Avenging the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Richard Bong always said that he was just doing his part. Quiet and shy in person, in the air, Bong was anything but. Nicknamed the “Ace of Aces,” the modest pilot went on to become WWII’s leading American fighter pilot ace at only 24 years old.
Newsreels and radio programs throughout the country followed his record-breaking journey of downing 40 enemy planes in the Pacific Theater, almost doubling World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record. But Bong’s story came to a sudden halt when he was involved in a crash while test flying America’s first turbojet, the Lockheed P-80. This is his story.
Born in rural Wisconsin, Richard Bong grew up a simple farm boy with his head in the clouds. The future pilot was the oldest of nine children born to a Swedish father, Carl Bong, and an American mother, Dora. Like many pilots, Bong was intrigued by aviation from a young age.
During his presidency, Calvin Coolidge loved spending time fishing in Northern Wisconsin so much that he turned Superior Central High School into the “summer White House.” Just about every day, an airplane delivering the President’s mail would fly over the Bong family farm. At eight years old, Bong would look up at the sky and dream of becoming a pilot one day.
After finishing high school, Bong turned his dream into reality. He enrolled at Superior State Teachers’ College and earned his civilian pilot’s license. Before long, his career (literally) took off. Like many people at the time, Bong possessed the values of many Americans of the era, including a deep sense of patriotism.
In May 1941, the pilot decided to enroll in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. After being sent to Tulare, California, for his primary flight instruction, he was sent to Gardner Field in Taft, California for military flight training. While Bong ping-ponged between California and Arizona, his instructors were blown away by his natural ability to not only fly but fight.
Bong was a very bright student and spent much of his time outshining his instructors. “The most important thing came from a P-38 check pilot who said Bong was the finest natural pilot he ever met,” Capt. Barry Goldwater, Bong’s commanding officer, said. 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 was awarded his wings in January 1942, exactly a month after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Then, in May, he was sent to Hamilton Field just outside of San Francisco, where he began training on Lockheed P-38 Lighting fighters. These twin-engine planes were quiet, fast, and deadly.
The following year, Bong became both a flying legend and a nuisance. He flew loop-the-loops under and over the Golden Gate Bridge. He flew down Market Street in downtown San Francisco, low enough to wave at secretaries going about their daily tasks.
On one occasion, the daredevil pilot “buzzed” homes in Oakland, flying so low to the ground that he blew a woman’s clean laundry off the clothesline and right onto the ground. Bong was, of course, reprimanded by the commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, General George Kenney. The pilot denied pulling these tricks, but, even so, he was grounded when the rest of his group was sent off to England in July 1942.
By September, Bong was part of the 9th Fighter Squadron based out of Darwin, Australia, which was flying P-40 Warhawks. While the rest of the squadron waited for the delivery of P-38s, Bong was temporarily assigned to fly missions with the 39th Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group so he could gain some combat experience.
The squadron was based out of New Guinea. Then, in December, Bong’s shining moment finally arrived. During the Battle of Buna-Gona, his group of 12 P-38s engaged with a group of 40 Japanese fighters who were protecting a bombing raid heading to New Guinea. His group shot down a total of 12 planes, two of which were Bong’s hits. His actions earned him a Silver Star.
Bong thought that his gunnery accuracy was poor, so he relied on other tricks to shoot down his targets. His trademark technique was to swoop down on his targets, shoot them at a dangerously close range, and then pull up fast before anybody knew what had happened. Sometimes, Bong would fly through pieces of debris from exploding enemy aircrafts, and, on one occasion, he actually collided with his target.
It is safe to say that the Americans had a stealth weapon on their hands. Less than two weeks after downing two Japanese fighter planes, Bong downed two more that were escorting a convoy, which reinforced Japanese positions. The next day, he downed one more. Within the span of two weeks, Bong had downed five enemy planes, making him an official “ace.”
Throughout 1943, Bong sharpened his skills even more. After rejoining the 9th Fighter Squadron, which was equipped with P-38s, Bong was promoted to First Lieutenant. Then, on July 26th, Bong and his squadron were flying over the Markham Valley outside of Lae, New Guinea, when they intercepted 20 Japanese fighter planes.
Although Bong missed the enemy planes on his first pass at them, he never backed down from an air-to-air fight. He dove his P-38 to gain some speed and then faced the enemy planes head-on. The daredevil pilot gunned down plane after plane as they flew towards him. By the end of the fight, Bong had taken out four planes alone, earning him the Distinguished Service Cross.
By August 1943, Bong was promoted to captain. Although his new position meant he was in charge of replacement planes at the Fifth Air Force headquarters in New Guinea, he continued to fly combat missions. While on leave that following November and December, Bong met and fell in love with Marjorie Vattendahl, and when he returned to the southwest Pacific, he named his new P-38 “Marge” and plastered her picture on the plane’s nose.
During this time, Bong became good friends with fellow “ace” Maj. Thomas Lynch. Neither of them had an affiliation with one particular fighter group, so they could fly whenever they wanted. In March 1944, Bong and Lynch took off on a mission at Aitape Harbor.
After the duo bombed the harbor on their first pass, they circled around for their second pass. Suddenly, Lynch’s P-38 was hit, and a small fire started in his engine. Bong tried radioing in to help his buddy, but it was already too late. The plane exploded seconds after he ejected, and, seeing as Lynch was too close to the ground, his parachute never deployed. Bong was forced to return to base alone.
The pilot was devastated by the loss of his friend, but, nevertheless, he drudged on. The next month, Bong shot down his 27th plane, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 hits in World War I. “I hasten to offer my sincere congratulations with the hope that you’ll double or triple this number,” Rickenbacker wrote.
Before the end of World War II, Bong was a household name. The “ace of aces” was just a young man doing his part so he could get home and marry his sweetheart. The pilot symbolized what the war effort meant to the everyday American. On December 17, 1944, Bong hit his 40th and last target, setting a World War II record.
A few weeks later, Bong was awarded the Medal of Honor, and, in January, he was ordered to permanently park his plane. General Kenney sent Bong stateside to “marry Marjorie and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes.” Bong followed Kenney’s orders and tied the knot with Vattendahl in one of the most publicized weddings of 1945.
After his wedding, Bong was reassigned to the Flight Test Section of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The US Air Force had just added a new plane to their arsenal, the Lockheed P-80 jet fighter, and Bong was one of the pilots who tested them out. As America’s first successful turbojet aircraft, the XP-80 ushered in the “jet age” of US aviation.
The jet had an all-metal frame and straight wings, similar to what propeller-driven fighters used up until World War II. With the British and Germans far ahead in development, Lockheed was determined to create a jet in the shortest amount of time as possible. The project, which started in June 1943, was so secretive that only five of the 130 people working on the project knew they were developing a jet aircraft.
Seeing as this new aircraft was the first of its kind, the test flying program was very dangerous. A few pilots had died testing this plane, and now it was Bong’s turn to enter the cockpit. On August 6, 1945, after logging four hours on the plane, the ace of aces sat in the cockpit, unknowingly for the last time.
Shortly after takeoff, witnesses saw black smoke coming from the jet. Suddenly, the aircraft flipped over and started nose-diving towards the ground. Bond ejected from the aircraft, but because he was so close to the ground, his parachute didn’t deploy properly. The pilot’s body was found wrapped in his parachute, about 100 feet from the crash site. He was only 25 years old.
An investigation determined that the plane’s primary fuel pump had somehow malfunctioned during takeoff. Either the daredevil pilot forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump, or he had been unable to do so. Captain Ray Crawford, who also flew on August 6th, later said that Bong had once told him that he had forgotten to turn on the pump during an earlier flight.
In his biography, fellow ace Chuck Yeager wrote that part of the flying culture at the time of Bong’s death was to feel anger towards pilots who died testing planes. It was better to be angry, Yeager said than to be sad about a fallen comrade.
Bong’s death was a sudden, tragic end to a glorious career. Instead of dying in a head-to-head fight with an enemy plane, America’s ace of aces died in a simple flying test. Ironically, the pilot also died on the same exact day that the Army Air Force dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Bong was so famous that his death competed for top headline billing with the news of President Truman’s fateful decision to drop the atomic bomb. At 25 years old, Bong had more adventures under his belt than most people have in a lifetime. “You see, we not only loved him, we boasted about him, we were proud of him,” Kenney said. “That’s why each of us got a lump in our throats when we read that telegram about his death.”
The pilot’s funeral was held in Superior, Wisconsin. It was attended by thousands of people, and even more, lined the 20-mile route from Superior to the family’s plot at the Poplar Cemetery in Wisconsin. Bong was inducted into the Wisconsin National Hall of Fame, as well as the National Hall of Fame. Although decades have passed since Bong tragically passed away, he is still remembered in memorials throughout the US, including that in his alma mater, Superior High School.
The school has Bong’s uniform, his 26 military decorations, photographs, and even a fragment of the jet in which he was killed. His widow, Marge Bong Drucker, was behind the creation of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Center in Superior, which opened in September 2002.
Richard Bong was WWII’s hero in the skies; real-life Rambo Audie Murphy was its hero on land. Let’s take a look at his story.