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100-year-old veteran counts his blessings

As husband, father and World War II veteran, 100-year-old William “Bill” Lancaster, talked about life from his Aurora home last month, most of his stories seemed to circle back to a common theme: gratitude.

“When I think about my life I’ve been really lucky,” said Lancaster, a parishioner of Risen Christ Church, “really blessed.”

Lancaster’s 100 years began when born to Edith and William Lancaster in Saskatchewan, Canada, April 13, 1914. Soon after, the family moved to the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he was raised with one brother and three sisters. When just 2 years old, he received third degree burns in a fire and lost his speech.

“When I got my speech back, I was tongue-tied,” he said. “The older kids would do anything they could to make me mad so I would swear.”

This led to fights, and too many fights resulted in his being kicked out of school.

“I ended up in a smaller school,” he said. “Well, going to a smaller school, how lucky can you get?”

He had opportunities, he said, both academic and athletic, that he never would’ve had in the big school.

“This way I was very, very fortunate,” he said. “And that’s the way it’s been all my life.”

In 1939, he was among the first to be drafted when World War II erupted. When traveling to downtown Detroit from Grosse Pointe to join the Army’s field artillery, his life took a turn after running into an old fraternity brother.

“Did you ever hear of the flying cadets?” the friend asked.

Lancaster hadn’t, but he liked what he learned. Following training, he would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps and be paid $200 a month in salary plus an extra $100 in flight pay: a much better deal than the $21 a month he’d make enlisted in the field. “My ears went up,” Lancaster said, and the adding machine started in his head, though it didn’t take much calculating to figure it was a better deal than the $21 a month he’d receive in the field.

However, he was eight hours short of the required 60 college credits needed, as he had left the University of Detroit to take care of family duties when his father had fallen ill. Help arrived in the form of an Air Corps colonel, a client of the service station where he worked.

“I’ve been trying to get into your outfit,” he told the colonel while servicing his car. The colonel found a correspondence course for him, “Modern European History” that qualified and Lancaster “made darn sure” he passed. The colonel personally delivered proof of his newly earned credits to Washington, D.C., to ensure they arrived in time for Lancaster to meet the cut-off age of 27: he was 26 years and 10 months old at the time.

“In 60 days I wouldn’t be eligible,” he said, again reflecting on his good fortune.

Another lucky day had come earlier, in 1934, at a Robber’s Dance in Detroit.

“I went to a dance hall, that’s the way it was during the Depression, nobody had money to date,” he explained.

“I had to wait to go cut in,” he said of a young lady, Anne, who caught his eye. “Wow, what a dancer.”

After the dance, he invited Anne to the University of Detroit sophomore prom.

“My gosh,” he paused, his eyes filling with tears as he recalled how beautiful she looked on their first date. “I not only had the best dancer, I had the most beautiful girl.”

He described her princess hair-do, the long green velvet dress and string of pearls she wore; and a deal they made. Because he was not in a position to marry and support a family, the two decided to date others, but stay in touch. Seven years later, they married on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“I got married and three days later I’m on my way overseas,” he said.

Lancaster was shipped for Seattle to determine where he would go. After four weeks, he was sent to the partially Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Working as a bombardier navigator, he was involved in 12-13 missions, “maybe more,” when he was injured in a plane crash.

“I cracked up in a B26 (Marauder bomber),” he said. “I triple fractured this leg here (pointing to his left), and I had to wait for 24 hours before they picked me up to take me to the hospital.”

But as far as he was concerned, this was a “lucky, lucky day.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday, thinking: ‘I’m going to get out of this hell hole.’”

He recovered in Anchorage for three and a half months.

“My left leg is about half-inch shorter than my right leg,” he said. “But that didn’t make any difference to me.”

He was then shipped to Denver to recover at Fitzsimons Army Hospital for a year, where Anne was able to join him. After convalescent leave, he continued to serve in the Air Corps as a trainer until 1946. He and Anne settled down in Aurora, where he worked for Gates Rubber Company, and the couple raised a son and four daughters, including Gail, a sister of the Servants of God’s Love in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Hilary, victims’ assistance coordinator at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver. He retired from Gates when he was 62 and launched his next career in automotive parts sales, fully retiring only five years ago. He and Anne were married 69 years when she passed away in 2010.

“Really what it’s all about is family,” he said gratefully of his five children, 15 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. “I’m just a lucky guy.”

Family and friends honored him with a birthday party at Risen Christ Church May 10.

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