Major Richard I.Bong

America's "Ace of Aces," Richard Ira Bong, was born  on 24 September 1920 in St. Mary's hospital in Superior,Wisconsin. He was the first of nine children born to Carl T. Bong and Dora Bryce Bong living on a farm near the small town of Poplar, Wisconsin, about 20 miles southeast of Superior. Dick's father came to the United States from Sweden at the age of seven and his mother was of Scots-English descent. "Dick" grew up on the family farm and attended the Poplar Grade School. He then attended the Poplar High School, which consisted of only three grades. Consequently, he completed his senior year at the Superior Central High School in 1938 by commuting 44 miles round-trip.

Bong's interest in aviation began in 1928 when President Coolidge was vacationing near Superior and established a summer White House in the Superior High School. His mail was delivered to him daily by an airplane. Dick was fascinated. Later he recalled that the mailplane "flew right over our house and I knew then that I wanted to be a pilot." Soon he was spending countless hours building model planes.

Following graduation from Superior Central High School, he entered Wisconson State Teachers College.  Determined to be a pilot, he enrolled in the college's government-sponsored Civilian Pilot training program. He took flying lessons in a Piper J-3 Cub and earned his private pilot license. After 2 1/2 years of college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in early 1941. Bong entered service at Wausau, Wisconsin on May 29, 1941, and was sent to the Rankin Aeronautical Academy, a primary flight school near Tulare, California, where he soloed in a Stearman biplane trainer on June 25, 1941.

He took his basic flight training in a BT-13 at Gardner Field near Taft, California. Then he was sent to Luke Field near Phoenix, Arizona, for advanced single-engine pilot training in a AT-6 Texan. His gunnery instructor at Luke was Captain Barry Goldwater, who later said, "I taught him fighter gunnery. He was a very bright student. But the most important thing came from a P-38 check pilot who said Bong was the finest natural pilot he ever met. There was no way he could keep Bong from not getting on his tail, even though he was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane."

After he received his wings at Luke Field, Arizona on 9 January 1942, Lieutenant Bong spent three months as an instructor at Luke. On May 6, 1942 he was transfered to Hamilton Field near San Francisco, for aerial combat training in the twin-engine, twin-tail P-38 Lightning fighter.

It was at Hamilton that Bong first raised the ire and the admiration of Major General George C. Kenney, commanding General of the Fourth Air Force. The field's location resulted in some aerial antics by Bong, such as "looping the loop" around the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge in his P-38, and waving to stenographers in office buildings as he flew along Market Street. But more serious was his blowing clean wash off a clothesline in Oakland. That was the last straw for Kenney, who chewed him out and told him, "Monday morning you check this address out in Oakland and if the woman has any washing to be hung out on the line, you do it for her. Then you hang around being useful - mowing the lawn or something - and when the clothes are dry, take them off the line and bring them into the house. And don't drop any of them on the ground or you will have to wash them all over again. I want this woman to think we are good for something else besides annoying people. Now get out of here before I get mad and change my mind. That's all!" ..... National Aviation Hall of Fame

Assigned to the 9th Fighter Group, in Brisbane, Australia, he was sent shortly afterward to Port Moresby, New Guinea, where he was temporarily attached to the 39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group. There, two days after Christmas, he scored his first victories, downing a Val and a Zeke over Dobodura. By January 1943 he was an ace, his fifth victory an Oscar over the Anon Gulf.

Flying the P-38 Lightning in the Pacific theater Major Richard Bong was the top scoring U.S. Ace during WWII with 40 kills. A skilled flyer, Bong was noted for his silent approaches to his airfield with both engines feathered. As he swooped over the field he would loop his P-38 and land.

He claimed to have poor gunnery skills (this was far from the truth in that he was so good at gunnery that his commanding officer had him remain at Luke as an instructor for several months.) for which he compensated by closing on his targets until he was nearly touching them. After he topped Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record of 26 kills Bong was reassigned to training duties but he managed to bend the rules and shoot down thirteen more planes.

At Talcloban airfield on Leyte on December 12, 1944, Dick Bong was awarded the nation's highest honor by General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all U.S. Army units in the Far East  who, after casting aside a prepared speech, said:

"Major Richard Ira Bong, who has ruled the air from New Guinea to the Philippines, I now induct you into the society of the bravest of brave, the wearers of the Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States."

Dick Bong, a hero in an era of heroes, represents a generation of young men and women who willingly left their farms, villages, and cities to defend their country's freedom. They carried out the work that had to be done - and did it well.

Bong was the first fighter pilot handpicked by General George C. Kenney in the fall of 1942 for a P-38 squadron designed to strengthen his Fifth Air Force in Australia and New Guinea. Dick Bong loved flying and the P-38 was the ideal fighting plane for the combat techniques he mastered: swooping down on his targets and blasting them at dangerously close range, then pulling up fast. His own aircraft was damaged in battle in several of his missions, once so badly he had to crash-land.

General Kenney pulled Dick Bong out of combat when his score reached 40 and sent him home to "marry Marjorie and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes." Dick and Marge Vattendahl were married February 10, 1945 in Concordia Lutheran Church in Superior, an event attended by 1,200 guests and covered by the international press.

The couple honeymooned in California for several weeks where their stops included Hollywood and the Sequoia National Park before reporting to the Flight Test Section of the Air Technical Command at Wright Field (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio).   Dick began training for a new assignment in Burbank, California: testing the plane that would take the Air Force into the jet age - the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.

In California he reported to Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Langmack, head of the Air Force Department at Lockheed and in charge of all flying, experimental testing and acceptance of Army Air Forces aircraft there.  From July 7th to August 6th he made 11 test flights and logged over 4 hours flight time in the Shooting Star.

Dick Bong was intrigued by the new jet fighter and enthusiastic about his assignment. On August 6, 1945 (the day the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima) Dick Bong was killed when the P-80 he was testing stalled on takeoff and he bailed out at low altitude. His body, partially wrapped in the shrouds of his parachute, was found 100 feet from the plane's jet engine. On 8 August 1945 he was burried in the Poplar cemetary, Poplar, Wisconsin.


Photo of Dick Bong and his P-38 (14247 bytes)

Dick and Marge (17414 bytes)

Dick and Marge after piggy back flight (46952 bytes)

Large photo of Dick Bong looking at the nose art on his P-38 (72819 bytes)

click on the photos for a larger view

General George C. Kenney described reactions to his tragic death:

"On August 6, 1945, I was on my way to take off for Headquarters of the Southwest Pacific area in Manila when a radio telegram which had been relayed there was handed to me by my signal officer. Right then, I stopped thinking of the atom bomb which had wiped out Hiroshima that morning, stopped speculation about the effect of the coming entry of Russia into the Pacific War, even stopped thinking of the capitulation of Japan which we all knew was about to take place in a few days. Wherever I landed, I found that the whole Fifth Air Force felt the same, that we had lost a loved one, someone we had been glad to see out of combat and on his way home eight months before. Major Richard I. Bong of Poplar was dead...

"You see, we not only loved him, we boasted about him, we were proud of him. That's why each of us got a lump in our throats when we read that telegram about his death. Major Bong, Ace of American Aces in all our wars, is destined to hold the title for all time. With the weapons we possess today, no war of the future will last long enough for any pilot to run up 40 victories again.

"His country and the Air Force must never forget their number-one fighter pilot, who will inspire other fighter pilots and countless thousands of youngsters who will want to follow in his footsteps every time that any nation or coalition of nations dares to challenge our right to think, speak, and live as a free people."

Others praised Dick Bong as well:

"Major Richard Bong was an example of the tragic and terrible price we must pay to maintain principles of human rights, of greater value than life itself. This gallant Air Force hero will be remembered because he made his final contribution to aviation in the dangerous role of test pilot of an untried experimental plane, a deed that places him among the stout-hearted pioneers who gave their lives in the conquest of sky and space."

Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I Ace

"Major Bong was a boy in years. A modest, unassuming boy who, in demeanor and aspect, could well serve as a model for the ideal American lad. But in the performance of duty, in his ability to assume and carry out tasks beyond the call of that duty, he was poised, mature, and gallant as that renowned mirror of knighthood of whom it was said he was a perfect warrior, 'Without fear and without reproach.'"

Los Angeles Examiner, August 9, 1945

TALLY RECORD: 40 Confirmed, 8 Probables and 7 Damaged

DECORATIONS: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with six OLCs, Air Medal with 14 OLCs, the American Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one Silver Service Star, the Philippine Liberation Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Australian Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Distinguished Unit Citation with one Oak Leaf Cluster awarded to the 49th Fighter Group

Major Bong was also honored when the airport at Superior, Wisconsin, was named the Richard Bong Airport. In his hometown of Poplar, there is a Bong Memorial room in the Poplar High School that includes his uniform, all twenty-six of his decorations, photographs, newspaper clippings and even a fragment of the plane in which he was killed. Outside is mounted a P-38 Lightning fighter, similar to the one he flew.


Medal of Honor


Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Over Borneo and Leyte, 10 October to 15 November 1944. Entered service at: Poplar, Wis. Birth: Poplar, Wis. G.O. No.: 90, 8 December 1944.

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from 10 October to 15 November 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Maj. Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous
sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down 8 enemy airplanes during this period.


Bong's P-38D Lightning

Richard I. Bong Heritage Center

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