Richard Ira Bong was a United States Army Air Forces major and Medal of Honor 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.
Early Years – Interest in Flying
Bong was born September 24, 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. Dick Bong’s upbringing epitomized the values and expectations of that era – loyalty to his family and a deep sense of patriotism. Known by the common nickname “Dick”, he grew up on a farm in Poplar, Wisconsin, and like all farm children, he had chores to perform and was expected to drive farm machinery at an early age. He hunted and fished in the surrounding woods and streams, played on his school athletic teams and sang in his church choir; as his 4H project he planted the extensive evergreen windbreak on the family farm, still in the family. At that time he was like a model all-American boy. 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. A skilled hunter, he also built and flew model airplanes. Bong recalled “I knew then I wanted to be a pilot.” 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. Dick was a good student and finished 18th in his high school class of 428 and commuting, a 44 mile round-trip.
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, doing his first solo on his 20th birthday and earning a private pilot’s license in a Piper Cub. After completing two years of college, Bong enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet Program at Wausau, Wisconsin on May 29th, 1941, and received orders to the Rankin Aeronautical Academy, a primary flight school near Tulare, California, where he flew solo on Boeing-Stearman PT-13 biplane trainer on June 25th, 1941. He went on to fly Vultee BT-13s at Gardner Field, Calif., and North American Texan AT-6s at Luke Field, Ariz. One of Bong’s instructors at Luke, Captain Barry Goldwater (later a U.S. Senator from Arizona), who later said of him: “He was a very bright gunnery student. But the most important thing came from a P-38 check pilot who said Bong was the finest natural pilot he ever met. There was no way he could keep Bong from getting on his tail, even though he was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane.”
Joins United States Army Air Forces
Bong’s ability as a fighter pilot was recognized while he was training in northern California. Bong received his fighter pilot wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces Reserves on January 9th, 1942, a month after the attack on Pearl Harbour had plunged America into World War II. But Bong excelled at gunnery so much that his commanding officer kept him at Luke Field, Arizona as an instructor for several months. 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.
Loop around Golden Gate Bridge – Grounded – Reprimanded
Jon Guttman, Research Director at History Net, wrote about “The Spectacular Combat Career of America’s Ace of Aces”. He said Bong, was quiet, shy and introverted on the ground; aggressive, hostile and fearless in the air. Major General George C. Kenney, commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, had had enough. Ever since a certain pilot arrived at Hamilton Field for combat training on May 6, 1942, he had been using nearby San Francisco as his private playground, looping his Lockheed P-38 Lightning around the Golden Gate Bridge and waving at secretaries as he zoomed past their office windows. On June 12, 1942, Bong flew very low (“buzzed”) over a house in nearby San Anselmo, the home of a pilot who had just been married. But when the young hotshot’s prop wash blew a housewife’s wet clothes into the dirt and she reported it to his air base, Kenney called him on the carpet for disciplinary action. “Lieutenant Bong,” the general ordered, “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. That’s all!” While 2nd Lt. Richard I. Bong carried out the order, Kenney made a mental note to have that headstrong but undeniably skilful fighter pilot with him at whichever overseas assignment he got. Bong 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. Within the coming year, Bong would indeed prove himself good for something besides annoying people—except, of course, for the enemy.
Bong sent to the Southwest Pacific Area
Selected by General Douglas MacArthur to lead the Fifth Air Force in the South Pacific, Kenney wanted 50 of the best P-38 pilots he knew to join him when he took command at Brisbane, Australia, on September 3. Bong was one of them. 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.
War in Pacific – Honing his Combat Skills
On September 10, 1942, Lt. Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron, of the 49th Fighter Group, but that unit was still flying Curtiss 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. In December 1942 Lt. Gen. Kenney attached him temporarily to the 39th Squadron, 35th Fighter Group, based at Laloki airfield near Port Moresby, New Guinea. There, Bong made the acquaintance of Captain Thomas J. Lynch, who had scored three victories the previous May while flying Bell P-39 Airacobras. Hailing from Catasaugua, Pa. Tommy Lynch was a good pilot and a cool-headed, technically minded tactician whose aerial audacity never clashed with his sense of responsibility for the men he led. Honing his fighting skills under Lynch’s tutelage, Bong came to regard him as both a mentor and a friend.
First Aerial Victories
Dick Bong impressed his squadron mates as someone who was introverted and unobtrusive on the ground but stunningly aggressive in the air, writes Jon Guttman. Japanese army and navy had launched their first major joint air operation in the southwest Pacific on December 27, involving about 40 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero carrier fighters, Nakajima Ki.43 (Oscar) army fighters and Aichi D3A1 (Val) navy dive bombers. As the D3As attacked Allied installations at newly seized Buna, 12 P-38s of the 39th Fighter Squadron met them. Lynch was leading 2nd Lts. Dick Bong, Kenneth Sparks and John Magnus down on the Vals when their escorts crossed the Americans’ paths. Lynch’s gunfire disintegrated one fighter, and then a Zero threatened him. Bong side-slipped, fired at Lynch’s assailant and saw it spin away, then sped earthward as three other Zeros moved in on him, finally pulling out, as he described it, “2 inches above the shortest tree in Buna.” At that moment he caught a Val just pulling out of its dive and quickly turned it into a fireball. Too low to accomplish anything more, Bong headed back to Port Moresby to report his first two victories—the first credited to a P-38 pilot of the 49th Group. The 39th Squadron claimed a total of 12 victories, including an additional Oscar for Lynch, making him an ace. Bong thus claimed his initial aerial victories, a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar”. For this action, Bong was awarded the Silver Star.
Becomes a Lightning Ace
On January 7, 1943, 36 Curtiss P-40Ks of the 49th Group’s 7th and 8th squadrons took off to attack a Japanese convoy. Meanwhile, Lynch led eight P-38s, including Bong and Planck, across the Owen Stanley Mountains to rendezvous with the P-40s. They ran into the convoy’s 11th Sentai (army air regiment) air umbrella at 1315 hours. They claimed six Oscars in the fight, including one by Bong after a five-minute duel. Returning to Dobodura to refuel, the Lightnings then took off for Lae, where they encountered another 16 of the 11th Sentai’s Ki.43 fighters at 1530. Bong and Planck damaged two Oscars on their first pass, and Bong destroyed one on his second. During a January 8 escort mission, Bong made a frontal attack from above, and the Oscar explode and fall 18,000 feet into Huon Gulf. In only four aerial engagements Bong had become the Fifth Air Force’s first Lightning ace, and General Kenney rewarded him with a trip to Australia for R&R.
Rejoins 9th Fighter Squadron
On February 3, Bong re-joined the 9th Squadron, now equipped with P-38s. The 49th FG was based at Schwimmer Field near Port Moresby. USAAF B-17s were aggressively attacking Japanese. Ships. On March 3, while escorting B-17s and North American B-25s to the target, Bong saw seven 11th Sentai Oscars pass below him, going for American bombers. Dropping behind one, he shot with one burst and watched it crash five miles offshore in Huon Gulf.
Japanese Attack 9th Squadron Airbase
The Japanese struck back on March 11, when a force of Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bombers attacked the 9th Squadron’s airstrip at Horanda. The Americans scrambled, and Bong took off just before enemy bombs landed on the strip. Pursuing the bombers, he fired into one without result and twice had to dive away from attacking Zeros. Bong engaged one that was still on his tail, shot him, and then found another Zero coming at him. He fired a short burst, and found seven more attacking him. He later reported, “First two Zeros were burning all around the cockpit and the third was trailing a long column of smoke.” Before he escaped the rest in a dive, one Zero shot up his left wing and engine, causing a coolant leak. He reportedly feathered the left engine and landed back safely. He received credit for two confirmed and one probable.
Becomes Leading American ace in New Guinea
On March 29, 2nd Lt. Clay Barnes led Bong after a suspicious lone airplane. After a long chase at 400 mph, they caught up with the Mitsubishi Ki.46 twin-engine army reconnaissance plane, over the Bismarck Sea. Bong hit the Ki.46’s fuel tank, and the plane disintegrated in flames. His ninth victory tied him with Lynch as the leading American ace in New Guinea. Soon afterward, Kenney promoted Bong to first lieutenant.
Letter to His Mother – Advice for Brother
Bong was now a well-established and accomplished fighter pilot. Jon Guttman explains, how Bong wrote to his mother on April 10, 1944, that included advice for his younger brother, who was planning to join the Army Air Forces: “He must not get contemptuous of any airplane, no matter how simple and easy it may be to fly. Don’t just get in and fly it, but know what makes it tick….If he forgets, why, any airplane in the world can kill him if he isn’t its complete master.”
Explains Complexity of Air Combat
Bong regarded aerial combat as a game whose risks made life interesting, but he was not above quitting a fight if he judged the odds were too heavy against him. He claimed to be a poor shot, yet his squadron mates stated that he hit whatever he fired at 90 percent of the time. Bong said one secret of his success was a policy of getting close enough to “put the gun muzzles in the Jap’s cockpit.” Another was his penchant for engaging his opponents head-on, which gave the P-38, a stable gun platform with firepower superior to the Zero and Oscar, a distinct advantage. At least 16 of his victories were attained in head-on gun duels.
Becomes a Double Ace
Early April, Japanese launched Operation I, a massive air offensive. During a Japanese attack on U.S. shipping in Milne Bay on April 14, Bong became a double ace, with 10 victories, when he shot down a G4M1 off Cape Frere, it and earned him the Air Medal. Bong went through a “no kill” spell until June 12, when in a series of duels with the Oscars, Bong managed to shot one. Bong himself returned with a flat right tire and the right tail boom riddled with 7.7mm hits.
Quadruple Success Earns the DSO
On 26 July, ten Lightnings of the 9th Squadron were flying a sweep over the Markham Valley when they encountered 10 Ki.43s and 10 new Kawasaki Ki.61 fighters. Bong shot two of them in two separate high-speed, head-on passes. He shot another two in turning fight. Bong’s quadruple success in that fight was matched by 1st Lt. Jim “Duckbutt” Watkins. This action that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Two days later, the 9th Squadron took on Rabaul-based Ki.43s and claimed seven of them. Bong took five 7.7mm hits in his left wing, but shot one Ki.43. He was now the top-scoring American in the Pacific with 16, and on August 24, he was promoted to Captain. He was sent on a short furlough.
Becomes a Flight Commander
During combat engagement on 06th September, he was credited with two probable, but his right engine got hit. Bong was fortunate to reach Marilinan airstrip before crash landing his P-38H, which was subsequently written off. On October 2, Bong was made a flight commander. On the 29th he shot two Zeros over Rabaul, and two more on 1st November.
Meets His Future Wife – Paints her name on his Aircraft
Based orders for General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in Washington, D.C. Kenney was sent on two months leave home. Bong got a chance to see his family, enjoy his mother’s cooking and hang out with hometown friends. He also met Marjorie Vattendahl, a local girl who had been recently elected homecoming queen at State Teachers College in Superior, Wis. Bong was promptly made king, and much of his leave, the two spent together. He was made to participate parades, speeches and awards ceremonies to boost public morale. Bong finally returned to the southwest in January 1944. He was put in charge of replacement aircraft for V Fighter Command. He now allotted a brand-new P-38J, one of the first in the area. On the aircraft nacelle he put a portrait of Marjorie, and called it “Marge.” His first victory in Marge came on February 15, 1944. Bong was rewarded with another R&R, during which he met with General MacArthur.
Surpasses Eddie Rickenbacker’s WW I Record
On April 12, 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 December 17, he had increased his air-to-air victory claims to 40. In addition he had seven probable victories and 11 enemy planes damaged in two years and 500 combat hours. Kenney told him, “Like it or not, the American ace of aces is now going home for good”.
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.
Medal of Honour from MacArthur
On the recommendation of General Kenney, the Far East Air Force commander, Bong received the Medal of Honor personally from General Douglas MacArthur in a special ceremony in December 1944. 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. Throwing away his prepared speech, the smiling general said, “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 Honour of the United States of America.”
Ace of Aces is Back in USA – Marries
Bong arrived in the States on Christmas Eve to a hero’s welcome. It was time for Bong to bask in the glory of his achievement. He was sent on a propaganda tour which he described as “worse than having a Zero on your tail”. On February 10, 1945, Dick Bong married Marge in a ceremony attended by 1,200 guests. Their honeymoon was in California.
Early Death in Flight Testing
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 August 6, 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. Eyewitnesses saw puffs of black smoke exit the tailpipe as he climbed to 300 or 400 feet, then the plane rolled right, the canopy flew off and the jet pitched nose-first into the ground. Two minutes after the take-off, Bong’s body was found about 100 feet from the engine, partially wrapped in the shrouds of his parachute. Bong cleared away from the aircraft, but was too low for his parachute to deploy. The plane crashed into a narrow field at Oxnard St & Satsuma Ave, North Hollywood. He was just 24 years. His death was front-page news across the country, in national newspapers, even though it occurred on the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which in itself was a historic moment. 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 August 6, later said Bong had told him that he had forgotten to turn on the I-16 pump on an earlier flight.
News of Bong’s death of threw a heavy pall over the U.S. Army Air Force during the waning days of the war. General Kenny was very saddened and said, “We not only loved him, and 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.” Bong had survived many air battles only to die in a routine test flight accident. 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 was just 24. He was survived by his wife, Marjorie Vattendahl (1923-2003). Bong’s funeral in Superior was attended by thousands, and scores more lined the 20-mile route of the funeral cortege from Superior to Poplar, where Bong was buried in the family plot at Poplar Cemetery, Wisconsin. Few names in Wisconsin are more revered than that of Poplar native U.S. Army Air Force Major Richard Ira Bong, one of America’s most decorated World War II fighter pilots, and the country’s “Ace of Aces”. And America’s all-time highest-scoring fighter pilot. “Quiet, shy and introverted on the ground,” and “aggressive, hostile and fearless in the air.”
Aerial Victory Credits
Bong’s aerial victories are well chronicled. All victories were in Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft. The variants were P-38F/G/H/L. His aerial victories started on December 27, 1942, when shoot down a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” over Buna. He achieved his “Ace” status on January 8, 1943. On one occasion he shot down four aircraft in a day on July 26, 1943. Once he shot down three aircraft in a day on April 12, 1944. On ten occasions he shot two aircraft a day. His last air victory was on December 17, 1944 when he shot a Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar”. Most of his victims were flying Zeros or Oscars. After two years of combat including over 200 missions, Bong had 40-recorded victories and seven probable victories.
Bong’s military decorations and awards included the United States Army Air Force pilot badge (in USA the flying badge is considered a military award): Medal of Honour, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Silver Star, among other campaign medals.
- Medal of Honor citation dated December 8, 1944, read:
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.
Other Honours and Commemorations
Richard Bong was honoured with many commemorations, only a few are listed below
- 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
- Richard I. Bong Bridge in Townsville, Australia
- 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 Center, Thirteenth Air Force, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
- Bong Avenues in many airbases of US Air Force
- Bong Street, Dayton, Ohio, leading to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
- National Aviation Hall of Fame (1986)
- Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame (1987).
- Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin. Housed in a structure intended to resemble an aircraft hangar, it contains a museum, a film screening room, and a P-38 Lightning restored to resemble Bong’s plane.
- 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).
Eric Johnson wrote on May 25, 2020, in The Journal Times, Richard I. Bong: Remembering Wisconsin’s ‘Ace of Aces’. On this Memorial Day, 75 years after Bong’s death and the end of World War II, around 300,000 of America’s 16 million World War II veterans are still alive according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Despite all the ensuing years, Bong is still widely remembered by a number of memorials across Wisconsin. The Bong Memorial Room at his alma mater Superior High School includes in its collection Bong’s uniform, all 26 of his military decorations, newspaper clippings, photographs and a fragment of the P-80 in which he was killed.
- Jon Guttman, Research Director, History Net, The Spectacular Combat Career of America’s Ace of Aces, originally published in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History magazine. historynet.com/richard-ira-bong-american-world-war-ii-ace-of-aces.htm
- Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Centre https://bongcenter.org/bong-bio/
- Richard Bong, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Bong
- The National Aviation Hall of Fame, Honouring Aerospace Legends
to Inspire Future Leaders, Bong, Richard Ira, Military Combat, Enshrined 1986 (1920-1945) https://www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/bong-richard/
- Eric Johnson, The Journal Times, Richard I. Bong: Remembering Wisconsin’s ‘Ace of Aces’, May 25, 2020. http://www.kenoshanews.com/news/richard-i-bong-remembering-wisconsin-s-aces-of-aces
- Aces of WW 2 https://acesofww2.com/USA/aces/bong/
- The P-38 National Association and Museum http://p38assn.org/
Header Image Source: Wikipedia