He was a small town farm boy who made good, a hero in a time when America still revered her heroes, and long after he died serving his country, Richard I. Bong’s legacy lives on.
The oldest of nine children born to a Swedish immigrant father and American-born mother, Dick Bong’s upbringing reflected the values and expectations of his time – loyalty to his family and a deep sense of patriotism. Born in 1920, Bong was a typical all American boy who drove farm tractors at an early age, participated in school sports, sang in his church choir, and hunted and fished in the forests and rivers around his northern Wisconsin home.
Bong fell in love with airplanes and flying as a small boy watching planes fly over the farm carrying mail for President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House, in nearby Superior.
As a college student he learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program, and at the age of 20 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, just in time for America’s entry into World War II. Assigned to the New Guinea theater of operations, on September 5, 1942, he quickly proved his mastery in the air by shooting down two enemy aircraft in his first air battle.
Bong went on to become America’s all-time Ace of Aces, downing 40 enemy planes in the Pacific theater of the war while flying P-38 fighter planes. His many decorations for outstanding skills and extraordinary courage included the nation’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
He had a natural talent for air combat and in the fall of 1942, Bong was the first fighter pilot handpicked by General George C. Kenney for a P-38 squadron designed to strengthen his Fifth Air Force in Australia and New Guinea. The P-38 was the ideal fighting plane for the techniques Bong mastered: swooping down on his targets and blasting them at dangerously close range, then pulling up fast. His own aircraft was damaged in battle several times, once so badly that he had to crash land.
Bong flew more than 200 missions over the Pacific in World War II, And his record of shooting down 40 enemy planes has not been beaten by any American pilot, before or since. Rotated home after doing his first tour of duty, he volunteered to return to the combat zone two more times to take the fight to the enemy,
In 1944, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all American forces in the Pacific, awarded Dick Bong the nation’s highest honor. He was ordered home for his safety, and married his sweetheart, Marge, whose face adorned the nose of his P-38, and they honeymooned in California.
Handsome and friendly, Bong had achieved super star status and toured the country raising support for the war effort. Marge was swept up in all of the hoopla, but both husband and wife never lost their small town values. Bong always told interviewers that he was no hero for his exploits in combat; he was just doing his job.
Bong was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he began training for a new assignment, testing the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the airplane that would take the Air Force into the jet age. Following initial training in the P-80, Bong was transferred to California to put the airplane through its final testing phase.
Tragically, the young pilot who had survived so many dangerous combat missions was killed on August 6, 1945 when the P-80 he was testing stalled and crashed on takeoff. He was just 24 years old.
Bong was killed the same day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but that news was overshadowed by banner headlines in the national newspapers reporting the death of America’s aviation hero.
Today, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin honors not only the memory of this extraordinary war hero, but all of America’s veterans of World War II and later conflicts, as well as the civilians and families at home who contributed to the effort to win America’s wars over the years.
The museum’s extensive exhibits include military equipment and weapons, the role women played in the war effort, and how America’s industries geared up to meet wartime production needs. The centerpiece of the museum is a restored P-38 airplane like the one Major Bong flew, decorated with a picture of his then soon to be wife, Marge, on the nose.
Of the thousands of P-38 Lightning fighter planes manufactured, less than 30 are still in existence. With a wingspan of 52 feet and powered by two 1,425 horsepower engines, the plane had a top speed of 414 mph. With its twin tails and a center fuselage pod housing the pilot, the Lockheed design immediately made every other fighter aircraft obsolete when it was introduced in 1939.
The new fighter plane proved to be a far more lethal adversary for the formidable Japanese Zero than the earlier P-40s and P-39s flown by American pilots. Although not as nimble as the Zero, it could out climb and out dive it, and its 20 mm cannon and four .50 caliber machine guns gave it plenty of firepower.
Among other interesting items on display was this Japanese paratrooper’s rifle, which could be broken down into two pieces for easier carrying, and an M-28 Snow Weasel, manufactured in South Bend, Indiana. The M-28 was designed for transportation over snowy terrain, but many were adapted for all-terrain use, and even as an amphibious version.
There are also exhibits of mines used against enemy ships, and life in barracks and outposts in the war zone.
World War II forever changed the job opportunities for American women as factories operated around the clock, manufacturing everything from helmets to ammunition. As more and more men went off to war, women took their places on the assembly lines and in the shipyards, working twelve hour days, six or seven days a week. By the peak year of 1944, five million women had joined the workforce, and the museum recognizes their efforts to help win the war.
You can’t visit the museum without coming away with a new appreciation for the men and women of the Greatest Generation and all that they did to keep America free from tyranny.
The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is located at 305 Harbor View Parkway in Superior, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays during the summer. Winter hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 and over, and $8 for children age 12-17. Children ages 6 to 11 are $7, and age 5 and under are free.
The parking lot at the park adjacent to the museum will accommodate any size RV, and the museum is handicapped accessible. For more information, call the museum toll free at (888) 816-9944.
Congratulations, Joel Myers, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Big Lake Blizzard, the fourth book in my Big Lake mystery series. We had 132 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon!
Thought For The Day – I can’t believe how old some people my age are.