After 21 years a lifesaver is honored
Twenty-one years ago George Lambert of Kotzebue, age ten, saved Pamela Smith, then 12, from drowning.
On Saturday Mr. Lambert, known to the world as Radar, was recognized for his heroic rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard with the Silver Lifesaving Medal. The decoration is one of the oldest medals in the country, created by an Act of Congress in 1874, and is one of the highest medals a civilian can receive. It is awarded to a person who saves another from drowning, shipwreck, or any other peril of water.
On June 22, 1998, a group of Kotzebue youngsters decided to go for a swim. The temperature was in the 70s°F, warm for the Arctic, and the water temperature was up to 40°F. As they passed a Kids Don’t Float loaner board with lifejackets one of the children grabbed one to take along. They knew they were not supposed to swim next to the sandbar because of the danger of strong currents there. As Pamela Smith was wading into the shallow water she slipped out past the drop off. She grabbed at a friend who was nearby but the current pulled her away. She screamed for help as she was pulled farther and farther away from her friends. The current would pull her down and she’d fight her way back to the surface. Although he was younger and smaller, Radar saw her struggling in the current and he acted. “Without hesitation or regard for his own well-being Mr. Lambert ran into the frigid water and swam more than one hundred feet to grab the floundering Miss Smith by the head and arms,” reads the medal citation. “Mr. Lambert managed to keep Miss Smith’s head above water and using all of his energy and demonstrating unusual presence of mind, he swam perpendicular to the strong current to return Miss Smith safely to the beach.”
The other children, recognizing the urgency of the situation, flagged down a passing boat, which then took young Pamela to the hospital.
Pamela Smith is now Magistrate Judge for Nome’s Trial Court and has a high school age daughter. “My name is Pamela Smith and when I was 12-years-old Radar saved my life,” she said Saturday at Anchorage’s Atwood Center, speaking to those gathered to see Lambert receiving the medal. Among those present was Governor Mike Dunleavy, who taught both Smith and Radar when they were youngsters in Kotzebue. The Smiths and the Lamberts were neighbors on Kotzebue’s Tundra Way. “No one was better at basketball than those Lambert boys,” she said of Radar and his two brothers. “Radar always had the biggest heart. He always had the best sense of humor. Radar saving my life is something that I’m forever grateful for.”
When Smith moved back to Nome after finishing law school in 2016 Lt. Commander Jonathan Dale of the U.S. Coast Guard contacted her about Lambert saving her from drowning. “He’d heard about what happened and he made it his goal make sure Radar got this recognition,” she said. “I’m so grateful for that. I really appreciate that.”
The interview about the incident some 18 years previous was intense. Lt. Commander Dale was persistent in getting the facts. “I didn’t understand risk at that time but I am so glad that someone else did. Someone else grabbed that life jacket before we went swimming. We walked by on our way to swimming and somebody thought about grabbing that lifejacket. I’m glad that Radar grabbed the lifejacket when he jumped in after me. That Kids Don’t Float stand played a big part in this rescue. But Radar played the biggest part. So when Jon was interviewing me that was very therapeutic,” said Smith.
The Kids Don’t Float program began in Homer in 1996 as a partnership between the Homer Fire Department, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Homer School District. They built fifteen loaner boards with lifejackets around Kachemak Bay and the program quickly grew around the state. It includes safety education programs in addition to lifejackets. Since its inception over 200,000 Alaskan kids have been taught about safety around water. “The first documented life saved from a Kids Don’t Float loaner board involved Mr. George Radar Lambert and Miss Pamela Smith,” said Rear Admiral Matthew T. Bell Jr., Commander of the US Coast Guard 17th District as he spoke to the crowd Saturday. “While this happened 21 years ago the state office of boating and the Coast Guard discussed this event and needed to correct the record. So three years ago this started as a question: ‘How come we didn’t recognize this?’ It took three years of paperwork to end up where we are today.”
“If I didn’t swim out to get Pam she would have not made it back,” said Lambert. Pamela Smith said “It’s amazing how he risked his life to save me. He was so brave and that’s why I can still call him my hero. I am forever grateful to him.” A few years ago she was in Kotzebue and went with her father, Eugene Smith, to search for a missing swimmer in the same channel. “And while we were in the boat I was just praying that we’d find that person alive,” she said. “I couldn’t help but think that if it wasn’t for Radar then my dad would have been doing the same for me. If Radar had let me go away with that current then I probably never would have been found. Radar didn’t just stand there or run to get help. He acted. He was so brave and so smart. Radar, because of you I’m here today. Because of you and your selflessness and your bravery I’m alive. Because of you I was able to have this beautiful smart daughter who also sees you as my hero.”
As a recipient of the Silver Lifesaving Medal Radar Lambert finds himself in good company. Fellow recipients include Rear Admiral Richard Byrd USN, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz USN, and General George S. Patton, USA.