Bill Martin takes exception with the title of a book about Col. William Lambert of Ironton that labels the aviator as America’s “forgotten” aviation ace of the first world war.
“I don’t think people really forgot him because they really didn’t know him in the first place,” Martin said during the most recent Military Roundtable hosted by the Eastern Kentucky Military History Society at Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland.
Martin told the audience he met Lambert in 1968, and shared a few of his personal observations about the pioneering pilot and inventor. Projecting a photo of Lambert at the age of 8, Martin observed he was “a mischievous-looking boy,” who was inspired to fly after feeding his family’s turkeys and watching the graceful birds glide in for their meals.
“He said, ‘Little did I know I would be doing that in the not-so-distant future,’” Martin said. “What I didn’t say was he also said, ‘The turkeys flew down for the corn, and I did to kill my fellow man.’”
The young man from Ohio earned a place aboard a flight of a visiting Wright Flyer by bringing the pilot tools and food, he said, and later became one of the first to volunteer to take flight in the Great War as an aviator on behalf of England.
After being downed near the end of the war, Lambert suffered combat fatigue and was experiencing bleeding from his ears, Martin said, explaining he declined an invitation from King George V to receive Britain’s Distinguished Flying Cross at the royal palace. Lambert said such a ceremony would have made him nervous, Martin said, adding the award was later presented to Lambert by the prince of Whales.
After the war, Lambert was among the wave of “barnstormer” pilots who toured the country performing aerial stunts and maneuvers in a surplus Curtis JN-4 “Jenny” airplane, including a stint promoting a group of traveling bathing beauties. Lambert also promoted his own inventions, including a roll-up map for pilots in open-cockpit airplanes, as well as a sectional wing design that could easily be repaired if damaged, and, later in life, a chin rest for pipe smokers.
Martin said Lambert married an Ashland girl “who grounded him,” and noted the pilot received an invitation from Howard Hughes to fly one of the aircraft featured in his 1930 film “Hell’s Angels.” Lambert declined the offer, Martin said.
“He said he didn’t want to get up there with a bunch of greenhorns because he would get killed,” Martin said.
Lambert entered service as a major during World War II, although he was considered too old to fly at that point, Martin said, adding he was allowed to wear his British medal on the right side of his American service uniform. During that war, Lambert later talked of a time when he was asked to move a P-51 “Mustang” fighter from one hangar to another. Martin said the experienced pilot was confident he could pilot the Mustang, the fastest and most maneuverable military aircraft in the American collection, and was tempted to take to the air in it if not certain such action would result in his own court martial.
Martin said Lambert “was a man with a lot of quirks,” and explained he was a big fan of the Cincinnati Reds.
“He loved the Reds, but he didn’t like the TV announcer, so he would watch the game on TV and turn on the radio and listen to that announcer because he liked him better,” Martin said with a chuckle.
“And, he was a smoker. If he wasn’t smoking he was getting ready to smoke,” Martin said, describing the oversized flame Lambert used to ignite his pipes and cigars. “If he wanted to light a pipe or a cigar ... he wanted a flame!”
Late in life, Martin said Lambert surprised most who knew him by buying a powerful, four-speed Ford Mustang. Shortly after buying the car, Martin said Lambert asked him to visit so he could decide if he was skilled enough to drive the vehicle during an upcoming trip to Ohio to speak with other veteran pilots.
“He wanted me to come get checked out on that car,” Martin recalled, explaining Lambert drove on that journey, at least until Martin insisted he take control after a near miss through the middle of a fork in the road. “He would have probably been 84 at that time, I imagine.”
The next roundtable will be at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8. Ashland Community and Technical College instructor Dan Mahan will give a presentation about the War of 1812. For more information, call (606) 547-2607.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.