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Richard Bong: Ace of Aces

Richard Bong

The first of nine siblings, Richard Bong was born in Poplar, WI on September 24, 1920. Bong served in World War II and through his outstanding service, became a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and America’s all-time Ace, downing 40 enemy planes in the pacific theater.

Being the oldest of nine siblings and having no older siblings to model himself after, quite possibly shaped Richard to be a trailblazer. Not only was he a three sport athlete, playing baseball, basketball and hockey, but he also graduated 10th in his class out of 428. After high school in 1938, Richard enrolled in the State Teacher’s College to study Engineering. It was also at college where he met his wife to be, Marge Vattendahl during a brief holiday rest and recovery, and where he first experienced flying through the Civil Pilot’s training Program. By the time he was twenty years old, he was already performing solo flights.

In early 1941, shortly after Bong’s 5th semester of college, he decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. It was in this program that Bong received his first of many, formal military training. Here he was able to practice on military surplus planes such as the PT-13 biplanes. During his time in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program, he was already starting to grab the attention of his commanding officers. One check pilot (a pilot who performs maneuvers alongside pilots under evaluation) went as far as saying “Bong was one of the finest natural pilots I have ever met”(Guttman).  Realizing the Bong’s potential to be a top ranking aviator, it was decided that he should be shipped all over the country to receive the proper training. From there, Bong was bounced around from Wausau, Wisconsin to Taft, California to Phoenix, Arizona.  Within the time span of just one year of training, Bong had already earned his wings (graduated from the flight academy. Just after a couple of weeks after earning his wings, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and launched the United States in to World War Two.

After displaying his natural skills in training, Bong was selected to be part of the 9th Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group and a temporary pilot for the 39th Squadron, 35th fighter group flying the famous P-38 Lightning. Throughout the rest of the war bong only flew P-38 Lightings and its variants ending with the P-38L It was in the 35th fighter group where Bong began to improve and refine his aviation under the mentorship of Captain Thomas J. Lynch. Richard flew exclusively in the pacific theater and was able to get his first 2 kills (Aerial Victory Credits) on December 27, 1942 while flying with the 65th Fighter Group. In this battle, Bong was able to down two types of air craft, a Mitsubishi A6M2 (also known as a zero fighter) and Aichi D3A1 dive bomber (known as a Val). This would be just the beginning of Bong’s long streak of victories.

In an extremely short amount of time, Bong was able to join the Air Force’s top five currently leading aces in the pacific after an escort mission on January 8, 1943. Throughout the following months, Bong had participated in the in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, the Japanese counter offensive at the Horanda air strip and a few patrol shift engagements. These engagements lead to Bong’s total aerial victory credits to nine confirmed and two probable and tied Bong with his mentor Thomas J. Lynch for the leading ace of New Guinea. With this incredible fast pace streak of victories for Bong, General Kenney promoted Bong to first lieutenant

After Bong’s first year of duty, he had already racked up 14 kills over the course of 10 engagements. Bong often tested the limits of what his plane could perform, and many times would return to base with severed hydraulic lines, wings shot up with holes and engines occasionally smoking. In one instance in early September of 1943, while attacking a group of Bettys, Bong’s plane was shot up so badly, that he had to crash land in the nearby Marilina airstrip.

Only taking two brief leaves during active duty, the first taking place in the holiday season in 1943 and the second in the summer of 1944 for publicity tours to promote the war efforts. It was during his first trip home in 1943 that he met his wife to be Marge Vattendahl.

Upon returning from his first temporary leave, Bong was almost thrown immediately back into combat. Equipped with a new P-38J, Bong was back in the skies by early February. Bong began to take more and more missions with his rival and mentor, Tommy Lynch, who at this point had been promoted Major to Lieutenant Colonel. Unfortunately on March 8, 1944, while Bong and Lynch were attacking Japanese barges when Lynch’s engine was critically damaged. Lynch’s plane slowly fall away into a nearby jungle. After frantically searching for and sign of survival, Bong had to return to base due to the fact that he was running low on fuel and that his own plane was damaged to some extent. This loss of a friend put a lot of strain on Bong’s emotions, and his friends and superiors could sense it. So on the order of General Kenny, Bong was given a week’s worth of rest and recovery in nearby Australia.

After gathering himself, Bong was back on duty. Although Bong still had lynch on his mind, that didn’t stop the fact that Bong was the best pilot in the air force. Just after one moth of Lynch’s accident, Bong successfully shot down three Nakajima Ki.43 army fighters (code name “Oscar”), which placed bong in the all-time leading American ace, passing the previous record of 26 victories held by World War II veteran Edward V. Rickenbacker. According to Bong, his success is credited to the superior firepower of p-38 with its 20mm canon, versus the Japanese’s 7.7mm canon. This superior firepower allowed Bong to have head to head engagements with Japanese fighters such as the Zero and come out victorious countless times.

After accomplishing this feat, the military realized that the knowledge Bong possessed was far too valuable to be wasted in combat like Lynch. Bong was reassigned to the position of Advanced Gunnery Instructor. This position allowed Bong to evaluate other pilots, and their new techniques in air to air warfare in the midst of combat. This role however was not permitted to take any part in the active mission Bong was surveying. The only time he would be allowed to fight was in an act of self-defense. Bong, however perceived this as more of a recommendation rather than an order, and after only a few missions and another 3 aerial victories, General Kenney tried to deter Bong from any more missions that might put him in a similar hazardous predicament. Bong continued to take an active role in many combat missions up until mid-December of 1944. It was this streak of voluntary active duty, where Bong was not expected to perform in combat missions, that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. By the end of the war Bong had reached a score of 40 over the course of two years and 500 combat hours.

After Bong’s active duty, he married his college sweetheart, Marge, and continued to work for the military as a test pilot. Bong was set to work on the new experimental jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 shooting star. Unfortunately on August 6, 1945 only after logging in four hours of actual jet flying time,  Bong had forgot to toggle a switch for “takeoff and land” setting for an electric fuel pump, and the jet engine failed at only 250 feet. This was not enough altitude for the ejection-parachute system to work appropriately, and Bong died upon impact. According to Robert Lampe, who was

   “As I headed west I could hear the jet coming back toward me from the north having finished a big loop. The sound of the engine made me sense that something was wrong, and as I looked up at the very low-flying plane I could see the pilot trying to pull back the canopy. It seemed he was struggling to keep the craft airborne against a tremendous pull that was bringing the plane to earth on the left wing and nose. The impact bounced the plane at least 50 feet into the air at which time it exploded into a black cloud of smoke. The impact of the crash was among a lot of houses that I estimated at no more than 1/2 mile south of Victory Boulevard. I climbed a wire fence and headed for the crash site. Coming to a swamp I skirted to the left but did not run out of the swamp. The crash shocked me to the point that I did not want to believe that a man was flying the plane but I knew better because I had seen his face.” (Guttman)

After his death Richard Bong was buried in his home town Poplar, Wisconsin local businesses tried to raise money for a sufficient memorial to the local hero, but due to lack of funds, the group of owners resorted to merging the funds with the local high school to help provide a new cafeteria and gymnasium. His widow, Marge, helped see to the completion of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Center in Superior Wisconsin.

Primary Sources

  1. Bong, Carl (1970), “Richard Ira”Bing” Bong”
  2. Stanaway, John (1982), “P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI” Osprey’s Aces series 14
  3. Kenney, George (1960), “Dick Bong: Ace of Aces”

Secondary Sources

  1. Mays, Terry (2001), “Greased Lightning: P-38 Night Fighters in the Solomons, Aviation History 11.6
  2. Guttman, John (2007), ”  Richard Ira Bong, American World War II Ace of Aces, Aviation History 15.2
  3. DeHoff, Kenneth  (2013), “How fast was the Zero”