, urging me to do more than I was capable of doing, able to withstand incredible pain and desperation.”

“Struggles are not insurmountable”, writes the hero of the story. After finishing this book a few days ago, I realized that you don’t need an extraordinary set of skills to be a hero. You just need to do the best you can to accomplish the task at hand and to help your fellow man and woman.

Of course, some figures stand out. The Pattons, the Bradleys, the Montgomerys and the Churchills of this world will always generate lots of attention and ink. They were indeed exceptional people whose accomplishments are exceptional. But without people like Staff Sergeant Ray Lambert, they could never have vanquished the Nazi and Japanese hordes in 1945. Anyone would love to have a grandfather like him.

On a finale note, there is one aspect about which I strongly disagree with Ray Lambert. At the very beginning of the book, on page 4, he mentions that “[…] I am just an ordinary man like you.” After putting down Every Man a Hero, I understood that I got it all wrong when I questioned myself about what sets of qualities were required to land in Normandy. Those qualities were not piled up in landing crafts in the wee hours of June 6, 1944. They were forged in people who discovered early on that difficulties and challenges are not something to be tossed away, but rather a powerful tool to forge a character. Every man can be a hero.

__________________

Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice, A Memoir of D-Day, the First Wave at Omaha Beach, and a World at War, New York, William Morrow, 2019, 320 pages.

I would like to express all my gratitude to Nick Amphlett of HarperCollins for his continued generous assistance in helping me obtain amazing military history books. Nick is an inestimable supporter of this blog.

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