VANCOUVER, Wash. — When Willard “Wink” Lamb broke Washington State’s 220-meter swim record as a senior at Longview’s RA Long High School in 1940, he never imagined he would hold the title 82 years later. Lamb, now 99 years old, certainly never thought that he would one day hold 73 individual and 13 relay world records, making him one of the most successful champion swimmers of all time.
Born in a mill town on the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border, Lamb set the 220-yard freestyle record in 2 minutes 23.4 seconds, a year after leading the underdogs Lumberjacks to the 1939 Washington State High School swimming title would have. Years later, 220-yard runs were shortened to 200 yards to ensure Lamb’s record stood forever.
The record was set at the University of Washington’s Pavilion Pool, a state-of-the-art aquatic facility with viewing balconies, tiered bench seating and seating for 1,000 on the east edge of campus, in the heart of husky athletics. There were more shiny tiles and floating stands than Lamb had ever seen, he said, coming from a city battered and battered by the Great Depression.
Lamb’s record-breaking freestyle foreshadowed a glittering career in the pool — but he didn’t swim in a straight line to rise to the ranks of champion swimmers. Touring as an elite World War II paratrooper and a life of rolled-up work meant he would not return to competition for decades.
Lamb as a husky
The UW began its men’s swimming program in 1932. The original trainer, Jack Torney, saw Lamb’s freestyle record and asked him to swim for the Huskies after high school. “Sorry Coach, I don’t have any money,” Lamb recalled the statement.
Torney didn’t want to lose this boy from the wooden town, so he looked for a job on campus. That summer, Lamb worked at Weyerhaeuser, earning 76.5 cents an hour to save for tuition. “And every half cent counted,” Lamb said.
By the fall, he had saved $600. He would hitchhike from Longview to Seattle, take classes and train at the world-class Pavilion pool, and proudly earned a college letterman sweater as a freshman. The sweater is in new condition; Lamb “never had a chance to wear it,” he explains with a smile.
“I was swimming and came home with red eyes,” Lamb said, since swimmers weren’t using goggles at the time, “plus I had janitor work every night.” He made $30 a month by working on the Campus worked to cover tuition.
Undefeated as a husky that fall, Lamb’s freshman year showed tremendous potential for his water racing career. Fate had other plans. Lamb’s freshman semester was his last, one of countless waves that have swept across the Pacific Ocean since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
At the end of the semester, Lamb followed a call-up letter home. He hoped, of course, to join the Navy, but military branches had come first, served first, on the day he enlisted at Fort Lewis outside of Tacoma. “The Navy and Marine spots filled up first, so I got stuck with the Army,” Lamb said.
When Lamb learned that paratroopers were making an extra $50 a month, he joined the Army Airborne. Two weeks later he was training for war at Camp Toccoa.
Teaching a different uniform
“When we got off the train in Georgia, we had to do 25 push-ups on the platform,” Lamb said.
Paratroopers had to pass the Army IQ test with a score of no less than 110. Lamb then completed 13 weeks of Airborne Basic Training followed by six weeks of Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia. To obtain his jump wings, it took Lamb and his companions five successful skydives of varying heights, day and night.
“From a perfect plane,” says the paratrooper joke.
Describing the training and conditioning program, including daily runs up the 1,735-foot Currahee Mountain, Lamb revealed his habit of understatement: “We were in pretty good shape.”
Historian Jeremy C. Holm, author of When Angels Fall: From Toccoa to Tokyo, went a step further when describing Lamb’s elite regiment.
“The 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment were brave, well-trained paratroopers — truly the best of the best — who went by the motto ‘Jump, Fight, Win!’ lived,” said Holm. “General Walter C. Krueger described them as ‘the Goddamn The most combative outfit I’ve ever seen.’”
Despite his accurate recollection of dates, names, and troop movements in the Pacific region, Lamb omits the qualitative details when discussing his service with the regiment, which is made up of three hand-picked battalions from the 505th, 502nd, and 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiments, as well as consists of the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The 511th was part of the vaunted 11th Airborne Division.
On May 8, 1944, the troop carrier SS Sea Pike was sailing west from the San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge when Lamb was deployed into the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
The UW float-turned-81mm Mortarman and his fellow 511th Paratroopers were the main forces in the reduction of two enemy divisions in the Leyte Campaign in the Philippines, where they spent more than a month three in a foxhole lived in the mountainous jungle. The only things more unholy than the mud of the monsoon season were the deadly fighting and the inability to resupply the troops. “I swear I actually haven’t had anything to eat for three weeks,” Lamb said.
Making his next jump from a C-47, Lamb landed on Tagaytay Ridge, Luzon, on February 3, 1945, where he was met by a young Filipino girl holding a bright red tomato. Lamm happily traded in for his silk parachute. “That was a real treat,” he said, and his face lit up 77 years later. “To have a fresh tomato.”
The 511th saw heavy fighting in Luzon and in the Los Baños Raid. The fighting in the jungle – along with decay, dysentery and insects – did not abate until news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hit. On August 11, 1945, Lamb and his regiment flew to Okinawa as leaders worked out terms for a ceasefire. On the 30th, Lamb was part of the first group of Americans to land on mainland Japan. He watched the end of World War II while guarding the delegation on the USS Missouri.
Lamb spent Christmas Eve 1945 – his 23rd birthday – on a homecoming ship in the Pacific Ocean. Back in Washington state, he married the lover he left in Longview, Jean, and got a job as a longshoreman. He later helped establish the Weyerhaeuser Kraft pulp mill and Linnton Plywood Mill in Portland, where he worked for 51 years. He had two beautiful sons and a sweet 63-year marriage to Jean, who died in 2009. He retired at the age of 80 when the mill closed. His friends tabulate that Lamb’s complaints over the years would not fill a thimble.
Since retiring to Vancouver, Washington, Lamb has continued to keep his wood shop organized. He mows his lawn with an attitude that would make his 511th Colonel proud. He grows tomatoes to share with friends, delicious old varieties that rival the perfect lamb tomato he received that day on Tagaytay Ridge.
Lamb models his life not on those 204 days of fighting in the Pacific Rim, but on the hard-won peace that sacrifice brought. Lamb has the medals to prove it was a peace he, the 511th and the Greatest Generation won.
Years later, he began collecting medals again.
Re-enter the swim
In a life of honest work and quiet service, Lamb further distinguished himself by entering his first swimming competition as an adult. Aged 83.
Lamb picked up where he left off as a promising UW freshman and returned to pool to break records. dozens of them.
As cataloged by US Masters Swimming, Lamb continues to set records on many lanes: record speeds at every distance in meters and yards, with different strokes and in several categories for swimmers aged 90-94, 95-99 and 100-104 (turning ). 100 this winter, he competes in 100-104 events). He holds world records in 73 individual events and 13 relay events, honors he’s earned while swimming at events like the Bellevue Club Masters Mile. The workout includes 59 flip turns – to swim a mile – each exercise. He swims three times a week at the Clark County Family YMCA.
Lamb will not be bragging about himself or the fact that on September 13, 2019, at the age of 96, he was inducted into the Masters International Swimming Hall of Fame, recognized for his achievements and inspiration “through swimming to create an active and healthy lifestyle.” Others are excited to say hello to the veteran athlete.
“Like so many WWII veterans, the story of Willard ‘Wink’ Lamb is one of incredible integrity, courage and relentlessness,” said US Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “At 99, Wink is still racing, holding a slew of world records in the freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and has written his legacy in our nation’s history.”
Basia Belza, director of the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging at Lamb’s semester-long alma mater, praised the award-winning swimmer as an “impressive personality” and an example of active aging. “We have strong evidence for the multitude of physical, psychological, social and cognitive health benefits that physical activity offers for older adults like Wink,” she said.
Lamb’s Wake is being felt in the Masters swimming community and beyond.
“Wink is an inspiration to all of our members as well as to swimmers around the world,” said Dawson Hughes, CEO of US Masters Swimming. “The joy he shows when he’s in the pool is contagious. It’s amazing that at 99 he’s still swimming competitively and having so much fun.”
Of course, Lamb has his eyes on the next race: the 2022 Summer National Championship in Richmond, Virginia in August, where he’s likely to set new records. After the meeting, Lamb plans to visit the US Army National Museum outside of Washington, DC, and then tour the White House. He will wear a WWII veteran’s hat with laurel leaves on the peak and pins on the front depicting the 511th’s sacrifice in the battles of Ormoc and Luzon that preceded the liberation of Manila. Back when the world went haywire and Lamb was snatched from his swimming career, barely old enough to buy a beer.
His advice to a young person today? “Get on the swim team,” Lamb said, with the laugh he’s always willing to offer.
Some heroes deserve chapters in history books; others go quietly among us. Washingtonian Wink Lamb is both. Warmly ordinary and invariably exceptional, humble and lion-hearted as ever, Lamb just swims on, letting a life of bravery and medals speak for itself.