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East Aurora veteran recalls role changing from neighborhood handyman to minesweeper in Pacific

Louis J. Lambert, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: East Aurora

Branch: Navy

Rank: Motor machinist’s mate third class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Diesel engine repairs

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

The fifth child in a family of 12 brothers and sisters, Louis J. Lambert got more than dirt under his fingernails as a teenager, attending high school in the morning and working nights in a factory.

He helped his mom and dad with the household expenses and enjoyed having a few bucks in his pocket.

But even before factory work, Louis built a reputation as the “neighborhood handyman” who could fix “anything and everything.”

At 16, the Buffalo Technical High School student took those skills into the work force, testing airplane shock absorbers at the Houdaille Industries factory on Northland Avenue. It was messy work.

“I would get soaked with hydraulic fluid,” Lambert says.

When the chance to work at Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft assembly plant on Military Road presented itself, he didn’t look back. “Putting airplanes together was clean work,” he says.

That was short-lived. An invitation to the messy work of war arrived in a draft notice when he turned 18.

Impressed with Lambert’s mechanical abilities, the Navy sent him to basic engineering school and advanced diesel engineering school, both in Mississippi. After that, he was on his way to a diesel-powered minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II.

“I was assigned to the USS Climax,” Lambert says. “It was a small craft, about 100 shipmates.”

American forces had already hopped from one Pacific island to the next and were at last preparing to take the war to the Japanese homeland. But for that to happen, minesweepers would have to clear the explosives just beneath the ocean’s surface.

Then, in August 1945, the planned invasion of Japan was off the table after two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So instead of cruising into the minefields, Lambert recalls, Japan provided personnel and maps to assist the minesweepers.

“We had cables attached to our ships, and there were cutters on the cables that cut the chains that anchored the mines,” Lambert explains. “The mines would float up and would be blown up or sunk by gunfire from other ships.”

His ship worked with other minesweepers combing the harbors at Nagoya and Kobe.

“One time, a mine caught on our cutting gear as we pulled in the cables at the end of the day,” he says. “Luckily, somebody at the rear of the ship where the gear was coming up saw the mine. He shouted, ‘Stop the gear.’ We let the gear back out and shook the mine loose.

“If we hadn’t stopped the gear, the mine would have hit the ship and blown us up. We had sweated that one out.”

The Climax removed “at least 50 mines,” Lambert estimates.

“We worked for weeks at a time, dozens of minesweepers together,” he says. “We looked like a formation of geese.”

As the work progressed and ships could make their way into the harbors, sailors were occasionally rewarded with evening shore leave.

“That’s because we could only do minesweeping in daylight hours.”

The Japanese were friendly, especially the children, he said

“I got to go ashore a couple times. Things like candy, gum, soap, toothpaste and cigarettes were used for bargaining for souvenirs,” Lambert says, recalling his visit to a fishing village that had been spared “major devastation” in the Wakajama region.

He bartered cigarettes for a sword and a couple of rifles.

“The sword somehow how got lost in the mail, but the rifles got home and they are still in my family,” Lambert says.

Back in Buffalo, Lambert burnished his mechanical credentials, earning an industrial arts teaching degree from Buffalo State College. He also married Leonore Schmitt, a music teacher, on Thanksgiving Day 1950.

“That’s because I couldn’t get off,” Leonore says of the holiday marriage.

In 1955, Lambert landed a good-paying teaching job at the then newly opened Amherst Junior High School. His wife shifted her career from the classroom to their home, where she raised their 10 children, making a point that “raising children is teaching.” She also worked at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Eggertsville as a musician.

Lambert, who retired in 1980, proudly says they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary last Thanksgiving.

He rarely thinks of his war service, he says, and, in offering a final insight into his long life, would rather talk about singing.

“I was involved with the Amherst Male Glee Club for 25 years. I also sang with the Friends of Harmony Barbershop Chorus in Amherst,” he says. “My wife is still in music. She has a senior singers group at the East Aurora Senior Citizens Center, and I am the baritone in that group.”