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WWII hero receives award 56 years late

Airman led formation home while wounded

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — What the young lieutenant did was heroic, even by World War II's high standards of courage. But through a paperwork error, the medal he earned never came — until Friday.

It was an emotional moment in the chapel of the Hill Air Force Base museum. Almost 56 years late, the Distinguish Flying Cross, America's second-highest military honor, finally hung on the dress uniform of Lt. Col. Harold M. Hegyessy Jr., U.S. Air Force, Ret.

Hegyessy stood at attention, accepting a standing ovation from the 200 people in the audience. Here and there, moisture welled in the eyes of spectators.

As Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted, "This is a great man who almost died for us, and would have died for us in the interest of freedom." Hatch added that "It's just a shame" the medal was so long in arriving.

The delay resulted because Hegyessy's papers accompanied him when he went to a hospital to recuperate from his wounds. The paperwork was available for fellow crew members who were nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross — and they received the honor more than a half-century ago.

Not that Hegyessy was bothered by the possible slight. "I never knew I was nominated until just a few years ago," he admitted in an interview.

As for the delay, he said, "Well, it was just one of those things that fell through the cracks."

Hegyessy, 82, Pleasant Grove, had a remarkable military career.

Raised in Delta, he graduated from the University of Utah during the war and joined the Army Air Corp. He became a navigator on a B-17 bomber and guided many bombing runs over Germany. During the Korean War, he flew 48 combat missions, including flights in "MiG Alley." He commanded a missile battalion in Europe before he retired in 1968 as the chief of safety for the Ogden Material Command.

Recently, World War II comrades realized that Hegyessy never received the medal he was due and petitioned Hatch for help. The senator was able to correct the oversight.

On Friday afternoon, Maj. Gen. Scott C. Bergren, commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center, presented the medal. Present were Hatch, Air Force officers, members of Hegyessy's family and associates from his LDS Church ward and stake.

Hegyessy thinks he may appreciate the medal more now than he would have in World War II. Back then, "I was just glad to be alive."

The official citation — read by Bergren's aide, Capt. Joel Hanson — describes Hegyessy's actions on his 18th bombing mission. It was Sept. 11, 1944, and the "Pappy Time" bomber flew over Germany to strike oil refineries:

"The formation in which Lt. Hegyessy was flying was subjected to intense concentration of antiaircraft fire in the target area. The airplane in which he was serving was hit repeatedly and several pieces of flak came through the nose section on the bomb run, obscuring the bombardier's vision."

Hegyessy's exceptional skill in unfavorable weather conditions helped the bombardier accurately deliver the bombs on important enemy installations. Immediately after the bombs dropped, the plane's bomb bay sustained a direct hit.

After leaving the target, "Lt. Hegyessy's aircraft experienced heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire. Lt. Hegyessy was seriously wounded and all the pilotage maps were destroyed by flak in the aircraft.

"Despite Lt. Hegyessy's life-threatening wounds and being prone on the floor of the badly damaged aircraft, his memory enabled him to give accurate headings predicted on terrain descriptions given him by the bombardier."

His plane was the lead in the formation. Through remembering the terrain, navigator Hegyessy was able to guide the Pappy Time and the remnants of the formation back to their home base.

When he spoke, Hegyessy was sharp and unfaltering.

"War is not a glamorous thing," he said. "It's a deadly serious affair and people die."

Sometimes those people are one's best friends, and the good guys don't always win, he added. "So many of them never came home," friends whose faces he can clearly remember.

During that 1944 mission, the weather was so bad that the formation almost gave up and turned back. But they pressed on after the cover of fighter planes had to turn back at the end of their range.

Arriving at the German fuel depot, "we underwent perhaps the most intense antiaircraft barrage I had ever seen before or since."

The lead plane went down and his bomber took over the lead. Hegyessy helped guide the bombs to target. He recalled watching a stream of 1,000-pound bombs drop and hearing the commanding officer say it was time to return to base.

Then an armada of German fighter planes attacked. In the battle the Americans shot down enemy aircraft but the Germans took down a dozen of the B-17s. His plane was hit and Hegyessy was wounded.

His speech managed to link the Civil War, World War II, today and the air crews of tomorrow.

Hegyessy spoke of his youth, when Civil War veterans would hold reunions. He actually talked with a veteran of the Battle of Antietam. "He recalled that President Lincoln came to visit the troops, and he personally lent his tin cup" so the president could get a drink of spring water.

Those at Friday's ceremony, then, heard the story from the lips of a man who spoke with someone who had that conversation with Abraham Lincoln, he said.

Today Hegyessy is in his 80s and telling war stories of his own. "I admit that I'm a relic of the past," he said.

Hegyessy concluded that from the "rear guard of the past" addressing the future, "I raise my hand in salute, and blessing, and farewell."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com