Dick Bong, Ace of Aces
Richard Ira "Dick" Bong (September 24, 1920 – August 6, 1945) is the United States' highest-scoring air ace, having shot down at least 40 Japanese aircraft during World War II. He was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Bong, the son of Swedish parents, grew up on a farm in Poplar, Wisconsin as one of nine children. He became interested in aircraft at an early age and was a keen model builder.
He began studying at Superior State Teachers College in 1938. While there, Bong enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and also took private flying lessons. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. One of his flight instructors was Capt. Barry Goldwater (later Senator from Arizona and unsuccessful 1964 presidential candidate). Bong's ability as a fighter pilot was recognized at training in northern California. He received his wings and commission as a second lieutenant on January 9, 1942, and became a gunnery instructor.
Bong's first operational assignment was to the 49th Fighter Squadron (FS), 14th Fighter Group at Hamilton Field, California, where he transitioned into the twin-engine P-38 Lightning.
On June 12 1942, Bong buzzed a house in nearby San Anselmo, the home of a pilot who had just been married. He 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. Bong was still grounded when the rest of his group was sent to England in July 1942. He 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.
On September 10, 1942, Lt. Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron aka ("Flying Knights"), 49th Fighter Group, based at Darwin, Australia. While the squadron waited for delivery of the scarce Lockheed P-38s, Bong and other 9th FS pilots flew missions with the 39th FS, 35th Fighter Group, based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, to gain combat experience. On December 27, 1942, Bong claimed his initial aerial victory, shooting down a Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" and an Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" over Buna (during the Battle of Buna-Gona). For this action Bong was awarded the Silver Star.
In March 1943 Bong returned to the 49th FG, now at Schwimmer Field near Port Moresby, New Guinea. On July 26, 1943, Bong shot down four Japanese fighters over Lae, an accomplishment that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. While on leave to the United States in November and December 1943, Bong met Marge Vattendahl at a Superior State Teachers' College Homecoming event and began dating her. After returning to the Southwest Pacific in January 1944, he named his P-38 "Marge" and adorned the nose with her photo. By April 1944, Captain Bong had shot down 27 Japanese aircraft, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker's American record of 26 credited victories in World War I.
After another leave in the U.S. in May 1944, Major Bong returned to New Guinea in September. Though assigned to the V Fighter Command staff and not required to fly combat missions, Bong continued flying from Tacloban, Leyte, during the Philippines campaign, increasing his official air-to-air victory total to 40 by December. Upon the recommendation of Far East Air Force commander General George C. Kenney, Bong received the Medal of Honor from General Douglas MacArthur in a special ceremony in December 1944.
Bong's Medal of Honor citation states that he flew combat missions despite his status as an "instructor", which was one of his duties as standardization officer for V Fighter Command. 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.
In January 1945, General Kenney sent America's ace of aces home for good. Bong married Marge and participated in numerous PR activities, such as promoting the sale of war bonds.
Ironically, 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 actually collided with his target, which he claimed as a "probable" victory.
Bong was killed in 1945 while testing a P-80A similar to this one.
His death was featured prominently in national newspapers, even though it occurred on the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Bong then became a test pilot assigned to Lockheed's Burbank, California plant, where he flew P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at the Lockheed Air Terminal. On August 6, 1945, the plane's primary fuel pump malfunctioned during takeoff on the acceptance flight of P-80A 44-85048. Bong either forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump, or for some reason was unable to do so. Bong successfully escaped 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. His death was front-page news across the country, sharing space with the first news of the bombing of Hiroshima.
At the time of the crash, Bong had accumulated four hours and fifteen minutes of flight time (totaling 12 flights) in the P-80. The I-16 fuel pump was a later addition to the plane (after an earlier fatal crash) and Bong himself was quoted by Captain Ray Crawford (another P-80 test/acceptance flight pilot who flew the day Bong was killed) as saying that he had forgotten to turn on the I-16 pump on an earlier flight.
In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager also writes, however, that part of the ingrained culture of test flying at the time, due to the fearsome mortality rates of the pilots, was anger directed at pilots who died in test flights, to avoid being overcome by sorrow for lost comrades. Bong's brother Carl (who wrote his biography) questions the validity of reported circumstance that Bong repeated the same 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.
Major Richard Ira Bong is buried in a Poplar, Wisconsin Cemetery.