|Birth: ||Nov. 9, 1917|
Le Flore County
|Death: ||Aug. 8, 1952, North Korea|
Used with the approval of Ronnie Joyner
Bob Neighbors: A Hero Remembered
by Ronnie Joyner
On August 8th, 1952, St. Louis Browns right-hander Duane Pillette toed the rubber, all set to face off against Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller in a rather ordinary game at Sportsman's Park. As a matter of fact, everything at the ballpark was pretty ordinary that day. The Brownies were 18 games below the .500 mark on their
way to a 7th-place finish in the American League, and being near or in the A.L. cellar was pretty ordinary for them. They lost the game that day in a 10-9 slugfest -- an outcome that was, well, rather ordinary.
On that same day half a world away in the hostile skies over North Korea, things were far from ordinary. The 3-man crew of a U.S. Air Force B-26 bomber, tail number 44-34698, was in distress. They'd been hit, and faced with no other alternative, the men reported that they were bailing out. The ill-fated U.S. airmen were 1st Lieutenant
William L. Holcom, Staff Sergeant Grady M. Weeks, and ex-St. Louis Browns shortstop Major Robert O. Neighbors.
Nearly 13 years earlier on September 16th, a 1939, a baby-faced 21-year old Bobby Neighbors trotted onto the field at Washington's Griffith Stadium to appear in his first-ever major league ballgame as a member of the St. Louis Browns. The kid must have been on cloud nine as he finally realized his dream of actually playing in a big league game. He'd come close back in 1937 when he was called up by the Browns at the end of the season, but he never made it off the bench. Even the fact that the Browns were abysmal in 1939 -- they'd lose a staggering 111 games -- most likely didn't dampen his spirits. Heck -- he probably owed his shot at the big time to St. Louis' on-field ineptitude. A better team probably wouldn't have even considered giving Neighbors a look based on his short minor league resume, but the Browns weren't exactly a better team. In other words, Bobby Neighbors was in the right place at the right time.
On November 9th, 1917, in Talahina, Oklahoma, Leither and Nellie Neighbors happily welcomed the birth of their son, Robert. The event was especially joyous because it was preceded by a family tragedy when the couple's first child, also a son, died in infancy. Years before Bobby was even a glimmer, his parents had followed the family migration from Tennessee to Talahina -- in the southeastern, mountainous region of Oklahoma -- and they were married there. Three
more sons followed Bobby into the world -- Carl, Paul and Morris -- and Leither provided for them by working as a ranch-hand and in the Oklahoma oil fields. "Dad and mom raised us on good christian principles," Carl Neighbors, 83, said recently from his home in Tulsa. "Dad was looked
up to in the community and he helped a lot of people out. He never denied a handout to anybody who needed one despite the fact that we, too, were as poor as dirt -- we just didn't realize it at the time."
The boys spent much of their time growing up playing sports -- predominantly baseball and basketball. Leither was a good athlete and he laid the groundwork for the boys' love of sports. "My dad was a real good sandlot ballplayer," Morris explained. "He was small and wiry, and pretty fast. He also organized and managed teams of kids
long before there was a Little League. Dad spent a lot of time doing that and thatıs pretty much where we learned to play baseball."
Leither's influence became obvious as the boys began to excel in sports. Carl was a good sandlot baseball player, good enough to warrant a tryout with Palestine in the East Texas League, but in his words, "I just came up a bit short." Morris played baseball at Oklahoma A&M, ultimately making it to the NCAA final eight in 1949, the equivalent of today's College World Series. Bobby was a very good basketball player at Wild Horse High School, and following his graduation he played on a barnstorming basketball team formed by legendary big league pitcher Carl Hubbell who lived in Meeker, Oklahoma. But it wasn't in basketball where Bobby would really make his mark in sports, it was in baseball. He had made quite a name for
himself in local sandlot baseball, but unlike his brother Carl, Bobby was able to parlay his ability into a professional contract. Fast-pitch softball was also a popular sport in that area, and Bobby played his share of that, too. As a matter of fact, he referred to his softball experience instead of his sandlot experience when he filled out his National Association Contract Card a couple of years later. According to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the National Association Contract Card is how player records -- signings, eleases, sales, etc. -- were kept track of through much of 20th century baseball. "I had been playing softball, but had always wished to play baseball," Bobby hand-wrote on his contract card in 1937. "I went to Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to try out, and made the team. I played my first complete game of [professional] baseball at
Siloam. At Siloam is where I became a pro in baseball."
The 1936 Siloam Springs Travelers were the Arkansas-Missouri League's Class D affiliate of the St. Louis Browns, and it was there that Bobby showed great potential in just his first year of professional ball. In the field he played second, third and short, and at the plate he proved potent with the stick socking 16 home runs while driving in 86.
"We kept up pretty close with Bobby's play at Siloam," Carl said. "It was about a 2-hour drive there from where we lived, but with transportation back then it took half a day! But we went pretty regular to watch him play on the weekends, and he was always sending s clippings." Carl doesn't know what became of all those clippings, but his memory is sharp as a tack. While sketchy on specific dates,
he does recall events of major importance in Bobby's career. "Bobby attended at least one spring training with the Browns in Brownsville, Texas," Carl recollected. "I remember Bobby commenting on how far south Brownsville was," Carl chuckled. Carl also mentioned that one of Bobby's Brownie call-ups was thwarted by an inopportune attack of appendicitis which required surgery, a
recollection that was corroborated by Morris.
"That was the year that he was with San Antonio, I believe," Morris recalled. "They called him up to be their shortstop, but he couldn't go because of the appendicitis. The guy they ended up taking was Vern Stephens. Bob and Vern were pretty good friends because they played a lot together. Well, you know what kind of player Vern turned out to be. That was probably Bobıs last real shot at it."
Bobby spent most of 1937 back at Siloam, but he also spent a 2-week stint at Abbeville in the Evangeline League. Despite offensive numbers that were a slight dropoff from his statistics of 1936, 19-year old Bobby impressed the Browns brass enough to get a coveted end-of-season call-up after only two full seasons in the minors.
"Bob hit a few home runs in the minors and he hit for a decent average," Morris said of his older brother, "but his main forte was his fielding. And he had a great arm."
As mentioned, the 5-foot 11-inch 165-pound Neighbors failed to see any action with the Browns during his short stint with them in '37, so he spent the 1938 and 1939 seasons back down in the bushes trying to earn a second chance. He hit a solid .301 with 18 homers and 75 RBIs at Palestine in the East Texas League in '38, but no call-up.
He followed that with a .269, 14 home run, 80 RBI campaign at Springfield in the Three-I League in 1939, and then it happened -- the Brownies called him up again.
The Senatorsı Joe Haynes shutout the Browns, 4-0, on the aforementioned fall day that saw Bobby Neighbors play in his first big league game at Griffith. The youngster may have failed to do any offensive damage that day, but his moment in the sun was fast approaching. In his first start just five days later on September 21st, Neighbors turned more than a few heads when he slammed his first major league home run into the Fenway Park stands off of veteran Red Sox right-hander -- and future Browns hero -- Denny
Galehouse. The Browns were 6-2 losers in the game, but Neighbors proved to be a winner. He had shown that he could play the national pastime at its the highest level.
"We never got a chance to see Bobby play in the majors," Carl said with maybe a hint of sadness, "but we did go to see him play while he was with Springfield and Toledo."Neighbors played in only seven games for the '39 Brownies, collecting just two hits in 11 at-bats. But, he had achieved what had to be viewed as a legitimate step to
possible big league career. 1940 and '41 saw Neighbors back in the minors for additional seasoning with the Toledo Mud Hens and the San Antonio Missions respectively. His reduced power productivity and drop off in batting average in those two seasons seem to indicate that he may have taken a bit of a step back in his development, but Carl has another theory. He attributes some of Bobby's baseball struggles of that time to another family tragedy.
Bobby had fallen in love with and married Winifred Wilcox -- Winnie, as they called her -- in January of 1941, and everybody was impressed at what a fine couple they were. The happy newlyweds left for San Antonio in the spring where they would live while Bobby played ball with the Missions in the Texas League. But their plans for the future were shattered when Winnie was tragically killed in a freak accident when struck by a car. "It had a bad effect on Bob," Morris said. "Bob was on the road and Winnie back home in San ntonio when it happened. He always felt guilty about it because of that. He felt that if he had been there -- if he had a job where he wasn't traveling -- it wouldn't have happened." Winnieıs death, more than anything according to Morris, slowed Bobby in baseball. "I really do
think that after Winnie was killed Bob just lost his desire."
With the outbreak of World War II, and still saddled with sadness over his personal loss, Bobby apparently had no difficulty shelving his baseball career to join the Army Air Corps. "Bobby never expressed, too much, a desire to be a pilot," Carl remembered, "but he always thought there was something out there that an Oklahoma farm boy could do other than throw rocks at rattlesnakes and listen to the tornadoes come down the ravine." That something turned out to be service to his country, and Bobby became the first of the four Neighbors brothers to enlist, but in time Carl, Paul and Morris followed suit.
The Browns placed Bobby on their National Defense Service list upon hearing of his enlistment in March of 1942. While stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, Bobby met and fell in love with a new girl, Katherine Burke, and she helped ease the heartache of his loss of Winifred. Bobby and Katherine -- or Kitty as they called her -- married during the war and she remained in Montgomery while Bobby was in Europe flying countless dangerous missions. In the meantime, Carl, stationed in St. Petersburg, Florida, was in the Navy crossing the treacherous Atlantic at least 10 times aboard Liberty ships. Morris, also in the Navy, earned a Purple Heart when the Destroyer he was on, the USS Leutze, was hit by a Kamikaze on April 6th, 1945, in the waters off Okinawa. The
Neighbors family did not emerge from the war without being struck by tragedy, though, as Bob's second youngest brother, Paul, was killed in action in the North Atlantic when the Navy Destroyer he was on, the USS Frederick C. Davis, was sunk by a German U-boat on April 24th, 1945. "They got hit by a sleeping sub pack, and what makes it
a real tragedy is that it happened only a few weeks before the war ended," Carl said.
While Bob Neighbors never played professional baseball again, he by no means gave up the sport he loved. Following the war he opted to make the Air Force, instead of baseball, his career, but he played on and managed the Maxwell Air Force Base baseball team in order to satisfy his love of the game. At one point the team even played in the renowned Ban Johnson League in Kansas City with Neighbors flying the team to games. Sent to Korea at the start of the conflict there, Neighbors returned to the treacherous duty of flying over enemy skies.
On August 8th, 1952 -- the day Duane Pillette and the Browns lost that 10-9 slugfest to the Indians -- they also lost Bob Neighbors, one of their own, forever. At the age of 34, the day in 1939 that Neighbors gleefully circled the Fenway Park bases was a distant memory, but he still had what should have been many happy years ahead of him with Kitty and their 2-year old son, Robert Cameron Neighbors. Major Neighbors and his crewmates were listed as missing
in action for nearly a year following the disappearance of their plane. An armistice ended the fighting on July 27th, 1953, but when the repatriation of prisoners was completed several months later and Neighbors was still unaccounted for, the Air Force declared him "officially deceased," one of 54,246 U.S. soldiers to die in the Korean War.
A military telegram informed Leither and Nellie Neighbors that they had lost another son to war, and they took the news very hard. Still, they were strong, and with the comfort of family they persevered. Kitty eventually remarried another career Air Force man, Edward Fels, and he became young Cameron's adopted father.
As the years went by the Korean War came to be known to many as "the forgotten war." At the same time, Robert Otis Neighbors could have almost been referred to as "the forgotten player," except, obviously, to those who were personally close to him. He became just a footnote, or the answer to a morbid baseball trivia question -- "Who was the only big league baseball player killed in the Korean War?" Thankfully, the year 2000 saw rekindled interest in the Korean War, and The 50th Anniversary of the Korean War Committee was formed in Arlington, Virginia, to organize three years of events to commemorate "the forgotten war" and raise awareness.
One of the earliest events the Committee put together was a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery on June 14th, 2000. The focus of that ceremony -- major league baseball's contribution to the Korean War. Commissioner Bud Selig and General Henry Shelton, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did the wreath-laying honors, and a number of former players who had served in Korea were there, too, including former Yankee Jerry Coleman who flew 57 combat missions in orea.
Selig mentioned the names of some 100 players who had traded in their baseball flannels for various military uniforms. Many of the names were high-profile players of the era like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Don Newcombe and Curt Simmons, to name a few. Then Selig, focusing on one particular man in the crowd, told the story of player and pilot Robert Neighbors. The man he was looking at was Neighbors' son, Robert, himself a career Air Force man."Major Neighbors hailed from a family that embodied the admirable ethic of service to country," the Commissioner said to the gathering. Then, turning his attention back to Neighbors' son, Selig added, "Cam, I thank you for all that you, your father and your family have done for your country."
"Bob was the hero of the family even before World War II," Morris said. "He was the oldest of us, so we really looked up to him. He was the first one of our family that ever went to college -- he had a year at Oklahoma Baptist University and played basketball there. He had made it to the major leagues, and we were very proud of that. Then, of course, he was the first one to enlist after World War II
began. He was and will always be my hero."
If you're a St. Louis Browns fan, you should be proud to know that Bob Neighbors, a true American hero, wore only brown and orange during his brief big league career. More importantly, though, as a fellow American you should be even more proud to know that he and his family courageously wore The Red, White and Blue.
The 7th Chadwick 44-34698 (pictured) is the B-26 bomber that former Browns shortstop Major Robert Neighbors was piloting when shot down over North Korea on August 8th, 1952. The photo shown is from a Kodachrome slide taken by Squadron Commander Lt. Col Fortney shortly before the loss of the plane and it's crew. In addition to its use on combat missions, the 7th Chadwick was deemed such a pretty plane that it was named the new "Wheel" airplane of the 13th Bomb Squadron in February of 1952. Planes named "Chadwick" were usually designated
as the Commander's airplane. They carried the name "Chadwick" on the nose and carried a winged wheel on the top forward part of the fin. In military parlance, "Wheels" were the people in charge, so the wheel designated the Squadron Commander's plane. "Blessed are they that are known as wheels, because they shall run around in circles."
The plane flew about every night, but the Commander only flew about once a week, so other people also flew it. "Chadwick" was the call sign of the 3rd Attack Group's control tower in Australia early in WW II, and they continued to carry the name as tradition thereafter. Each plane in the Chadwick series was eventually lost in succession, the 6th Chadwick being lost due to severe battle damage less than six months prior to the loss of Neighbors' plane. After the loss of the 7th Chadwick the 5th Air Force decided to put an end to the series.
Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Leither Marshall Neighbors (1893 - 1991)
Nellie Neighbors (1896 - 1995)
Winifred Neighbors (1920 - 1941)
Lether Thomas Neighbors (1915 - 1915)*
Robert Otis Neighbors (1917 - 1952)
Paul M. Neighbors (1923 - 1945)*
Body lost or destroyed
Specifically: His body and plane was never recovered from North Korea
Maintained by: Larry Mason
Originally Created by: Carol Tessein
Record added: Oct 24, 2010
Find A Grave Memorial# 60558249