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Our War: Family recalls pilot's deeds -- and how he died

The parents of Capt. William "Bill" Mueller, Barbara and Ernest Mueller, stand behind the coffin of their son after it arrived in October 1947 in Belleville. Bill Mueller was killed Oct. 22, 1944.
The parents of Capt. William "Bill" Mueller, Barbara and Ernest Mueller, stand behind the coffin of their son after it arrived in October 1947 in Belleville. Bill Mueller was killed Oct. 22, 1944.

On Nov. 3, 1944, a Western Union delivery boy rang the doorbell during breakfast at the Mueller family's home on Mascoutah Avenue in Belleville.

"(The delivery boy) was kind of gruff," recalled Mary Lee (Mueller) Thompson, who was 10 at the time. "Maybe that was his way of coping. And then he said, 'Bad news, all right.'"

The son and brother who loved to dance and once rode his motorcycle to Guatemala, Capt. William "Bill" Mueller, had been killed 12 days earlier when the B-29 he was flying on a photo reconnaissance mission crashed on take-off in Western China. He was 27.

Mary Lee, 73, of Belleville, remembers her mother, Barbara Mueller, screaming, clutching her chest and bursting into tears. Her father had already left for work.

Her mother was not only heartbroken, but scared. Two of her other four sons were serving in the military.

"It was terrible," said Bill's younger brother Paul Mueller, 80, of Belleville, who was 16 at the time. "It was the saddest day of our lives."

Paul Mueller, Mary Lee and her husband, Paul Thompson, watched the Ken Burns documentary series "The War" on PBS. It brought back memories and prompted them to dig out a box of old letters, photographs and news clippings related to their own fallen soldier.

The News-Democrat is sharing the family's story to begin its series, "Our War," on how World War II impacted lives in the metro-east. It is an effort to gather the stories of those changed by the war as well as to preserve those memories.

Adventurous young man

Barbara and Ernest Mueller had five sons and two daughters who lived to adulthood. Paul and Mary Lee are the only surviving siblings.

Brothers Stan and Wayne also served with the U.S. Army during World War II, and brother Ernie served in Korea. All three survived military service and quietly returned to Belleville.

"We didn't even know Wayne won the Bronze Star until after he died (in 2004)," said Paul Thompson, 74, noting the medal recognized bravery shown by his unit during combat in the Philippines. "He never talked about it."

Bill Mueller graduated from Belleville Township High School in 1934. He attended Washington University and worked for Proctor & Gamble Co. in St. Louis.

Bill loved to dance and play guitar for family sing-alongs. He went to the New York World's Fair in 1939.

"He was very athletic," brother Paul said. "He put on diving exhibitions with a group of divers from around town. He was also a motorcyclist. In 1939, he and his friend went through Mexico to Guatemala and back. They slept outside on hammocks that they stretched between the motorcycles so the scorpions and rattlesnakes wouldn't get them."

Pilot and leader

Bill enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on March 5, 1941. That was nine months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Bill eventually became a pilot and squadron commander with the 44th Bombardment Squadron, 40th Bombardment Group of the 58th Wing of the 20th Air Force.

He named his B-29 Superfortress bomber the "Bonnie Lee" after his two sisters, Bonnie and Mary Lee, but the painter misspelled it as "Bonny Lee" on the plane's nose.

Early in service, Bill occasionally had business at Scott Field and always made time to visit his family in Belleville.

Mary Lee and brother Paul remember him signaling his arrival by flying his monstrous plane low enough to make the trees sway over their house. That was, until the neighbors complained.

"One time, he brought the whole crew home," Mary Lee said. "Eleven men, and they all stayed at our house. They slept on the floor, wherever they could find a place."

Fallen soldier

In the fall of 1944, Bill Mueller was stationed at a secret air base known as "A-1" near Hsingching, China, according to unit histories and documents maintained by the 40th Bomb Group Association.

The base's 8,000-foot-long airstrip was built by hand in five months by more than 200,000 Chinese laborers. They chipped rocks from a river bank, carried them in baskets and spread them over a bed of clay to give the 136,000-pound bombers a place to land.

Bill made at least two bombing runs on the Showa Steel Works in Manchuria, China, a major provider of iron and steel to the Japanese war effort. Their bombing runs inflicted enough damage that Showa dropped to second place in Japanese production of metallurgical coke, the essential ingredient in making iron and steel.

He also flew to India to pick up fuel.

"They had to go over the Himalayan Mountains," Paul Mueller said. "So that was a dangerous mission."

On Oct. 22, 1944, Bill was out of the Bonnie Lee and tasked to pilot a no-name B-29 converted for photo reconnaissance. The plane suffered a mechanical failure and crashed on takeoff, killing Bill and six crew members, according to documents from the 40th Bomb Group. The Muellers weren't given details at the time.

The 44th Squadron's chaplain, Bartholomew A. Adler, sent a handwritten letter shortly after Bill's death.

"On Oct. 22, 1944, in China, the plane of which Bill was the pilot experienced mechanical difficulty immediately after taking-off," the chaplain wrote. "What actually happened, we will never know, but the plane crashed, and Bill died at the wheel of his plane in the line of duty."

Adler described the young pilot as "well-liked by his crew and fellow squadron members," someone who "always had a smile for everyone."

"What I liked about him best was his fidelity to God," Adler wrote. "He was a regular weekly communicant and rare was the Sunday when he didn't come to Mass and Communion, and at those times it was duty that prevented him."

William A. Rooney, editor of the 40th Bomb Group Association's newsletter, was an intelligence officer at base A-1. When contacted Friday, he said he flew with Bill Mueller on several missions and was in the office the morning Mueller's plane and another photo plane crashed.

"He was taking off in the early morning for a photo reconnaissance mission of either Taiwan or Northern Luzon. He crashed on takeoff, and the other photo plane crashed on landing," Rooney said. "They were doing reconnaissance for MacArthur's invasion and for an invasion of Taiwan, which never came off. We invaded Okinawa, instead."

Hometown hero

Bill Mueller's remains were returned to Belleville on Oct. 28, 1947, three years and six days after his plane went down. His remains were among the first to return home from overseas.

"Belleville paused today in solemn reverence to honor the city's first returning war hero," according to a front-page story in the News-Democrat.

The remains arrived by train in a flag-draped box. A Scott Field color guard walked alongside the hearse, which traveled slowly on Illinois Street from the Illinois Central railroad depot to Renner-Geminn Funeral Home.

"Mayor (Ernst) Tiemann, who occupied a city auto which preceded the hearse, has ordered the flags flown at half-mast and that one minute of silence be observed by everyone in the city tomorrow," the News-Democrat reported.

Tiemann also asked all churches to toll their bells at the starting time of the funeral Mass at St. Peter Cathedral. Burial took place at Green Mount Cemetery.

Bill's mother and father already had received his Purple Heart and Air Medal.

Mary Lee Thompson said although nearly 63 years have passed since her brother's death, she is grateful to finally know more about the events leading up to it.

"It helps to know he was involved in something important," she said. "It really does help."

Contact reporter Teri Maddox at tmaddox@bnd.com or 345-7822, ext. 26.

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