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Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace

Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace by Samuel J. Wilson. McFarland and Company, Inc.,  2016, 276 pp.

William Lambert, from Ironton, Ohio, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was America’s second leading ace behind the famous Eddie Rickenbacker. Like Rickenbacker, Lambert patrolled the dangerous skies over France during the “Great War” delivering justice to the Iron Cross as a member of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, No. 24 Squadron. The author explains that it was his love for aviation that drew him to service via Canada where he championed flight training and proved himself combat-ready.

The book entitled Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace, includes a brief summary of the Wright Brothers’ struggle to make aviation possible. Readers unfamiliar with aviation terminology, such as air foil, wing warping, rudder, elevator control, and ailerons may find it difficult to follow the progress and accomplishments of early American aviation. However, the author, Samuel J. Wilson, does an exquisite job chronicling the life and times of this decorated fighter pilot of the First World War, who largely lived in the shadows of the more vocal aviators in early aviation.

 

Wilson is a history professor at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio. He is careful to cite the professional work and memoirs of Lambert who kept a daily log during the war and published his book, Combat Report. As Lambert’s timeline advances through 1918, the author provides current events and strategy of the Allies to generate a more complete and much-needed battlefield picture. Though the citations can become a bit distracting, they provide comfort to the reader that this man’s story and his conquests are true and accurate. He also provides corroborating support by examining available squadron historical records. The stories are vivid accounts of contact with the enemy, the perils of an inattentive pilot and the successes of No. 24 Squadron. Pilots faced many challenges flying in an open cockpit and dealing with incessant system failures that plagued operations and degraded the spirits of eager fighter pilots such as Lambert.

 

Sadly, Lambert’s involvement in the “Great War” ended abruptly and prematurely. He suffered from combat stress or “shell-shock” as it was diagnosed at the time. It is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The chapter dedicated to his diagnosis, and the condition is mind-opening and impactful for anyone who has experienced similar symptoms or knows someone who has struggled with this very real disease. PTSD impacted Lambert for the rest of his life of 87 years, and his character because the way in which he dealt with his problems were less than popular in the court of public opinion. The author is brutally honest in telling Lambert’s personal side, his promiscuous behavior during his barnstorming days after the war, and his stubbornness and crotchety demeanor later in life that only worked to push friends and acquaintances away.

 

This book can spawn a greater interest in World War I aviation and America’s first fighter pilots. The early machines may lack the appeal of modern-day airpower with all of the bells and whistles of advanced technology, precision guided munitions, and stealth technology. However, these dogfights— told from an ace’s perspective—are real, engaging, and leave the reader in suspense. It is hard to put the book down as each encounter with the enemy keeps the pages turning highlighting Lambert’s 22 confirmed victories. It has the underpinnings of being a Hollywood production as Lambert advances to the edge of greatness, departing the Great War as America’s leading ace only to be outdone by a fellow countryman and equally excellent pilot who is not fully covered in this publication. It is a must read for historians and aviation enthusiasts.

SMSgt Christopher Wlodarczyk, USAF

Creech AFB, Nevada

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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