Berta Bernard Lambert fought his way across Europe in the latter days of World War II, using his native West Virginia instincts and practical savoir faire to avoid becoming shell fodder for the tenacious dug-in German infantry.
And after slogging his way through the infamous Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 with the 65th Infantry Division, the Mount Hope native later found himself on the banks of the Rhine River, a pivotal military milestone for the Allies as they marched their way toward Berlin.
But when Lambert attempted to cross the heavily-defended waterway with his companions, a shell exploded near his crowded vessel, causing the craft to capsize in the icy currents just before it reached the shoreline.
“I’d always been afraid of water ever since I was a child,” the 94-year-old U.S. Army veteran explained with a laugh at the Beckley VA Medical Center earlier this year.
“But as soon as I was thrown into the river, I knew enough to get rid of my backpack and other gear and start swimming and crawling toward the opposite riverbank.”
Wearing the Army winter-issue wool uniform, Lambert was soaked from head to toe when he emerged from the river, but he didn’t panic.
“After a while, I started to get warm,” he said, adding, “I’d always heard you got warm just before you froze to death, but I realized my body heat was beginning to warm my wet clothes.”
Lambert’s company of men was pinned down for several hours, however, by a lone machine gun set up in a building beyond the railroad tracks that ran adjacent to the river channel. But the innovative Fayette County private put his mind to work.
“I made my way up there with some of my pals to get behind the rapid-fire weapon that was spewing death in every direction,” Lambert recalled of the perilous predicament. “I worked my way around and got behind the old railroad building. I could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the gun as I kicked the backdoor in. What I found was a couple of kids, maybe 14 years old, manning the machine gun. I told them to drop it and stand up, which they did. They were as scared as I was. I couldn’t shoot them because they were just kids. I couldn’t shoot kids.”
Lambert and his fellow soldiers took the young Germans prisoner and that put an end to the deadly hindrance that had held off an entire company for hours.
“I admired those boys,” the former private recalled of the incident.
“They were well trained for what they were doing. But I really felt sorry for them.”
After World War II, Lambert returned to the States and settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he worked as a paint supply and real-estate salesman for 55 years, eventually buying a home there and residing near the famed Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes.
“A lot of people mistook me for the football coach, because we must have looked something alike, I guess,” Lambert joked good-naturedly. “People would throw up their hands and yell, ‘Hey, coach.’ Then they would see that I wasn’t Woody and move on.”
Ironically though, the legendary college coach tried to recruit Lambert’s son, Joe, who was a high school football standout in Columbus. “My son delivered newspapers to Coach Hayes but he elected not to go to Ohio State.”
Still, there were some tough times in Columbus that Lambert had to live through before he got on his feet after the war. Though Lambert enrolled briefly at OSU after being discharged from the Army, his room-and-board funds got lost in the shuffle of the busy post war academic boom.
The college freshman had to drop out of school and for a time lived on the streets, often at the mercy of soup kitchens and church patrons.
It was at an Episcopal church on the south side of Columbus that Lambert made one of his greatest contributions to homeless people like himself who were struggling just to stay alive.
“The ministers said the church and the kitchen was going to be closed because there wasn’t enough support to keep it going,”the fluent former GI explained. “I thought about it for a while and with the help of another homeless man, I worked on a plan that would keep the church open and possibly increase the membership at the same time.
“I talked to the church administrators and persuaded them to hold a church carnival for the purpose of helping people in the neighborhood to get to know each other. We called it, ‘Meet Your Neighbors.’ I contacted another Episcopal church on the other side of town and that ministry agreed to foot the bill for the carnival. It worked and the church increased its membership almost immediately.”
Lambert went on, “It was clear to me that the community needed the church and the church needed the community.”
But the amusing mountaineer is quick to point out it wasn’t solely out of altruism that he came to the rescue of the church in need of new members.
“I was just hungry,” Lambert cracked with a grin. “I didn’t want to give up my meal ticket.”
Top o’ the morning!