VETERANS DAY: Two Lawrence Countians had noteworthy service in World War I

Published 3:25 pm Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The William C. Lambert Museum and Archive is located on the first floor of the Ironton City Center.

Conflict ended with Armistice Day, forerunner of Veterans Day

In 1954, the U.S. Congress established Nov. 11 as Veterans Day, a federal holiday honoring those who have served in the nation’s armed forces.

This was a modification of the previous Armistice Day observation, which marked the end of World War I, when hostilities ended on “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of the year.

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As has been the case with many of the conflicts the nation has seen, a great number of soldiers from Lawrence County took part in that “war to end all wars,” and two of those veterans had remarkable records of service that are still being honored to this day.

Col. William C. Lambert was a fighter pilot who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and was the second highest scoring flying ace in World War I.

Lambert got his interest in flying from watching the turkeys on his family farm. His interest in flying was furthered by a pilot who was visiting Ironton in 1910 or so in his Wright biplane.

During World War I, Lambert left Ironton to go to join the British Royal Flying Corps in 1917. He eventually registered 18 air-to-air victories in 1918.

He is believed to be the second-ranked Ace pilot of the war, only eight victories behind fellow Ohioan pilot Eddie Rickenbacker.

When World War II started, Lambert enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and remained with the service until his retirement in 1954 as a lieutenant colonel.

In 1973, he published “Combat Report,” a book that covered his experiences as a war pilot.

Lambert, who died in 1982, is honored with the William C. Lambert Museum, a collection of artifacts from his career, along with other military items, located in the rear of the first floor of the Ironton City Center.

Created in 2018, the museum and archive is designed to function as a repository for historical artifacts and records of a military nature relating to the life of Lambert and all military veterans of Lawrence County and the Nation. The mission is to document, preserve and explain the role and legacy of those veterans who shaped the national experience so that citizens will understand “the price of freedom and be inspired by their example.”

And, in recent years, the remarkable story of another veteran of the war has come into prominence.

Dean Gilfillan, of Ironton, attended Ironton High School and Phillips Military Academy and graduated from Yale University and, in 1917, he was commissioned as a captain in the Coast Artillery Corps.

At age 27, Gilfillan applied for the very first American tank school, commanded by Col. George S. Patton.

At the time, the tank was new and state of the art, so only the best and brightest were considered for the program, the American Tank Corps were tested at the Battle of Argonne Forest in northeastern France on Sept. 26, 1918, where they were met with strong resistance from German forces.

Cut off from all support, the American tanks and Gilfillan stood their ground.

Gilfillan whirled his tank around and took out two machine gun nests of the enemy, then the advancing German infantry.

With his tank hit by artillery shells and blood streaming down his face, Gilfillan continued to fight until fire neared his gas tank and threatened an explosion.

He leaped from the vehicle in time to escape the explosion, but was wounded by shrapnel from a bursting enemy shell. He remained at his post, pistol in hand, until an officer ran up to him to relieve him of command.

He was awarded the Croix de Guerre from France, that nation’s highest military decoration, and on March 19, 1919, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, presented to him by John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front in World War I.

That same year, Ironton’s first professional football team was organized and took on the name “Tanks” in honor of Gilfillan and other World War I tank soldiers.

This year, a division of the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade was named in honor of Gilfillan, while he was also added as a character in the Lawrence County Museum’s annual historic walk at Woodland Cemetery.