DANVILLE — As a veteran, Julius W. Hegeler II took a keen interest in the Vermilion County War Museum.
“He left a lasting impact on the museum — as a donor, board member and veteran,” said Susan Miceli, development manager of the museum at 307 N. Vermilion. “He was such an influential person, not just with the museum, but in the community.”
Hegeler served on the War Museum board since its inception 20 years ago. On his birthday, he would give a monetary gift to the museum to pay for utilities. In later years, the money could be used on whatever the museum needed, president Jim Kouzmanoff said.
Hegeler also donated many items from his military career, and that display is now on the museum’s ground floor.
While growing up, Hegeler always wanted to fly, but gave in to his family's wishes to work in the family business. When he graduated in 1950 from Millikin University, with a bachelor's degree in business administration, he surprised his family by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force to serve as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War.
The museum exhibit features photos of Hegeler as a pilot in 1953, as well as his bomber jacket and cap. Hegeler flew the last mission out of Korea.
As an Air Force lieutenant, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in May 1954 for “extraordinary achievement” as a jet pilot. The cross was awarded for action that occurred March 30, 1953, while Hegeler was participating in a flight with the 51st Interceptor Wing.
Hegeler was flying in the No. 4 position in a flight of four F-86s on the Yalu River patrol when the group was attacked by four enemy MIG-15s. One of the enemy planes began firing.
Hegeler positioned himself on the attacking aircraft, and fired three bursts across the nose of the ship. He then maneuvered into a better position, and fired a long burst into the fuselage of the enemy aircraft, causing extensive damage. By this time, the MIG-15s were heading back to their sanctuary, forcing Hegeler and his leader to cease firing.
The exhibit also has a certificate saying he exceeded the speed of sound in an F-86 Sabre jet.
Also on display is a poster showing him getting ready for his last fighter mission. When the display opened in April 2017, Hegeler said he had so much gear on his back that he needed help from two men to get into the jet.
Hegeler also earned an Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster.
Hegeler said during the opening ceremony that the exhibit brought back memories of his 70 missions, and also his time serving with future astronaut John Glenn. He often said his proudest achievement was his service to his country. He had a lifelong love of flying, and continued flying into his late 80s.
Not only will the museum staff and volunteers miss Hegeler’s knowledge and help, but they’ll miss his personality.
“If you see Julius cracking a smile and having a sense of humor, it was a joy,” Miceli said. “His presence will be greatly missed.”
Hegeler also was a frequent visitor to the museum, checking on his display and stopping in for special events.