Who was Richard Bong?

Introduction

Richard Ira Bong (24 September 1920 to 06 August 1945) was a United States Army Air Forces major and Medal of Honour recipient in World War II.

He was one of the most decorated American fighter pilots and the country’s top flying ace in the war, credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft, all with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter. He died in California while testing a Lockheed P-80 jet fighter shortly before the war ended. Bong was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1986 and has several commemorative monuments named in his honour around the world, including a recreation area, a neighbourhood terrace, a theatre, a veterans historical centre, an airport, two bridges, and several avenues and streets, including the street leading to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Major Bong c.1945.

Early Life

Bong was born 24 September 1920, in Superior, Wisconsin, the first of nine children born to Carl Bong, an immigrant from Sweden, and Dora Bryce, who was an American of Scots-English descent. Known by the common nickname “Dick”, he grew up on a farm in Poplar, Wisconsin, where he became interested in aircraft at an early age while watching planes fly over the farm carrying mail for President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House in Superior, and was an avid model builder.

Bong entered Poplar High School in 1934, where he played the clarinet in the marching band and participated in baseball, basketball, and hockey. Because Poplar was a three-year school at the time, Bong transferred to Central High School in Superior for his senior year, graduating in 1938.

He began studying at Superior State Teachers College (the current-day University of Wisconsin-Superior) in 1938. While there, Bong enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and also took private flying lessons. On 29 May 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Programme. One of his flight instructors was Captain Barry Goldwater (later a US Senator from Arizona).

United States Army Air Forces

Bong’s ability as a fighter pilot was recognised while he was training in northern California. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings on 19 January 1942. His first assignment was as an instructor (gunnery) pilot at Luke Field, Arizona, from January to May 1942. His first operational assignment was on May 6 to the 49th Fighter Squadron (FS), 14th Fighter Group at Hamilton Field, California, where he learned to fly the twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

On 12 June 1942, Bong flew very low (“buzzed”) over a house in nearby San Anselmo, the home of a pilot who had just been married. He was cited and temporarily grounded for breaking flying rules, along with three other P-38 pilots who had looped around the Golden Gate Bridge on the same day. For looping the Golden Gate Bridge, flying at a low level down Market Street in San Francisco, and blowing the clothes off of an Oakland woman’s clothesline, Bong was reprimanded by General George C. Kenney, commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, who told him, “If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say.” Kenney later wrote, “We needed kids like this lad.”

In all subsequent accounts, Bong denied flying under the Golden Gate Bridge. Nevertheless, Bong was still grounded when the rest of his group was sent without him to England in July 1942. Bong then transferred to another Hamilton Field unit, 84th Fighter Squadron of the 78th Fighter Group. From there, Bong was sent to the Southwest Pacific Area.

On 10 September 1942, Lieutenant Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron, which was flying P-40 Warhawks, based at Darwin, Australia. In November, while the squadron waited for delivery of the scarce P-38s, Bong and other 9th FS pilots were reassigned temporarily to fly missions and gain combat experience with the 39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group, based in Port Moresby, New Guinea. On 27 December, Bong claimed his initial aerial victory, shooting down a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” over Buna (during the Battle of Buna-Gona). For this action, Bong was awarded the Silver Star.

Bong rejoined the 9th FS, by then equipped with P-38s, in January 1943; the 49th FG was based at Schwimmer Field near Port Moresby. In April, he was promoted to first lieutenant. On 26 July, Bong claimed four Japanese fighters over Lae, in an action that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. In August, he was promoted to captain.

While on leave to the United States the following November and December, Bong met Marjorie Vattendahl at a Superior State Teachers’ College homecoming event and began dating her.

After returning to the southwest Pacific in January 1944, he named his P-38 “Marge” and adorned the nose with her photo. On 12 April, Captain Bong shot down his 26th and 27th Japanese aircraft, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker’s American record of 26 credited victories in World War I. Soon afterwards, he was promoted to major by General Kenney and dispatched to the United States to see General “Hap” Arnold, who gave him a leave.

After visiting training bases and going on a 15-state bond promotion tour, Bong returned to New Guinea in September. He was assigned to the V Fighter Command staff as an advanced gunnery instructor with permission to go on missions but not to seek combat. Bong continued flying from Tacloban, Leyte, during the Philippines campaign; by 17 December, he had increased his air-to-air victory claims to 40.

Bong considered his gunnery accuracy to be poor, so he compensated by getting as close to his targets as possible to make sure he hit them. In some cases he flew through the debris of exploding enemy aircraft, and on one occasion collided with his target, which he claimed as a “probable” victory.

On the recommendation of General Kenney, the Far East Air Force commander, Bong received the Medal of Honour from General Douglas MacArthur in a special ceremony in December 1944. Bong’s Medal of Honour citation says that he flew combat missions despite his status as an instructor, which was one of his duties as standardisation officer for V Fighter Command. His rank of major would have qualified him for a squadron command, but he always flew as a flight (four-plane) or element (two-plane) leader.

In January 1945, Kenney sent America’s ace of aces home for good. Bong married Vattendahl on 10 February 1945. He participated in numerous PR activities, such as promoting the sale of war bonds.

His death was featured prominently in national newspapers, even though it occurred on the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Death

Bong then became a test pilot assigned to Lockheed’s plant in Burbank, California, where he flew P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at the Lockheed Air Terminal. On 06 August 1945, he took off to perform the acceptance flight of P-80A 44-85048. It was his 12th flight in the P-80; he had a total of four hours and fifteen minutes of flight time in the jet.

The plane’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned during takeoff. Bong either forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump, or for some reason was unable to do so. Bong cleared away from the aircraft, but was too low for his parachute to deploy. The plane crashed into a narrow field at Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue, North Hollywood. His death was front-page news across the country, sharing space with the first news of the bombing of Hiroshima.

The I-16 fuel pump had been added to P-80s after an earlier fatal crash. Captain Ray Crawford, a fellow P-80 test/acceptance flight pilot who flew on 06 August, later said Bong had told him that he had forgotten to turn on the I-16 pump on an earlier flight.

In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager writes that part of the culture of test flying at the time, due to its fearsome mortality rates, was anger toward pilots who died in test flights, to avoid being overcome by sorrow for lost comrades. Bong’s brother Carl, who wrote his biography, questions whether Bong repeated the mistake so soon after mentioning it to another pilot. Carl’s book – Dear Mom, So We Have a War (1991) – contains numerous reports and findings from the crash investigations.

Bong is buried at Poplar Cemetery in Poplar, Wisconsin.

Awards

  • United States Army Air Force Pilot Badge.
  • Medal of Honour.
  • Distinguished Service Cross.
  • Silver Star with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.
  • Distinguished Flying Cross with one Silver Oak Leaf Cluster and One Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.
  • Air Medal with two Silver Oak Leaf Clusters and two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters.
  • Air Medal with with One Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.
  • American Defence Service Medal.
  • American Campaign Medal.
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one 3/16″ silver star.
  • World War II Victory Medal.
  • Philippine Liberation Medal with one 3/16″ bronze star.

Medal of Honour Citation

Rank and organization: Major, United States Army Air Forces
Place and date: Over Borneo and Leyte, October 10 to November 15, 1944
Entered service at: Poplar, Wisconsin
Birth: Poplar, Wisconsin
G.O. No.: 90, December 8, 1944

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from October 10, to November 15, 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.

Commemoration

  • Richard Bong State Recreation Area on the site of what was to be Bong Air Force Base in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.
  • Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge along US Route 2 in the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.
  • Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior, Wisconsin.
  • Bong Barracks of the Aviation Challenge programme.
  • Major Richard I. Bong Bridge on Macarthur Avenue, Annandale, Townsville, Australia (19.3125°S 146.7862°E).
  • Major Richard Ira Bong Squadron of the Arnold Air Society at the University of Wisconsin.
  • Richard Bong Theatre in Misawa, Japan and the 613th Air and Space Operations Centre, Thirteenth Air Force, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
  • Bong Avenues on the former site of the decommissioned Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, on Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, on Luke AFB in Glendale, Arizona, on Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska, Fairchild AFB in Spokane WA and on Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Japan. Bong Blvd on Barksdale AFB in Bossier City, Louisiana.
  • Bong Terrace, Mount Holly Township, New Jersey (Mount View neighbourhood, built 1956-1957).
  • Bong Street, Dayton, Ohio, leading to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and on Holloman AFB near Alamogordo, NM.
  • National Aviation Hall of Fame (1986).
  • Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame (1987).
  • Bong was named as the class exemplar at the United States Air Force Academy for the Class of 2003.
  • International Air and Space Hall of Fame (2018).

Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Centre

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Centre in Superior, Wisconsin is housed in a structure intended to resemble an aircraft hangar, and contains a museum, a film screening room, and a P-38 Lightning restored to resemble Bong’s plane.

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