Richard Bong

Richard Bong was born on September 24, 1920, in Superior, Wisconsin, to Carl Bong, an immigrant from Sweden, and Dora Bryce. A young Richard grew up on a farm where he became interested in aircraft by watching planes fly overhead.

Bong entered high school in 1934. He played the clarinet and participated in baseball, basketball, and hockey. He began studying at Superior State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin-Superior, in 1938. While there, he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and learned how to fly a plane.[1]

On May 29, 1941, Richard Bong enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. One of his flight instructors was Captain Barry Goldwater, who would later become a United States Senator and Presidential candidate.

Richard had a talent for flying. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings on January 19, 1942.

On June 12, 1942, Bong got in trouble for flying very low over a house near San Anselmo. He is flying over a home of a pilot who had just gotten married. He was cited and temporarily grounded for breaking flying rules, along with three other pilots who had flown around the Golden Gate Bridge that same day. Bong denied flying around the bridge but was still in trouble for flying at a low level down Market Street in San Francisco and blowing the clothes off an Oakland woman’s clothesline. He remained grounded while the rest of his group was sent to England in July 1942 without him.[2][3]

Bong was then transferred to the 84th Fighter Squadron at Hamilton Field, California. From there, he was sent to the Southwest Pacific area. He was flown overseas as a passenger from Hawaii to Australia. When he arrived, he was assigned to a newly formed P-38 fighter unit, the 17th Fighter Squadron. By November of the same year, he was transferred to the 49th Fighter Group, 9th Fighter Squadron, also known as the “Flying Knights.” These ‘Knights’ flew P-40 Warhawks and were famous for their aerial defense of Darwin between March and August 1942.

In November, he and other 9th Fighter Squadron Pilots were temporarily reassigned to fly missions to gain combat experience with the 39th Fighter Squadron based in New Guinea. On December 27, he claimed his initial aerial victory when shooting down a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” and a Nakajima KI-43 “Oscar” over Buna. He was later awarded the silver star for his actions.[4]

Bong and his comrades rejoined the 9th Fighter Squadron, where he was soon promoted to first lieutenant. On July 26, 1943, he claimed four Japanese fighters over Lae, which earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. In August, he was promoted to captain.[5]

On April 12, 1944, Captain Bong shot down his twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh Japanese aircraft, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker’s American record of taking down twenty-six aircrafts in WWI. Afterward, he was promoted to major by General Kenny.[6]

Bong was soon sent back to the United States and went on a fifteen-state promotional tour before returning to New Guinea in September. He was then assigned to the V Fighter Command staff as an advanced gunnery instructor. They also had permission to go on missions but not to see combats. By December 17, he increased his air-to-air combat victory claims to forty.[7]

Bong never considered himself to be a good shooter. He attempted to get as close to his targets as possible so that he could hit them. In some cases, he flew through exploding aircraft debris, and on one occasion, he collided with his target. He called it a “probable” victory.

Richard Bong received the medal of honor from General Douglas MacArthur in a special ceremony in December 1944. His citation says that he flew comment missions despite his status as an instructor.

In January 1945, General Kenny sent American Ace of Aces home for good. On February 10, 1945, Bong married his sweetheart, Marjorie Vattendahl. Although he was no longer fighting, he continued to participate in numerous PR activities and promoted the sale of war bonds.[8]

Bong then became a test pilot assigned to Lockheed’s plant in Burbank, California. He flew P-80 Shooting Star Jet Fighters. On August 6, 1945, he took off to perform the acceptance light of P-80A 44-85048. It was his twelfth flight in the PE-80. The plane’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned during takeoff. It is believed that he either forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump or could not. He bailed out of the plane. However, he was too low to the ground for his parachute to deploy.[9]

His death was front-page news across the country, often sharing the front page with the announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima. Richard Bong was only twenty-four years old.

[1] Bill Yenne, Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II (New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 22-25.
[2] Carl Bong, Dear Mom, So We Have a War (Clayton, NC: Burgess Publishing Company, 1991).
[3] Bill Yenne, Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II), 68.
[4] Military Ties-Hall of Valor, Richard Bong, Silver Star citation
[5] “Factsheets : Maj Richard Ira Bong”. Air Force Historical Support Division. November 26, 2014.
[6] Jon Guttman, “Richard Ira Bong: American World War II Ace of Aces,” HistoryNet.Com, November 7, 2016. HistoryNet.Com, November 7, 2016.
[7] Jon Guttman, “Richard Ira Bong: American World War II Ace of Aces,” HistoryNet.Com, November 7, 2016.
[8] Elaine Woo, “Marjorie Drucker, 79; Wife of World War II Ace Richard Bong”, Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2003.
[9] Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Yeager: An Autobiography (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1986), 227-228.

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