This was one of the happiest days of my life,” Dean Lanphere recalled, looking at his self portrait taken 71 years ago.
The photograph was taken just a few minutes after Lanphere’s wife, Geneva, pinned his wings on his U.S. Army Air Corps uniform. It was May 15, 1943.
“I thought I was the hottest thing on earth on that day,” he said with a grin. “That was a long time ago. I was so young and a hot rod back then.”
Shortly after the picture was taken, Lanphere was deployed to Sydney, Australia.
The newly minted bomber pilot arrived with swagger.
“I remember a major telling me when I arrived there, ‘Hey, fly boy. You think you are the greatest on earth?’ ” he said.
Lanphere, who was then 23 years old then, walked quietly away from the Air Corps major and did not say a word. He would let his actions speak for him — 58 times over enemy territory.
A small town boy
As a child, Lanphere was raised by his grandparents in Lyndon, Ill., a small town about 80 miles north of Peoria.
He moved in with his grandparents after his parents got divorced. His dad was an alcoholic. His mom contracted tuberculosis when he was 4 1/2 years old and put into a Springfield, Ill., hospital.
Lanphere continued to live with his grandparents even after his mom was healed and remarried.
His grandfather was employed as a section foreman with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, he recalled. His grandmother stayed at home.
Lanphere graduated from Lyndon High School.
“There were eight girls and five boys in my graduating class,” he said.
While in high school, he met his future wife, Geneva, who lived in a nearby town along the Rock River.
“I guess you can say we were high school sweethearts,” he said and smiled.
After graduating from high school in 1940, Lanphere moved to Washington, D.C., and took a civil service job, which had a $1,440 annual salary. After he worked there six months, he received a $180 pay raise.
“That was good money back then,” he said.
He and Geneva got married in 1941 and moved to Chicago.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he and Geneva were watching Andy Devine perform at the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago.
After Devine’s act, it was announced Pearl Harbor had been attacked, Lanphere recalled. It was a day he will never forget.
“I can still hardly believe it happened,” he said. “It was a very, very bad deal.”
Lanphere enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps a day after reading a Jan. 20, 1942 article in theChicago Tribune. The article stated a married man with a high school education could now become a pilot. Up to that time, the Air Corps required all pilots to have a college degree.
Lanphere didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to become a pilot,” he said.
Shortly after earning his wings, Lanphere was sent to the South Pacific.
Lanphere said he and his crewmates had to fight two enemies — the Japanese and the weather. The U.S. air base in New Guinea was located 2 degrees south of the equator, he said.
“During one mission I could not even see my wing tips for 3 1/2 hours,” Lanphere said.“And we had equatorial storms every damn day.”
Lanphere flew 58 missions before he was discharged from the service on Sept. 15, 1944.
Lanphere said his bombing unit was the only unit in U.S. World War II to fly B-26, B-25 and B-24 airplanes.
“It’s really amazing what happened (to me),” he said. “…But I was lucky. I was able to come home before (Japan) started the kamikaze stuff.”
After serving 15 months in the South Pacific, Lanphere said he requested and was granted his discharge.
“I wanted to see my 1-year-old daughter really badly,” he said. “I still can hear my commanding officer grant my request. But he also informed me at the time, if I agreed to stay in, he would promote me to captain in three more weeks.”
Lanphere did not reconsider his decision. He boarded a ship and headed to San Francisco.
It took 21 days for the ship to make the journey. A week after arriving stateside, he took a train to Chicago. He then took a train to Sterling, Ill., where his wife and daughter, Denise, were waiting. Shortly after Lanphere got off the train, he recalled his wife asking him to hold their baby.
“I asked her how,” he said and laughed. “I never held a baby before.”
He and and Geneva, had another daughter, Jodeane, born a couple years later.
‘What I had to do’
Lanphere, who is now 95, often wonders what would have ever happened in his life if he didn’t enlist.
He also wonders what would have ever happened if World War II had a different ending.
In August 1945, Lanphere was living in Sterling, with his wife and daughter, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I’ve heard from a number of people over the years saying the U.S. should have not dropped those bombs,” he said. “But, I believe if we would have not done that, we would have lost a bunch of serviceman in Japan. They were a bunch of real fanatics.”
Lanphere said he does not consider himself a hero.
“Am I a hero, no… I just did what I had to do,” he said. “And the rest of my crew did the same thing. It was our job to save our country.”
A good life
Lanphere worked as an air traffic controller in Chicago for a number of years after he retired from the military.
After Geneva passed away, Lanphere would find love twice more.
He and his second wife, Kay, were married for about 20 years before she succumbed to breast cancer.
He later met Gladys Lampe of Highland. They were married in 2001. She died in June after battling pneumonia, he said.
“My days with Gladys were some of the happiest times of my life,” he said. “We shared a lot of things in common. We both loved to travel.”
Looking back at his life, Lanphere said he does not have any regrets. He said he has lived a good life.
He said he also enjoyed his time in the military. He said seeing the U.S. flag today means everything in the world to him.
“I’m proud of it,” he said and started to cry.
Lanphere is also proud to have served.
“…And I’d be happy to serve our country again, if I could,” he said and smiled.