Dedicated to all those who served with or supported the 456th Fighter Squadron or 456th Fighter Interceptor Squadron or the UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
America's "Ace of Aces,"
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Major Richard I.Bong
with The Medel of Honor
America's "Ace of Aces," Richard Ira Bong, was born on 24 September 1920 in St. Mary's hospital in Superior, Wisconsin. He was the first of nine children born to Carl T. Bong and Dora Bryce Bong living on a farm near the small town of Poplar, Wisconsin, about 20 miles southeast of Superior. Dick's father came to the United States from Sweden at the age of seven and his mother was of Scots-English descent. "Dick" grew up on the family farm and attended the Poplar Grade School. He then attended the Poplar High School, which consisted of only three grades. Consequently, he completed his senior year at the Superior Central High School in 1938 by commuting 44 miles round-trip.
Bong's interest in aviation began in 1928 when President Coolidge was vacationing near Superior and established a summer White House in the Superior High School. His mail was delivered to him daily by an airplane. Dick was fascinated. Later he recalled that the mailplane "flew right over our house and I knew then that I wanted to be a pilot." Soon he was spending countless hours building model planes.
Following graduation from Superior Central High School, he entered Wisconsin State Teachers College. Determined to be a pilot, he enrolled in the college's government-sponsored Civilian Pilot training program. He took flying lessons in a Piper J-3 Cub and earned his private pilot license. After 2 1/2 years of college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in early 1941. Bong entered service at Wausau, Wisconsin on May 29, 1941, and was sent to the Rankin Aeronautical Academy, a primary flight school near Tulare, California, where he soloed in a Stearman biplane trainer on June 25, 1941.
He did his primary flight training at Rankin Aeronautical Academy in California in June 1941, and completed Basic at at Gardner Field, California. He went to Luke Field near Phoenix, Arizona, for Advanced Training in single-engine (fighter) planes, where he learned to master the AT-6 under Captain Barry Goldwater, who later said, "I taught him fighter gunnery. He was a very bright 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 not getting on his tail, even though he was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane." In January of 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, Dick earned his Army Air Corps commission and his coveted pilot's wings. He promptly became a "plow-back," staying on at Luke to teach gunnery. But after a few months he got the chance to train in Lockheed's big new fighter, the P-38. While mastering the twin-engine craft at Hamilton Field, San Francisco, he first attracted the attention of General George Kenney, his future mentor and head of the Fifth Air Force.
In a famous story, Bong was high-hatting all over San Francisco Bay, flying under the bridges, buzzing Market Street, and blowing wash off clothes lines. One harried housewife complained. Kenney called Bong on the carpet and told him,
He took his basic flight training in a BT-13 at Gardner Field near Taft, California. Then he was sent to Luke Field near Phoenix, Arizona, for advanced single-engine pilot training in a AT-6 Texan. His gunnery instructor at Luke was Captain Barry Goldwater, who later said, "I taught him fighter gunnery. He was a very bright 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 not getting on his tail, even though he was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane."
After he received his wings at Luke Field, Arizona on 9 January 1942, Lieutenant Bong spent three months as an instructor at Luke. On May 6, 1942 he was transfered to Hamilton Field near San Francisco, for aerial combat training in the twin-engine, twin-tail P-38 Lightning fighter.
It was at Hamilton that Bong first raised the ire and the admiration of Major General George C. Kenney, commanding General of the Fourth Air Force. The field's location resulted in some aerial antics by Bong, such as "looping the loop" around the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge in his P-38, and waving to stenographers in office buildings as he flew along Market Street. But more serious was his blowing clean wash off a clothesline in Oakland. That was the last straw for Kenney, who chewed him out and told him, "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 you hang around being useful - mowing the lawn or something - and 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 get mad and change my mind. That's all!" ..... National Aviation Hall of Fame
To War In The Pacific
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General Paul Wurtsmith, Commander of 5th Air Force Fighter Command, presents the Distinguished Service Cross to "Dick" Bong for downing two "Tonys" and two Zeros on 26 July 1943
Richard Ira Bong with General George Kenney
Richard Ira Bong with General George Kenney
When General Kenney went to the Pacific in September, 1942, Bong was one of the pilots he tapped to join the 49th Fighter Group. 2nd Lieutenant Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron, the "Flying Knights," and was sent to Australia to "hurry up and wait." While waiting for P-38s to be delivered, Bong flew with Captain Thomas Lynch, 39th FS of the 35th FG, operating out of Port Moresby, New Guinea. On December 27, 1942, while flying with the 35th, Bong scored his first aerial victories, a Zero and an Oscar over Dobodura, for this he earned a Silver Star. By January 1943 he was an ace, his fifth victory an Oscar over the Anon Gulf.
Flying the P-38 Lightning in the Pacific theater Major Richard Bong was the top scoring U.S. Ace during WWII with 40 kills. A skilled flyer, Bong was noted for his silent approaches to his airfield with both engines feathered. As he swooped over the field he would loop his P-38 and land.
He claimed to have poor gunnery skills (this was far from the truth in that he was so good at gunnery that his commanding officer had him remain at Luke as an instructor for several months.) for which he compensated by closing on his targets until he was nearly touching them. After he topped Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record of 26 kills Bong was reassigned to training duties but he managed to bend the rules and shoot down thirteen more planes.
At Talcloban airfield on Leyte on December 12, 1944, Dick Bong was awarded the nation's highest honor by General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all U.S. Army units in the Far East who, after casting aside a prepared speech, 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 brave, the wearers of the Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States."
Dick Bong, a hero in an era of heroes, represents a generation of young men and women who willingly left their farms, villages, and cities to defend their country's freedom. They carried out the work that had to be done - and did it well.
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"Dick" Bong and Jimmy Mattern during a visit to a Lockheed plant in the US.
"Marge" P-38J-15-LO Lockheed Lightning, #42-103993
Bong was the first fighter pilot handpicked by General George C. Kenney in the fall of 1942 for a P-38 squadron designed to strengthen his Fifth Air Force in Australia and New Guinea. Dick Bong loved flying and the P-38 was the ideal fighting plane for the combat techniques he mastered: swooping down on his targets and blasting them at dangerously close range, then pulling up fast. His own aircraft was damaged in battle in several of his missions, once so badly he had to crash-land.
The following paragraph is quoted from the Dick Bong article at the National Aviation Hall of Fame website
Bong described combat flying as fun and a great game that made life interesting. Some pilots were only concerned with their scores, almost to the point of recklessness. Bong relished in the actual flying of combat, not how many enemy aircraft he could shoot down. Bong often referred to his gunnery skills as being lousy, perhaps the worst in the Army Air Force, and this was after breaking Eddie Rickenbacker's record of 26 kills! However, his skills were very adequate, and estimates were that he had a 91 percent hit rate. Bong also knew how to get the most from the aircraft he was flying. He loved flying the P-38, and many pilots who flew with him commented on his mastery of it. He was not a flashy pilot, and knew the limitations of the P-38 and never pushed it beyond. His analytical nature was valuable when flying combat, and he always analyzed the situation before going in with guns firing. Most importantly, he felt no shame in breaking off an engagement when the odds turned against him.
December 27, 1942
January 7, 1943
Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" over Lae
over Lae Harbor, ace status
A6M Zero during Battle of the Bismarck Sea
Betty heavy bomber; promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
bomber, over Milne Bay. Awarded Air Medal.
Zero, over Bena Bena
fighters, on escort over Lae; awarded DSC
Except for this July 26 engagement, Bong never had any hugely successful single mission such as McGuire or Shubin. Bong's kills were evenly spread out throughout his time flying combat. Also, most of Bong's victories were in the earlier stages of the war against very experienced Japanese pilots. Bong also was considered extremely lucky in finding the enemy. Some pilots hardly saw any enemy fighters in all their time flying combat.
Oscar, on escort over New Britain.
Promoted to Captain, R&R in Australia
claimed two bombers, not confirmed; crash-landed at Mailinan airstrip
Mitsubishi Ki-46 "Dinah", over Gasmata
Zeros, over Japanese airfield at Rabaul
Zeros, over enemy airfield at Rabaul
December 1943-January 1944: On leave in Wisconsin, met Marge Vattendahl
February 1944: assigned to Fifth Air Force Fighter Command HQ, but allowed to "free-lance".
Tony off Cape Hoskins, New Britain
destroyed a Japanese transport plane on the runway at Wewak, New Guinea
Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" bombers, over Tadji, New Guinea
fighter over Hollandia, 25th credit
surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker's U.S. record of 26 kills
General Kenney took him out of action again and promoted him to Major. When Rickenbacker heard about it, he sent a message of congratulations reading, "Just received the good news that you are the first one to break my record in World War I by bringing down 27 planes in combat, as well as your promotion, so justly deserved. I hasten to offer my sincere congratulations with the hope that you will double or triple this number. But in trying, use the same calculating techniques that has brought you results to date, for we will need your kind back home after this war is over. My promise of a case of Scotch still holds. So be on the lookout for it." General Kenney also sent Bong a case of champagne.
Word that liquor was being supplied to the famous, clean-cut, young pilot caused a mild uproar in certain circles. In response General Arnold dispatched two cases of Coca Cola with the message: "I understand you prefer this type of refreshment to others. You thoroughly deserve to have the kind you want. The Army Air Forces are proud of you and your splendid record. Congratulations!" When word of this reached other squadrons, those pilots let it be known that they would be glad to take Bong's "unwanted" booze off his hands.
May-July 1944: on leave in U.S., made publicity tours
Bong returned to the Southwest Pacific on , reporting to Gen. Kenney at Hollandia. Bong's latest HQ assignment was 'advanced gunnery instructor', and while allowed to go on combat missions, he had orders to only defend himself, and not seek out the enemy.
The 9th FS had set up at Tacloban, in support of the Leyte landings. Bong successfully lobbied to get back in action for this crucial phase. During this time, the other high-scoring P-38 ace, Thomas McGuire began to approach Bong's combat record.
Oscars off Leyte
Oscar over Ormoc Bay
Recommended for Medal of Honor.
Sally and Nakajima Ki-44 "Tojo", covering U.S. landings at Ormoc
Oscar over Mindoro.
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Bong was killed in 1945 in a P-80A similar to this one.
After Bong scored his 40th victory, General Kenney sent him home, this time for good. He was America's "Ace of Aces," with 40 aerial victories, 200 combat missions, and over 500 combat hours behind him. By New Year's Eve, 1945, America's number 1 ace was back in the "Z.I.," headed for Washington D.C. to meet the dignitaries, including General 'Hap' Arnold. At the Pentagaon, he met Bob Johnson, also there on a PR tour. Dick explained that he had been dragged around the country on War Bond tours and hated it. "I've got this coming out my ears, Johnson. I'm sure glad to see you. You can help me bear up under this nonsense. It's worse than having a Zero on your tail."
General Kenney had pulled Dick Bong out of combat and sent him home to "marry Marjorie and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes." After his PR trips promoting the sale of war bonds., he returned to Wisconsin, Dick and Marge Vattendahl were married February 10, 1945 in Concordia Lutheran Church in Superior, an event attended by 1,200 guests and covered by the international press.
The couple honeymooned in California for several weeks where their stops included Hollywood and the Sequoia National Park before reporting to the Flight Test Section of the Air Technical Command at Wright Field (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio). He studied jet propulsion theory and boned up on the engineering details of the new plane for two months, before getting a chance to fly one. Dick began training for a new assignment in Burbank, California: testing the plane that would take the Air Force into the jet age - the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
Bong then became a test pilot for Lockheed, flying the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, California.
He reported to Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Langmack, head of the Air Force Department at Lockheed and in charge of all flying, experimental testing and acceptance of Army Air Forces aircraft there. From July 7th to August 6th he made 11 test flights and logged over 4 hours flight time in the Shooting Star.
Dick Bong was intrigued by the new jet fighter and enthusiastic about his assignment. On August 6, 1945, while half a world away the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Bong stepped into an airplane for the last time. Dick Bong was killed when the P-80 he was testing stalled on takeoff when the primary fuel pump sheared during takeoff on the acceptance flight of P-80A 44-85048. Bong had either forgotten or could not switch to the auxiliary fuel pump and while he bailed out at low altitude., he never had a chance. He was just too close to the ground. After surviving two years of combat flying, Richard Ira Bong met his end while on a routine acceptance flight. His body, partially wrapped in the shrouds of his parachute, was found 100 feet from the plane's jet engine. At the time of the crash, Bong had 4 hours fifteen minutes flight time and 12 flights in the P-80.
His death would likely have been front-page news, but it was overshadowed by the bombing of Hiroshima.
He was buried in the Poplar cemetery, Poplar, Wisconsin, on 8 August 1945
Bong's brother Carl wrote his biography —Dear Mom, So We Have a War (1991)— contains numerous reports and findings from the crash investigations.
THE DAY THEY DROPPED THE BOMB ON HIROSHIMA
A Recollection by Robert Lampe
August 6,1945 was the 2nd day of a 3 day pass I had from Camp Roberts, California where I was stationed at the time. My custom had been to visit a friend who had been wounded on Okinawa and was recuperating at Birmingham General Hospital, just outside of Van Nuys, California
I had visited some friends at the mouth of Wildwood Canyon in Burbank earlier in the day and learned that a terrific bomb had been dropped on Japan. Not attaching much significance to this I finished my visit and started for Van Nuys. About 5:00PM, I was heading west on Victory Boulevard about 1 mile past the Lockheed Air Terminal,trying to thumb a ride. At that time I saw the 2nd jet plane of my life, which happened to be one of this country's first, a Lockheed P-80 "Shooting Star".
The plane flew practically over the top of me, very low, to the south and banking east in a big loop and back to the terminal. At this time I continued to walk west hoping to catch a ride but not having much luck.
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.
On reaching Victory Boulevard once again, within moments, a car stopped and picked me up. The driver happened to be an engineer from Lockheed and we discussed the crash as he drove me to the hospital to see my pal, Steve Matosich. Naturally the first thing I did was brief Steve on the crash and very little was said about the bomb.
Later in the evening, perhaps 7:00PM we heard on the radio that the test pilot was none other than Major Richard (Joe) Bong, ace-of-aces of the United States having destoyed 40 enemy aircraft.
Even today, after all these years, this tragedy which I witnessed as a 20 year old Army Buck Sergeant is the 1st thing I think of on THE DAY THEY DROPPED THE BOMB ON HIROSHIMA.
In all probability I am one of the last, if not THE last, person to see (Joe) Bong alive as he attempted to pull back the canopy but not making an attempt to exit the plane. He made sure the plane would miss the houses "ON THE DAY THEY DROPPED THE BOMB ON HIROSHIMA," a true American hero.
Reactions To His Tragic Death:
General George C. Kenney
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Richard Bong with his beloved wife Marge (nee Vattendahl)
"On August 6, 1945, I was on my way to take off for Headquarters of the Southwest Pacific area in Manila when a radio telegram which had been relayed there was handed to me by my signal officer. Right then, I stopped thinking of the atom bomb which had wiped out Hiroshima that morning, stopped speculation about the effect of the coming entry of Russia into the Pacific War, even stopped thinking of the capitulation of Japan which we all knew was about to take place in a few days. Wherever I landed, I found that the whole Fifth Air Force felt the same, that we had lost a loved one, someone we had been glad to see out of combat and on his way home eight months before. Major Richard I. Bong of Poplar was dead...
"You see, we not only loved him, 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. Major Bong, Ace of American Aces in all our wars, is destined to hold the title for all time. With the weapons we possess today, no war of the future will last long enough for any pilot to run up 40 victories again.
"His country and the Air Force must never forget their number-one fighter pilot, who will inspire other fighter pilots and countless thousands of youngsters who will want to follow in his footsteps every time that any nation or coalition of nations dares to challenge our right to think, speak, and live as a free people."
Others praised Dick Bong as well:
"Major Richard Bong was an example of the tragic and terrible price we must pay to maintain principles of human rights, of greater value than life itself. This gallant Air Force hero will be remembered because he made his final contribution to aviation in the dangerous role of test pilot of an untried experimental plane, a deed that places him among the stout-hearted pioneers who gave their lives in the conquest of sky and space."
Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I Ace
"Major Bong was a boy in years. A modest, unassuming boy who, in demeanor and aspect, could well serve as a model for the ideal American lad. But in the performance of duty, in his ability to assume and carry out tasks beyond the call of that duty, he was poised, mature, and gallant as that renowned mirror of knighthood of whom it was said he was a perfect warrior, 'Without fear and without reproach.'"
Los Angeles Examiner, August 9, 1945
Medal of Honor
Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Over Borneo and Leyte, 10 October to 15 November 1944. Entered service at: Poplar, Wis. Birth: Poplar, Wis. G.O. No.: 90, 8 December 1944.
Citation: 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 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.
Richard Bong is the namesake of the Richard Bong State Recreation Area on the site of what was to be Bong Air Force Base in southeastern Wisconsin, the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge in the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin, The Bong Barracks of the Aviation Challenge program, the Richard I. Bong Bridge in Townsville, Australia, the Richard Bong Theatre in Misawa, Japan and the 613th Air and Space Operations Center, Thirteenth Air Force, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
On September 24, 2002, on the occasion of Bong's 82nd birthday, the Richard I. Bong WWII Heritage Center opened to the public 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. The work on the aircraft, begun in 1994 and coordinated by volunteers from the Duluth, Minnesota Air National Guard, required more than 16,000 hours of labor. The Heritage Center is located on parkland along Superior Bay, on the site of the old Convention and Visitors Bureau tourist information center.
The P-38 display at Burbank Airport in Burbank, California has a reference to Bong's career as a WWII ace.
Major Bong was also honored when the airport at Superior, Wisconsin, was named the Richard Bong Airport. In his hometown of Poplar, there is a Bong Memorial room in the Poplar High School that includes his uniform, all twenty-six of his decorations, photographs, newspaper clippings and even a fragment of the plane in which he was killed. Outside is mounted a P-38 Lightning fighter, similar to the one he flew.
40 Confirmed Kills, 8 Probable Kills and 7 Damaged Aircraft
Awards and decorations
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General MacArthur presented the medal to Bong on the Tacloban airfield on December 12, 1944. He tossed away his written remarks and 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 Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States." Then he pinned the medal on Bong, they shook hands and saluted.
Major Bong in the Philippines with Kenney and MacArthur. Probably taken on 12 Dec 1944 when Bong was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor
Major Richard Ira Bong being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines on 12 Dec 1944.
USAAF pilot badge Medal of Honor Distinguished Service Cross Silver Star with oak leaf cluster Distinguished Flying Crosses with six oak leaf clusters Air Medal with 14 oak leaf clusters American Defense Service Medal American Campaign Medal Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
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