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.
After years of hard work, I’m proud to announce my book is officially on the market at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Tears from the Heart will undoubtedly make you look at your life differently.
The book features over 35 inspiring stories and just a few of the photos I have taken over the years.
The book is available in hardback, soft back and e-book formats.
Below you will find the back cover copy as well as the introduction.
I look forward to hearing from you.
By Mark Hodapp
For years, Cal Neeman was the man behind a catcher’s mask.
The long-time Cahokia, Ill. resident disappeared from major league baseball in 1963 and was gone, but not forgotten.
“I don’t do much now,” he says. “I am right now in Florida, enjoying the nice sunshine.”
At 83 years old, Neeman is as energetic as many men half his age.
He still enjoys playing golf, and traveling with his wife of 58 years, Maryann.
“I am not a scratch golfer,” he says and laughs. “I never was. I didn’t even have a handicap last year. The last time I had a handicap, it was a 14.”
Neeman now lives in Lake St. Louis, Mo. He recently had his right knee replaced.
“I’m down here (in Florida) trying to recoup,” he says.
Neeman was born in Valmeyer, Ill. on Feb. 18, 1929. He remembers moving to Waterloo, Ill. when he was in the first grade. His family later moved to East St. Louis, Ill. after his dad got a “good job” with Monsanto. They later relocated to Maplewood, Ill. (better known as Cahokia today), where he lived most of his teenage life and had a newspaper delivery route.
Neeman graduated from Dupo High School in 1947, and is still widely considered as one of the school’s most gifted athletes in baseball and basketball.
He helped Dupo win the regional basketball title during his senior year.
Neeman was later signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Yankees out of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he also played basketball, before the 1949 season.
The Yankees organization assigned him to the Joplin Miners of the Class C Western Association, where he spent both the 1949 and ‘50 seasons.
Neeman hit .292 for the Miners in 95 games to win the pennant in 1950 with help from Mickey Mantle.
“Everyone who saw Mantle play knew he could run faster and hit the ball farther than anyone on the field,” Neeman recalls.
Neeman was drafted by the U.S. military and served during the Korean Conflict, returning in time for the 1953 season.
He served with the Army’s 105th Field Artillery Battalion, spending about a year in Korea.
After being discharged from the Army, he met his wife while playing with the Binghamton Triplets. The Triplets were a minor league baseball team in Binghamton, New York, affiliated with the New York Yankees.
Neeman spent four seasons in the minor leagues, with his best year coming in 1955 when he caught 122 games and hit .294 with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association.
In 1956, he played with the AAA Richmond Virginians and also the AAA Denver Bears.
On Dec. 3, 1956, he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the New York Yankees in the Rule V Draft. “That shocked me,” he says. “I could hardly believe it.”
It was the break Neeman needed as the Yankees were well stocked at catcher with Yogi Berra and a number of young catchers in their system, including Elston Howard, Ralph Houk and Johnny Blanchard.
Neeman jumped right in and became the Cubs’ first string catcher as a rookie in 1957, hitting .257 with 10 home runs in 122 games.
He fondly recalls getting his first big league hit off Milwaukee Braves star Warren Spahn on April 16, 1957, at Wrigley Field.
He remembers getting his first home run a week later off of Milwaukee hurler Lew Burdette in the 10th inning on April 23, 1957, at County Stadium in Milwaukee.
The game ended with Milwaukee Hall of Famer Hank Aaron hitting a line drive caught by Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, killing a Milwaukee scoring rally.
He split the Cubs catching duties in 1958 with Sammy Taylor.
“In those days, if you didn’t hit close to .300, a second division team was looking for ways to improve their team,” he says. “On a pennant winner or contender, that was a different story.”
A solid receiver, Neeman would be with the Cubs until he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with Tony Taylor for Ed Bouchee and Don Cardwell on May 13, 1960.
While with Philadelphia, he became close friends with the late Robin Roberts. The former Phillies pitching great was born in Springfield, Ill., the son of an immigrant Welsh coal miner. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
“He could throw the ball where the hitters could never hit it,” Neeman recalls.
He spent a day with Roberts last spring shortly before his death on May 6, 2010. He was 83.
“That was a sad day,” Neeman says. “He was one of those good men we lost.”
Neeman’s game started to tail off and the 33-year-old catcher was passed along to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1962 and he would finish off his big league career in the American League with the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators in 1963.
Neeman finished with a .988 fielding percentage and a .224 batting average. He had 30 home runs while appearing in 376 games.
After baseball and during the offseason, Neeman worked as a railroad switchman.
Neeman later worked as a salesman with the Nystrom Company, selling school supplies.