Bong, Richard Ira
Military CombatEnshrined 1986 1920-1945
World War II ace Richard Bong probably didn’t expect his wartime duties would include doing laundry and mowing grass, but that’s exactly what the P-38 pilot was forced to do one morning in 1942. Bong was ordered to perform the chores for an Oakland, California woman whose laundry had been blown off the clothesline by his low-flying antics, which included “looping the loop” around the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge. The punishment apparently worked and Bong later applied his piloting skills to something more productive — shooting down Axis planes.
- January, 1943 became an “ace” with five confirmed victories in just over a month.
- In April 1944 he recorded his 27th victory to pass Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I ace with 26 victories. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor in December 1944.
- After two years of combat including over 200 missions, Bong had 40-recorded victories and seven probable victories.
- On Aug. 6th, 1945, in a test flight of the P-80 his plane exploded and Bong was killed. Coincidently, it happened the very same day the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Richard Ira Bong was born on September 24th, 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, and grew up on a farm near the small town of Poplar, Wisconsin, about 20 miles southeast of Superior. His father had come to the United States from Sweden at the age of seven. 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. He completed his senior year at the Superior Central High School in 1938 by commuting, a 44 mile round-trip.
Dick was a good student and finished 18th in his high school class of 428. Between farm chores and classes, he also played on the school’s baseball, basketball and hockey teams. He was active in the 4-H Club, a good fisherman, and an avid hunter. In fact, he spent a lot of time perfecting his marksmanship with his Winchester rifle. He also played clarinet in the school band and sang tenor in the Bethany Lutheran Church choir.
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. He received his mail every day by 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.
Bong entered the Superior State Teachers’ College in the fall of 1938. Still 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. Then after two and a half years of college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in early 1941.
Bong entered service at Wausau, Wisconsin on May 29th, 1941, and received orders to the Rankin Aeronautical Academy, a primary flight school near Tulare, California, where he soloed in a Stearman biplane trainer on June 25th, 1941. He underwent his basic flight training in a BT-13 at Gardner Field near Taft, California. Afterwards, Bong received orders to Luke Field near Phoenix, Arizona, for advanced single-engine pilot training in an 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. The pilot recalled that he could never prevent Bong from getting on his tail, even though Bong flew an AT-6, a very slow airplane.”
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 Harbor had plunged America into World War II. But Bong excelled at gunnery so much that his commanding officer kept him at Luke as an instructor for several months. He later transferred to Hamilton Field, near San Francisco, on May 6th, 1942, for aerial combat training in the twin-engine, twin-tail P-38 Lightning fighter.
At Hamilton, 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 berated him 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!”
Later, when General Douglas MacArthur selected Kenney to head the Fifth Air Force in the Southwest Pacific Theater, Kenney called for 50 of his P-38 pilots at Hamilton Field to be sent to Australia, and he arranged for Second Lieutenant Bong to be in that group. As a result, Bong reported to Kenney in Brisbane on September 10th, and was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group, called the Flying Knights squadron. Then on November 15th, while the 9th awaited delivery of P-38s, he was temporarily assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group based at Schwimmer near Port Moresby, New Guinea, for combat experience. Although an introvert on the ground, he was always eager for action in the air and took his P-38 into any enemy formation he could find, regardless of the odds.
After a few limited patrols, the 39th engaged the Japanese on December 27th, 1942. Captain Thomas J. Lynch lead a flight of 12 P-38s off Schwimmer airstrip to intercept a flight of 40 Japanese fighters and bombers over Buna on the northern coast of New Guinea. In the ensuing melee, the P-38s shot down 12 of the enemy planes, two of which Bong downed: a Val bomber and a Zero fighter. This performance earned him the Silver Star. Then on January 7th, 1943, while his squadron was attacking a Japanese convoy bringing in reinforcements to Lae, New Guinea, he added two enemy Oscars to his score. On the following day he downed another over Lae harbor, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Thus, on January 8th, 1943, he became an “ace” with five confirmed victories in just over a month’s time. With that, General Kenney gave him several weeks leave in Australia to recuperate.
On February 3rd, 1943, Bong returned to duty with the 9th Fighter Squadron, then at Schwimmer, and he was to accomplish most of his combat flying with this unit. On March 3rd, the opening day of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Bong shot down a Zero while escorting B-17s and B-25s attacking an enemy convoy off Lae. In the end, four destroyers and eight transports were sunk. Then on March 11th he added two more Zeroes and, on March 29th, a bomber to his score. As a result, Kenney promoted him to first lieutenant on April 6th, 1943. Then, on April 14th, the Japanese moved from their base at Rabaul, New Britain with 92 fighters, dive bombers and bombers to attack U.S. shipping at Milne Bay, New Guinea. In the ensuing battle, Bong downed a bomber, which made him a double ace with 10 victories and earned him the Air Medal.