Wally and editor solve mystery of WWII photos

News-DemocratMay 4, 2013 

Judy Belleville keeps teasing me with pictures from the new pictorial history book that the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum is preparing.

A couple of weeks ago she, Bob Brunkow and Bob Arndt called me, looking for help identifying a couple of pictures that will be going in the book, tentatively titled "Belleville 1914- and Beyond."

Since I don't know much, but have a lot of readers who do, I put the pictures in the paper, looking for your help. Some of you were very helpful, supplying information about the Hoeffken Bros. pictures although they still haven't learned much about the other picture, the group of men with Fred J. Kern.

Anyway, the book writers are back, this time with a couple of pictures from events surrounding the arrival of the first man killed in World War II whose body was shipped home.

One picture shows a military escort with a hearse bearing the body of Capt. William Mueller as it heads north on Illinois Street around the Belleville Public Square. The other photo shows the hearse driving by a small band, this time headed south on Illinois Street, most likely the day of the funeral, Belleville said.

The pictures that are donated to the museum can be fascinating, but often they come without much information. Belleville said they were pretty sure about the two pictures being about a dead World War II soldier, but they didn't have a name or date.

I assumed that since the death was from World War II, I would start searching through the 1942 newspapers until I came to the funeral. The area had a lot of war deaths and surely it would only be a few months into the war.

I would still be looking. The funeral actually was Oct. 28, 1947.

I only know because an editor asked what I was doing and knew all about the picture.

Mueller was a Belleville man, 27, when he was killed in the crash of his B-29 at an airfield in China. He had volunteered for a photo reconnaissance mission and he was in an unfamiliar plane when it crashed on takeoff in 1944.

To be clear, he wasn't the first soldier or sailor from Belleville to die, but he was the first to be brought back.

When his body arrived on Oct., 27, 1947, at the Illinois Central train station on South Illinois Street, it was given a hero's welcome. The trip up Illinois Street to the Renner-Geminn Funeral Home on North Illinois Street, became a parade.

An honor guard from Scott Field walked with the hearse after Belleville's mayor laid a wreath on the casket. Flags were lowered to half-staff.

The next day the funeral was held at St. Peter's Cathedral and the city observed a minute of silence in tribute.

As a sidelight, while I was looking through the News-Democrats from January of 1942, I ran across a story about a man from the East Coast who had spent eight years trying to find his family in the area without any success. But after the newspaper wrote a story about his quest he got immediate results.

I know the feeling.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email wspiers@bnd.com.

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