Richard Ira Bong was the first of nine children born on a rocky Lake Superior farm. His father was from Sweden, while his Mother’s grandparents were from Scotland.
Dick was a surprisingly smart kid. Although playing on his high school’s baseball, basketball, hockey teams plus farm chores, he finished academically 10th in his class. As an avid hunter, Bong accumulated ‘Winchestertime’ to become a skilled off-hand wing shot of game birds and white-tail deer.
Dick Bong’s interest in aviation coincided with a President’s selection of a Lake Superior vacation spot. A Summer White House was set up for Calvin Coolidge in Dick’s high school. A special mail plane daily rotated the President’s correspondence.
Bong clearly recalled, ” The President’s own mailplane flew right over my house. I knew then I might one day become a pilot.” Acting out his thoughts, Dick cast his adventurous mind toward the sky, and built ill-destined gliders and rubber band-powered model aircraft.
Bong entered college and instantly enrolled in a government-sponsored pilot training program and soon earned a private pilot license in a Cub. After 2 1/2 years of college, he enlisted in the Air Corp’s Aviation Cadet Program. His timing was opportune. Pearl Harbor was attacked just after he started pilot training.
Bong trained in the Stearman and BT-13 aircraft, before being sent to advanced single- engine training in the T-6 at Luke. One of his Luke gunnery instructors was Capt. Barry Goldwater, who later said, “Bong was a very bright student in fighter gunnery.” The most poignant written comment came from a check pilot: “Richard Bong is the finest natural pilot I’ve ever met. And there was no way I could keep him from getting on my tail [in a mock dog fight].”
Dick Bong completed advanced fighter school in 1942. But, because his student gunnery scores were so high, his commanding officer kept him on as a gunnery instructor for several months.
Bong was sent to P-38’s at Hamilton AB for aerial combat training. It was there Bong raised the ire… then admiration of George C. Kenney, soon to become a key Air Corp General under Douglas MacArthur.
Hamilton’s prime location near San Francisco generated temptations resulting in aerial antics by Bong, such as flying loops around the Golden Gate, and waving to secretaries while slow flighting just outside their office windows. Unfortunately, Bong’s prop wash blew some lady’s clean wet wash into her yard dirt. And he was ‘betrayed’ by an ‘unpatriotic’ housewife.
Kenney chewed him out and ordered: “Bong, 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, 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 change my mind.”
General MacArthur selected George C. Kenney to run the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific, Kenney quickly ordered fifty of his P-38 pilots at Hamilton to be sent to Australia to fight the Japanese.
He made certain that Bong was with them.
While awaiting delivery of the P-38’s, to gain combat experience, Bong was temporarily assigned to a fighter squadron on the edge of combat in New Guinea. Although some what shy on the ground, Bong was always the aggressor in the air. And he was eager to engage in dog fights. Frequently, in the face of greater numbers of Japanese aircraft, Dick Bong would typically dive OR CLIMB into any enemy formation within his reach.
After flying mostly routine patrols, the 39th got into a good fight with the Japanese on December 27, 1942. Dick Bong was in a flight of twelve P-38’s that intercepted a flight of forty Japanese fighters and bombers on the New Guinea’s northern edge. In the ensuing melee, the Lightning’s shot down twelve enemy planes. Bong flamed two of them – a Zero fighter and a Val dive bomber.
While attacking a Japanese convoy carrying reinforcements, ten days later, Bong added two enemy Oscars to his score. On the following day, he knocked down another Oscar to become an Ace in just over 30 days. Kenney sent him on R&R to Australia.
In early February, Dick Bong joined the 9th Fighter Squadron at Port Moresby. And on the opening day of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, he downed a Zero while escorting B-17s and B-25s that were heading after an enemy convoy. And in the next four weeks, he added two more Zeros and a bomber. And Kenney gave him a quick promotion to 1st Lieutenant.
The following month, the Japanese flew down with ninety-two fighters and dive bombers and bombers to attack U.S. shipping in New Guinea. The defending P-38’s response allowed Dick Bong to become a Double Ace.
After another Australian R&R, Bong returned to his squadron, however, he had no further success until June 12th, when he achieved an 11th victory – another Zero.
But on July 26th… Bong really upped his score. He downed four Japanese fighters as they attempted to stop American bombers from striking an important enemy controlled area of New Guinea.
Just five months after Bong’s making 1st Lt., Gen. Kenney promoted him to Captain.
In the meantime, while escorting B-25 bombers attacking Japanese destroyers, Bong shot down an Oscar. During the melee, Bong’s P-38 was shot up, however he was able to finesse his aircraft into a safe return. And he was now top Ace in the Pacific with sixteen kills.
After another R&R, Bong returned to his squadron to continue attacking the Japanese. Before crash-landing in friendly territory with another engine shot up, Bong had acquired two more kills.
Then after downing a Dinah dive bomber, he was promoted to Flight Commander.
In late October, while attacking an enemy airfield up in Rabaul, Bong knocked down a couple more Japanese Zeros bringing his combined total to twenty-one.
Bong was ordered to report to Kenney. He was given another R&R… this time back home to Wisconsin before reporting to General ‘Hap’ Arnold in D.C. At home, Bong plunged into his mother’s cooking, then hung out with his buddies.
While Bong had been away to war, a gorgeous Marjorie Vattendahl, had been elected Home-Coming Queen. Dick was home in time to be crowned King. She met Dick Bong for the first time on the day of the Home Coming… his uniform resplendent with his earned combat decorations. Marge was awestruck; so was Dick. They became inseparable.
In various cities, to boost war morale, Bong participated in parades, he gave speeches and he received many justifiable honors. Then it was time to return to Pacific air combat.
When Dick Bong returned, Kenney put him in charge of replacement aircraft. In this new assignment he was allowed to pick his combat missions. He also acquired a brand new P-38, quickly had gorgeous Marjorie’s picture painted on both sides of its fuselage.
His first victory in ‘Marge’ came off New Britain, when he flamed a ‘Tony’ fighter.
Two weeks later, Bong destroyed a Japanese transport plane carrying high-ranking Japanese officers as it taxied along a landing strip. Because it wasn’t flying, he requested not to count it.
Then in early March, in a sweep over a Japanese stronghold, he shot down two Sally bombers to capture victories 23 and 24. But his best buddy didn’t make it through alive.
General Kenney now ordered Bong out of action for a while.
Another R&R where this time he had a short talk with General MacArthur.
On April, after Bong returned to New Guinea, he got his 25th victory, a Japanese fighter over Hollandia. Then there was another Hollandia mission, where he was given credit for two more kills and a ‘ probable’ kill.
This brought his total kills to 27… surpassing Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record of 26 victories. A bit later, more evidenced emerged to confirm Bong’s ‘probable’ as an actual kill… bringing Bong’s total to 28 victories.
Dick Bong’s new achievement was brightly flashed around the world and his name was quickly becoming a household word.
General Kenney took him out of action again and promoted him to Major. Rickenbacker sent Bong a message of congratulations reading: ” Just received the good news that you are the first one to break my record by bringing down 27 planes in combat. I hasten to offer my sincere congratulations with the hope that you will double or triple this number.”
General Kenney sent Dick Bong to United States on leave in May, 1944, armed with a letter to Hap Arnold requesting that he be allowed to research the latest gunnery technology and techniques to be better equipped to take charge of all fighter pilot gunnery training in the Pacific.
When Major Bong arrived in Washington, D.C., General Arnold gave him a 3-week pass to return home, then directed him to report to an aerial gunnery school at Foster Field, Texas.
At home, he was treated as even a greater hero than before. On the other hand, the highlight of his leave was proposing to Marge and to hear her joyful response ‘YES !’
When Bong returned to Washington and General Arnold sent him on a 15-state tour to promote the sale of War Bonds. In addition, he visited numerous gunnery training bases.
On one stop, he was given a special tour of the Lockheed Aircraft factory, where he saw the revolutionary new P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter being readied for production.
Finally, he reported to the Army Air Forces Ground Gunnery School in Texas, where he spent the next two months learning the latest gunnery techniques… important techniques that were to improve his combat results.
He returned to the Pacific and reported to General Kenney was now head of all the Air Forces in the Far East. Bong was assigned duty as an advanced gunnery instructor, and he was permitted to go on missions to see how his students fared in combat with the new techniques. But he only to defend himself if attacked, not seek out air combat.
Then, in early October, the Americans pulled a successful long-range air raid on Borneo’s oil refineries. The Japanese lost 61 planes and the Americans lost only five. And two of the enemy fighters went down under Bong’s aggressive attack, raising his personal victory total to thirty.
When Kenney heard of this… Bong was grounded.
In October, American troops waded ashore on Leyte Island in the Philippines as MacArthur had promised. Two airfields vital to the invasion were ‘worked over’ to receive fighters.
Bong’s squadron flew into the Philippines. Kenney and MacArthur were so pleased they personally greeted each pilot. Bong, who had flown in with his squadron, sought out Kenney, persuading him that he should be allowed to fly combat during the crucial invasion.
That afternoon, in the sky above, five Japanese fighters attempted a raid. Bong got one. Two Oscars he later destroyed brought Bong’s total to 33.
Just two weeks later, while escorting U.S. bombers attacking a Japanese troop convoy, Bong got number 34, an Oscar. The following morning, he knocked down number 35… then number 36.
However, something was eventful was happening along the way. General Kenney requested General MacArthur that Bong be awarded the Medal of Honor. MacArthur wholeheartedly approved.
The citation was approved in D.C. and read: “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 gunner instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Major Bong voluntarily, and at his own urgent request, engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Borneo and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down eight enemy planes during this critical period.”
General MacArthur personally presented Bong his Medal Of Honor. While smiling at him, MacArtuur… threw away his prepared speech and he said to Bong:
“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 the brave… the wearers of the MEDAL OF HONOR of the United States of America.”
December 7th was a big day. Bong flamed a Sally bomber and a Tojo fighter. Then a week or so later, he knocked down an Oscar fighter over Panubulon Island. Then destroyed another over Mindoro.
When General Kenney found out that he had now 40 victories, he ordered Bong to park his P-38. And walk away from it. So, against his will, Dick Bong was finished with air combat.
It was time for Bong to return home. Behind him now was two years of combat amounting to over 500 combat hours in the air. In scoring his forty confirmed victories, Dick Bong had also had seven ‘ probables ‘ and had shot up eleven other Japanese aircraft.
Of the eighty or so Japanese aircraft he engaged in aerial combat, Bong only missed shooting down only thirty of them including those choosing to flee.
Bong arrived in the States and received an enormous welcoming from his Nation.
On February 10, 1945, Dick and Marjorie Bong were married and their honeymoon took them west to Hollywood and the Sequoia National Park.
When his leave was over, Bong was assigned to the Flight Test Section at Wright-Patterson. He was checked out in a P-80, and logged 4 hours flight time in the Lockheed Shooting Star.
At 2:30 p.m. on August 6th, Bong pointed the nose of one of them down Runway 33 at Lockheed, added full power, released the brakes, accelerated down the runway and took-off.
Two minutes later, the plane was smoldering wreckage and Bong’s body, partially wrapped in the shrouds of his parachute, was found 100 feet from the jet’s engine.
After surviving two intense years of high-risk aerial combat, he perished in a routine acceptance flight when his plane’s engine flamed out after take-off.
Unfortunately, Dick had not engaged his ‘ take off and land ‘ electric fuel pump back up switch prior to takeoff. His early jet aircraft was not equipped with an ejection seat. Dick opened the canopy then stood up in his seat and pulled the rip cord. His chute deployed… it jerked him out of the aircraft… then tangled up on the jet’s tail feathers.
It was a tragic end to a young fighter pilot and true American hero who died fighting right through the last handful of seconds in the brilliant flame of his twenty-five year life.
There is a Bong Memorial at old high school that includes the 25 year old’s Medal of Honor, the Cross and 24 other combat decorations. It even has a metal fragment from his final ride. Outside the library’s mounted a Lightning fighter, similar to the one he flew to glory.
Source: George C. Kenney and varied research [abridged]