Richard Ira Bong was rightly nicknamed America’s “Ace of Aces” during World War II. He is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft during combat while flying a P-38 Lightning fighter in the Pacific. He was one of the most decorated American pilots of all time and was awarded the Medal of Honor by General Douglas MacArthur in December 1944.
Richard Bong was killed on August 6, 1945, when a jet plane he was test-piloting in California, crashed soon after takeoff. He was only 24 years old at the time of his death.
An Early Love of Aviation
Richard Bong was born on September 24, 1920, in Superior, Wisconsin, the oldest of nine children. His parents had emigrated to the United States from Sweden.
Richard, known as “Dick” by friends and family, was enamored with aviation at an early age. During summers in Wisconsin, he would watch the aircraft fly over the family farm en route to President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House located nearby.
After graduating from high school, he entered what is now known as the University of Wisconsin-Superior. While there, he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and took private flying lessons.
In late May 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. One of his flight instructors was Captain Barry Goldwater, who later became a U.S. Senator and ran for the presidency against President Johnson in 1964.
Richard Bong Does the Laundry and Mows the Grass
Bong’s ability as a pilot caught the eye of the brass while he was training in northern California. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings on January 19, 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor.
In May 1942, he was assigned 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 June 12, 1942, Richard Bong flew very low (“buzzed”) over a house near the base and then looped around the Golden Gate Bridge, flying at such a low level down Market Street in San Francisco that he blew the clothes off of an Oakland woman’s clothesline. As punishment, he was ordered to do the woman’s laundry and mow her grass.
Bong was also reprimanded (sort of) 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 anymore and I mean what I say.” Kenney later wrote, “We needed kids like this lad.”
In 1960, Kenney would write a book about Bong called Dick Bong: Ace of Aces.
Richard Bong Kills Crocodiles and Shoots Down Japanese
In September 1942, Richard Bong was assigned to the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific and attached to the 35th Fighter Group at Port Moresby, New Guinea to gain combat experience.
On December 27, 1942, Bong shot down two Japanese aircraft, a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero,” and a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar,” over Buna during the Battle of Buna-Gona. Bong was awarded the Silver Star for this action.
In January 1943, Bong was promoted to 1LT and started flying the P-38 out of Schwimmer Field in Port Moresby. He was already an ace having shot down five Japanese aircraft. There, Bong developed the tactic of getting very close to his enemy before unleashing the powerful guns of his Lightning.
He even was credited with saving the lives of several pilots who were rowing in a rubber life raft across a lake while searching for another pilot who was missing. A large crocodile began coming after the pilots in the rubber raft. Bong, flying overhead, swooped down at just a few feet over the water and blasted the croc with a 20mm round. This story immediately became the stuff of legend.
On July 26, Bong shot down four Japanese fighters over Lae. Shortly after that action, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In August, he was promoted to captain. His aerial victories began to pile up.
Bong was allowed to go home to Wisconsin on leave in late November 1943. There, at his former college, he met Marjorie “Marge” Vattendahl and the two were immediately smitten with each other. He told Vattendahl that the next time he was allowed leave, he’d return home and marry her.
An Unorthodox Instructor
Returning to his base in early 1944, Bong immediately changed the name of his P-38 to Marge and included a large portrait of her as his plane’s nose art. He surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker’s WWI record in April 1944 when he shot down his 26th and 27th enemy aircraft. Promoted to major, he was sent home on a 15-state bond-selling tour.
Returning to the South Pacific in September 1944, he was assigned to the V Fighter Command staff as an advanced gunnery instructor. Because of his widespread fame, he was allowed to go on missions but was told not to seek combat.
However, that wouldn’t deter Bong from racking up aerial victories. Flying from Tacloban, Leyte, during the Philippines campaign, by December 17, he had increased his air-to-air victories to 40. In December 1944, on the recommendation of General Kenney, Bong was awarded the Medal of Honor by General Douglas MacArthur.
His Medal of Honor citation read thus,
“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 eight enemy airplanes during this period.”
In January 1945, Kenney sent Bong home for good, his exact words were to “marry Marjorie and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes.”
An Untimely Death the Day the Atom Bomb Was Dropped
The couple married on February 10, 1945. The wedding was attended by more than 1,200 people including members of the international press. After honeymooning in California, the couple moved to Dayton, Ohio where Bong was assigned to Wright-Patterson Airfield as a test pilot for America’s first jet fighter.
Bong was then assigned to test Lockheed’s new P-80 Shooting Star at its Burbank, California facility.
On August 6, 1945, on the very day that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Bong expressed to his wife his excitement to fly the new P-80A that day.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., Richard Bong took off for his 12th and final flight in the P-80. Immediately upon takeoff, the plane’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned. Bong either forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump, or, for some reason, was unable to do so. He ejected from the aircraft but was too low for his parachute to deploy and was engulfed in the flames. He died before he hit the ground. The plane crashed into a narrow field at Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue, North Hollywood.
The next day, the Los Angeles Times carried the banner of Bong’s death directly under the headline of the atomic bomb drop on Japan.
General Kenney later described the feelings he and other members of the Fifth Air Force experienced when the news of Bong’s death reached them in the war zone. The general recalled:
“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.”
Richard Bong was buried in Poplar Cemetery, in Poplar, Wisconsin.