By Dean Wright
RIO GRANDE — Rita Baker lives a quiet life in her home on Cherry Ridge Road. Her house is decorated in a traditional fashion from its exterior, while her neighbor’s home across the street has a tropical island motif. Matt Easter often calls his property “Easter Island,” and owns a variety of odds and ends he has collected over the years which carry historical or unique stories with them.
By chance, both hold relics of the second-highest scoring American ace of World War I: Lt. Col. William Lambert, a man noted for being a daredevil, a rock star of his day, an inventor, an engineer, a man who was one of the first to not only ride the skies in the earliest days of the plane, but to survive and expertly pilot the hellish airs of World War I as a fighter pilot ace.
According to the William Lambert Papers collection at Wright State University, “In four months, from April 7 to Aug. 10, 1918, Lambert shot down 21 1/2 German aircraft. Two of them were balloons and half the credit for one plane went to another pilot. … He was a leading World War I ace, with the second most kills of any American, (Eddie Rickenbacker had 26 kills).”
The collection consists of Lambert’s artwork, letters, photographs and publication notes from his life. There is some controversy as to whether he scored more points given the nature of record keeping of the time during war.
“My grandmother lived on South Tenth Street, Tenth and Vine, in Ironton, Ohio,” said Easter, the 41-year-old mayor of Rio Grande. “Bill, Lt. Col. Lambert, lived somewhere in that vicinity.”
Easter said the Bakers happened to know his grandparents, who had also lived in Ironton.
“(The Bakers) left Ironton and went to Richmond, Virginia,” Easter said. “They lived there for I don’t know how many years. Then they bought a house in Rio Grande. I didn’t know them from Adam. I bought my house here (in Rio Grande). My grandfather, who is now passed, was visiting. After he left, (the Bakers) walked over and introduced themselves. They said, ‘Was that Raymond Easter?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s my grandpa.’”
Easter then said the Bakers told him they knew his grandpa growing up near him. According to Baker, her husband, Paul, and his parents had resided next to the Lambert family when they lived in Ironton. She said Easter’s family had also been neighbors of her husband’s family. They all would remain linked, even to this day.
“Bill was different to the public than he was with us,” said Baker, 91. “He could be rough and short, to-the-point, you could say. We felt he was down to earth like us. The Lamberts were friends and were just one of us (the Baker family). They would come over for holidays and birthdays.”
Baker said that Lambert connected with her daughter, Bridget. Being a fan of large dogs, he was often about the neighborhood walking them, and it was not uncommon for Bridget to hitch a ride on one of Lambert’s dog’s backs. Baker said Lambert had willed his last dog to Bridget after his death. Baker said her husband and Lambert were close friends.
The dog was not the only thing the fighter ace had left behind in his death for young persons he knew. Lambert signed a book he had written called “Barnstorming and Girls” for Easter when he was 6 years old. The book detailed Lambert’s exploits traveling from town to town giving exhibitions of flying and performing aerial stunts, as well as his sexual conquests. When Easter was helping clear out his grandmother’s house after her death, they found the book. There was a note on it that read, “Do not give the boys until they are adults. Very steamy.”
Easter also acquired an original sketching done by Lambert from his grandparents, but was not sure as to how they had received it.
Baker had acquired a printed rendition of the same artwork from Lambert’s home before he died, and has kept it in her possession, as well as numerous newspaper clippings from Ironton and memorabilia in regard to Lambert.
And, by chance, the Bakers and Easters, as well as Lambert’s possessions, happened to find themselves a matter of yards from one another after the pilot’s death.
Paradoxes and contradictions
Military historian Dr. Sam Wilson, of Rio Grande Community College and the University of Rio Grande, has studied Lambert’s life extensively. Wilson has interviewed numerous individuals who knew Lambert, and he has also collected dozens of letters written by Lambert, as well as newspaper articles written about him.
After Lambert’s death, Wilson collected some of the ace’s letters and donated them to papers already collected by WSU. Wilson is in the midst of publishing a book about Lambert’s life, which will be available later in the year, titled “Bill Lambert: World War I American Flying Ace” by McFarland Press. The Bob Evans Farm will be featuring a World War I exhibit later and will also feature Wilson’s research of Lambert.
According to Wilson’s research, he believed Lambert befriended Paul Baker and was close because the pair were both mechanically inclined. Wilson also had a copy of Lambert’s book “Combat Report” which had been signed and gifted to Paul. Rita Baker gave Wilson the book after her husband’s death. The book chronicles Lambert’s memoirs of his time flying as a combat pilot during the last months of World War I.
Lambert was known to fly an S.E.5a which he tinkered on meticulously, according to Wilson, as Lambert had an obsessive personality which drove him to do whatever he could to get an aeronautical edge against his opponents.
Lambert was a “salty,” sometimes cynical man, according to Wilson’s interpretation of Lambert’s writings. Wilson stressed that it was hard to tell what kind of man Lambert was like before the war, and that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from his time battling in the European skies.
Wilson said it seemed Lambert was not a particularly affectionate man, save with his wife Chloe — and he loved her deeply — despite having arguably been a playboy. People either seemed to love or hate him as Lambert could be abrasive and prideful.
Yet, Lambert had a strong dislike for the top American ace of the time, Eddie Rickenbacker. All aces of the time, according to Wilson, were celebrities of their era. Rickenbacker played up his status more than most and was successful at it. Whether Lambert was envious or not, he abided by the idea that when one spoke of the credits of flying, it was to be attributed back to the squadron and not an individual as was a British tradition.
Lambert had a strange mix of strong pride and humility. The fact that he wrote the book “Barnstorming and Girls” lends support to the idea. After the war and in his older age, he was known to put on events for children in his neighborhood. Lambert had no children of his own, save a stepdaughter named Clyda, with whom he was not close. Lambert was a man of many paradoxes and contradictions.
‘On the edge of greatness’
According to WSU’s collection, Lambert was born in 1894 and died in 1982 at the age of 87. Lambert married Chloe in 1921. She died in 1971.
Around the age of 10 or 11, an aviator flew a Wright Flyer to Ironton for Independence Day. The aviator took Lambert up in the plane and allowed him to handle the controls. This would eventually lead to his career in flying.
Lambert joined a Canadian training unit in 1917 of the Royal Flying Corps, which would eventually become part of the British Royal Air Force. At one point, he was hospitalized with “battle fatigue,” now known as PTSD. He was given leave to rest at home for the remainder of the war. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross from England’s Prince of Wales at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. in 1919.
After the war, Lambert went on his barnstorming and airshow tour across the eastern U.S.
Lambert also served as an engineer with the U.S. Air Corps reserve in the 1920s and served in the early parts of World War II. He retired at age 60 as a lieutenant colonel. Lambert published his book “Combat Report” in 1973 and “Barnstorming and Girls” in 1980. He sketched scenes of military planes and his flying experiences before eventually selling prints of them when he grew older.
Lambert was noted to have patented a pipe rest, as well as wing designs for planes that did not make it to mass production.
One of his prized possessions happened to be a piece of red canvas from the German Manfred von Richthofen’s plane. Most might know Richthofen as the famed Red Baron, top ace of World War I. Wilson said Lambert had never crossed paths with Richthofen, but received the canvas from a colleague who had torn part of Richthofen’s plane apart the day it went down. Supposedly, Lambert also had the timing chain used on the German plane’s machine gun.
“He lived at the edge of greatness but never quite got there,” said Wilson, in reference to Lambert being overshadowed by Rickenbacker.
“The two greatest American aces of the war are from Ironton and Columbus, Ohio,” said Wilson, referencing Lambert’s home in south Ohio and Rickenbacker’s home in Columbus. “It further supports Ohio’s tradition in aviation. You’re talking the Wright brothers, Neil Armstrong and right down the list. Now you have these two great pilots.”