Lorain O. Lambert is a constant fixture in the back row at monthly Mount Airy Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings. Lambert is a member of a fading fraternity — America’s “greatest generation.”
At age 91, Lambert attends on a monthly basis, always wearing his 25th Infantry Division ball cap. His story is one of a young man who seldom travelled from the Flat Rock community but was sent abroad in defense of the nation.
In 1942, at age 19, Lambert’s draft card was drawn. Lambert said he was farming on the homestead at the time; his life was soon to change immensely.
Lambert said it was off to Fort Jackson after his number was drawn. There Lambert was processed into the Army. He recounted standing in long lines receiving shots, and he remembers two other area men who took the trip with him.
“There were another couple of guys from the area,” said Lambert. “One didn’t weigh but 90 pounds. When somebody asked, ‘What have you been doing?’ the guy said, ‘eating pinto beans and potatoes.’”
Lambert said the man handling the in-processing looked at the other Surry County native and said, “Well, just go back and eat some more.”
While the other lad was headed home, Lambert’s next stop would be Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Lambert was trained for an inevitable deployment.
Like most other World War II soldiers, Lambert made a number of stops on a journey which eventually landed him in post-war Japan. The first was a stint at what was then Camp Hood, Texas. Lambert said his stay there was longer than expected.
“All of the boys had left but me,” Lambert recounted. “I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ Eventually, I got my orders, and I headed to California.”
According to Lambert his stay there was short. It was a stopping point before he got on a ship headed to the Pacific Theater of combat.
“We loaded a ship and left,” explained Lambert. “We only got just a little ways before we had to turn back.”
Lambert went on to explain that while engine troubles may have delayed his trip, he eventually took the two-week journey to the Philippines. Lambert arrived at Manila sometime after Gen. Douglas MacArthur had retaken the territory.
“When we got there they said the ship couldn’t go into the harbor,” recounted Lambert. “There were too many mines. We had to wait thirty days for mine-sweepers to clear it.”
According to Lambert his first surprise upon his arrival was at weapons draw.
“They were handing out our guns. They were M-1 Carbines,” said Lambert. “I said ‘uh-oh.’ I had never even touched one.” Lambert said he and his comrades had trained with older weapons while stateside.
Lambert said he cleaned his new M-1, but it was of little use on the recently retaken island. However, Lambert still remembers a few problems with the Japanese who had remained on the island.
“Of course, we would stand in line at the chow hall.” Lambert told. He explained that Japanese soldiers and civilians who remained on the island would try to slip into the chow line.
“We couldn’t tell the difference between them (the Japanese) and the Filipinos, but the Filipinos could,” remarked Lambert. “The Filipinos serving chow wore long swords. They would take the Jap from the line. Well, they never tried to sneak into the line again.”
After his stay in the Philippines, Lambert’s next stop was the Japanese mainland. Lambert said he landed in one of the Japanese cities which had been hit with a nuclear bomb, though more than 70 years has allowed which one — Hiroshima or Nagasaki — to slip from his mind.
Despite the bombs which killed 90,000 to 146,000 and 39,000 to 80,000 Japanese respectively, Lambert said the Japanese people were quite receptive of American servicemen.
“They would say, ‘American soldiers good. Japanese bad,’” recounted Lambert. “They (the Japanese army) treated their own people badly — especially the women.”
Lambert remembers a snow-capped mountain nearby and those mountain ranges would become the mission of Lambert’s outfit.
“The Japanese had tunnels and caves in the mountains,” Lambert remembered. “They stored weapons in them. It was our job to go get the stuff.”
Lambert said they wandered the mountains looking for the stockpiles, which weren’t easy to find and even harder to clear.
“There were Japs still in some of them,” said Lambert. “We couldn’t get to most of them. The only way was with a flamethrower. We would give them a chance to come out. Then we used the flamethrower.”
According to Lambert the fight didn’t end there. The seized weapons caches had to be loaded onto trains, transported and loaded onto ships. Lambert said the ships went to sea and dumped the loads.
“The Japs would try to take the weapons back,” remarked Lambert. “That’s why we were there. They didn’t get them back.”
After trudging through the mountains and negotiating tunnels, Lambert had done his duty, and it was time to head home. He rode on a ship and arrived in Seattle’s harbor. Back on friendly soil, Lambert’s first act was one straight from the heart.
“When we got there I kissed the ground. Hundreds of us did,” recounted Lambert.
Though Lambert had done his tour of duty, he said the Army wasn’t necessarily ready to cut ties. Lambert had attained the rank of sergeant, and he said the Army used it in its attempt to re-enlist him.
“They said, ‘If you re-enlist we will give you another stripe,’” explained Lambert. His answer was simple: “You can keep your stripe. I’m going home.”
Lambert said a bus took him all the way back to the family homestead in Flat Rock. However, the dirt road where he lived presented its own hurdle.
“We got to the hill down here, and the bus was smoking,” explained Lambert. “The driver said you’d better get out here. We had to walk up the hill, so the bus could make it. Then we got back on, and the bus brought me the rest of the way.”
Life went back to normal for Lambert after that. His bride Georgia awaited him.
Rumors had flown about what Georgia had been doing with the money Lambert sent home. Lambert quickly learned that the rumors of her spending his $50-per-month pay allowance frivolously had been entirely false.
Georgia had, in fact, saved every dime she could. The couple were able to buy their first home together and a 1942 Mercury with Lambert’s hard-earned money.
Lambert said Georgia departed from this world in 2000, after losing her fight with cancer and nearly 60 years of marriage.
Lambert went to work for Belk department store after his arrival home. However, when the store moved from downtown to its location at Mayberry Mall Lambert found himself unemployed. He proceeded to work 20 years at Perry Manufacturing, a clothing company that once had a mill in Mount Airy.
Though Lambert had returned from his service abroad, he continued serving the community.
Lambert’s only daughter, Charlotte, was enrolled at Flat Rock Elementary when a fire broke out there in 1957. Charlotte had the measles and wasn’t in attendance that day. However, a 9-year-old boy was killed and a teacher who attempted to rescue the boy died later of the burns she had received.
Seeing a need for fire protection in the area, Lambert and other men founded the Four Way Volunteer Fire Department. The Four Way VFD jacket Lambert wears is telling of his pride in having been involved in the department’s inception.
Lambert is also a founder of the Flat Rock Ruritan Club.
Though he’s not fighting fires or working on ball fields at the age of 91, Lambert is still active.
Recently, Lambert was awarded for 38 years of perfect attendance at Flippin Memorial Baptist Church. In 2006 the church also honored him for the 34 years he spent as the choir director.
Like many WWII veterans, Lambert’s lifetime of service abroad and involvement in the community is one to which many look for an example.
“I just really look up to my father-in-law,” said Vietnam veteran and son-in-law David Sparks.
Andy is a staff writer for The News and can be reached at (336) 415-4698.