Major Richard Bong established himself as perhaps one of the most skilled flying aces during the Second World War.
Born into a modest but well-to-do farming family in Wisconsin, he volunteered for a civilian pilot scheme whilst at university before joining the cadet program from the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) following America’s entrance into the war.
As a pilot, Bong established himself as perhaps one of the most daring aviators of the war with his tactics and style of flying. During his deployment in the Far East, he took part in exploits that became the source of legend and in total he shot down a record number of Japanese aircraft.
Bong was born on the 24th of September 1920 to a farming family in the city of Superior, Wisconsin. His family were humble but in many ways encapsulated the notion of the American dream: his father Carl had emigrated from Sweden as a child whereas his mother Dora was born to an American family of British descent.
Bong was raised and worked on his family’s farm in the small town of Poplar with his nine siblings and was often known by his nickname “Dick.” He had a love of outdoor pursuits as a boy, such as fishing, shooting and exploring the countryside.
He also developed an extensive interest and knowledge in how mechanical farming machinery worked and was captivated by the sight of US mail planes flying above the farm. In many ways, this helped to shape his later interests and sense of adventure.
After leaving high school, he enrolled at Superior State Teachers College in 1938 but his enthusiasm for aircraft remained. During his studies, he volunteered for the Civilian Pilot Training Program and began to take flying lessons before obtaining his private pilot’s licence. However, whilst this was a great personal achievement, Bong wanted to pursue his flying ambitions further.
Taking to the Skies
In February 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. The timing was perhaps fortunate as the program had been expanded in part to keep up with an increased demand for military pilots and Bong was sent to northern California to begin training.
Bong was able to enhance his flying abilities during his time as a cadet and his skills were already noticed by instructors. He formally entered military service in May 1941 and was commissioned into the Army Air Force Reserves at the rank of Second Lieutenant in January 1942.
The timing again proved to be an important turning point for Bong as his commissioning came a month after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war against the Axis powers.
At first, Bong was stationed as a flying instructor in Arizona and later San Francisco but he used the opportunity to further show off his flying skills by performing daring stunts and aerobatics in front of the staff at the airfields.
His stunts won admirers but also caused trouble. Bong performed various exploits, including allegedly performing a loop around the Golden Gate Bridge and in June 1942, he flew low over the house of a pilot colleague to commemorate their wedding. The former action earned him a reprimand from General George C. Kenney and Bong was grounded while the rest of his squadron was deployed in England.
However, once the grounding period was up Kenney then recommended Bong for frontline air force service based on his extraordinary abilities. Kenney selected Bong to join the Fifth Air Force as a pilot and Bong was deployed into the Pacific theater in September 1942.
Bong was first flown to Australia in 1942 and stationed in Darwin with a newly formed Lockheed P-38 Lightning unit known as the 17th Fighter Squadron.
He was later transferred to the 9th Fighter Group in November 1942. The 49th Group had been using the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk but was due to convert to the P-38 Lightning. The P-38 was somewhat scarce at the time, so Bong and the other men in his unit were temporarily assigned to Port Moresby in New Guinea with the 35th Operations Group.
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The timing again worked in Bong’s favour as he claimed his first score with the 35th Group in December 1942 after shooting down both a Japanese Zero and a Nakajima Ki-43 fighter. He was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest honour for bravery shown in combat.
Following this achievement, Bong was transferred back to the 9th Group who by this time had acquired their delivery of P-38 Lightnings and were assigned to Port Moresby. Bong then achieved his second impressive feat in battle by shooting down four Japanese fighters in July 1943. He was awarded the second highest honour, the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted to the rank of captain.
He was given a period of leave in the United States during which he met his future wife, Marjorie Vattendahl. He named his plane Marge in her honour and vowed they would be married once the war was over.
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Bong returned to frontline duties in the Pacific in January 1944. In April of that year, he shot down an estimated 26 or 27 Japanese aircraft, breaking the record held by First World War American flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. This earned his next promotion from General Kenney to the rank of Major and was given another round of leave.
His superiors continued to remain impressed with his incredible flying abilities and he was reassigned to V Fighter Command, an interceptor squadron focused on the aerial defence of the United States before it was transferred to the Far East following the Pearl Harbor attack.
In his new role, Bong was assigned as a senior gunnery instructor and was allowed to keep flying on sorties but not to deliberately seek engagement with enemy aircraft. Despite this, he kept flying missions and shot down an estimated 40 Japanese aircraft.
Despite his impressive victories, Bong considered his firing accuracy to be poor. His tactic often consisted of getting as close to an enemy plane as possible to make sure he could hit them. His close-quarter method of combat sometimes caused him to fly through and dodge around the debris of the aircraft he had shot. On one occasion he collided with and rammed his target, which he claimed as another kill.
This tactic would also earn Bong his legendary status during a search and rescue mission in New Guinea. Bong was flying overhead looking for another USAAF pilot who had gone missing following a crash in the jungle.
He spotted the pilot from the air by a lake while three other USAAF pilots took a dingy across the water to reach him. Bong noticed a crocodile stalking close behind the pilots in the boat. Bong flew as close to the water as he dared, almost skimming his plane along the surface and hitting the crocodile with his machine guns and preventing it from attacking the boat crew.
In December 1944, Bong was awarded the United States’ highest military award, the Medal of Honor and it was presented to him in person by General Douglas MacArthur.
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Bong was now cemented in aviation history as the “Ace of Aces,” having proved himself worthy of carrying out exploits people often read about in stories but seldom pull off in real life.
In January 1945, Bong was sent home for good to significant fanfare and media attention. He also fulfilled his vow to Vattendahl and married her in February 1945.
Air force retirement did not stop Bong from flying. He joined Lockheed as a test pilot at their location in Burbank, California.
With the jet age now approaching, Bong worked as a test pilot and played a role in developing the then-experimental Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star which would become the first jet fighter to serve with the American military. Bong was enthused with the plane, often talking to his wife about how exciting it was to fly.
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On the 6th of August 1945, Bong was assigned to what would have been a routine trial run of the P-80. Bong was familiar with the jet, but he only had just over four hours of total flight time on the type. At 14.30 that afternoon, Bong took off in the plane but just as the wheels left the ground disaster struck.
Investigators believe the P-80’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned during takeoff. Bong attempted to eject from the plane, but sadly he was too low for his chute to deploy properly and the plane exploded just as he was clearing the cockpit.
Bong was killed before falling back to the ground.
His death was made with a national sense of sorrow and made frontpage headlines in most newspapers, with his name sharing the same space as headlines breaking the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Bong’s body was taken back to Wisconsin and he was buried in his hometown of Poplar.
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Bong’s name has continued to live on as a source of legend and inspiration within the aviation and military community.
Residents and local businessmen in Poplar founded the Richard Ira Bong Memorial Foundation, Inc which sought to raise funds to build a memorial installation to Bong and restore an example of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
The newly formed United States Air Force (USAF) chose to commemorate Bong in the 1950s by naming a proposed new air force base in Milwaukee after him. The base was never opened but the land around it was named the Richard Bong State Recreation Area.
A memorial to Bong was also built in Poplar and in 2002, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center was opened with help from Bong’s wife, which includes a museum space dedicated to displaying artifacts associated with Bong, as well as memorials and examples of stories from other Second World War veterans.