Major Richard I. Bong

Major Richard I. "Dick" Bong

Richard and Marge Bong in P-38 cockpit

Richard and Marge Bong in P-38 cockpit

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning

Major Richard I. Bong

Top American Ace of World War Two

By , June, 1999. Updated June 28, 2011.

Richard Ira Bong, who would become America's "Ace of Aces," was born on September 24, 1920, the son of a Swedish immigrant. He grew up on a farm near the small town of Poplar, Wisconsin.

Dick did well in high school, helped on the farm, and pursued many interests as a teenager. He played on the school's baseball, basketball and hockey teams; played clarinet in the school band; sang in the church choir; and enjoyed fishing and hunting.

He became a quite a good shot with a hunting rifle. Like many boys of his era, he became interested in aviation at a young age, and was an avid model builder.

He started at Superior State Teachers College in 1938, where he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot training program, also taking private flying lessons. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program.


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. One 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,

"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!"

To War in the Pacific

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, for this he earned a Silver Star.

Bong began shooting down Japanese planes at a rapid rate. Here's a summary of his action:

Date Kills Location/Comment
December 27, 1942 2 over Buna
January 7, 1943 2 Oscars over Lae
January 8 1 over Lae Harbor, made 'ace'
February 3   back with 9th FS, at Schwimmer
March 3 1 Zero during Battle of the Bismarck Sea
March 11 2 Zeroes
March 29 1 Betty? bomber; promoted to 1st Lt.
April 14 1 bomber, defending against Jap attack on Milne Bay. 'Double Ace'. Awarded Air Medal
June 12 1 Zero, over Bena Bena
July 26 4 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.
July 28 1 Oscar, on B-25 escort over New Britain. Bong's plane damaged.
August 24   promoted to Captain, R&R in Australia
September 6 0 claimed two bombers, but wins were not confirmed; crash-landed at Mailinan airstrip
October 2 1 Dinah, while leading Green Flight over Gasmata
October 29 2 Zeros, over enemy airfield at Rabaul
November 5 2 Zeros, over enemy airfield at Rabaul; total of 21 kills
Dec. 1943 - Jan. 1944   - On leave at home in Wisconsin, met Marge Vattendahl
Feb. 1944 -   assigned to V Fighter Command HQ, allowed to 'free-lance'
February 15 1 Tony off Cape Hoskins, New Britain, first vistory in 'Marge'
February 28 0 destroyed a Japanese transport full of officers on the runway at Wewak
March 3 2 Sally bombers, over Tadji, New Guinea
March 8   Friend & mentor Tom Lynch killed
April 3 1 fighter over Hollandia, 25th win
April 12 3 surpassed Rickenbacker's WWI record of 26
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 September 10, 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.
October 10 2 On raid over Borneo oil refineries; subsequently grounded by Kenney
October 27 1 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. Read McGuire's story here.
October 28 2 Oscars off Leyte, total of 33
November 10 1 Oscar over Ormoc Bay
November 11 2 Bong recommended for Medal of Honor.   (Read about other aces who won the MoH.)
December 7 2 Sally and Tojo, while covering American landings at Ormoc
December 15 1 Oscar
December 16? 1 Oscar over Mindoro. Total of 40 wins; finally grounded and sent home by General Kenney. He was the most successful U.S. fighter pilot of WW2

Medal of Honor

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.

RICHARD I. BONG - Medal of Honor Citation:
(Air Mission)

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.

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.

The following paragraph is quoted from the Dick Bong article at the National Aviation Hall of Fame:

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.

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 Pentagon, 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."

After his PR trip, he returned to Wisconsin, and married Marge on February 10, 1945. After their California honeymoon, he went to work at Wright Field as a test pilot, helping to develop the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. 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. After being checked out in the P-80, he flew it eleven times that summer.

Fatal P-80 Crash

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. His P-80 malfunctioned just after take-off, and while he bailed out, 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.

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 destroyed 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.

Robert Lampe
Anaconda, Montana

Richard Bong's decorations included the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star (with 1 OLC), the Distinguished Flying Cross (with 6 OLC's), the Air Medal (with 14 OLC's), and many other American and foreign medals.

Wisconsin Memorials

Major Bong was 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 to glory. All of these things are to remind us that "There is a time for Patriots."

Richard Bong is also memorialized at the Richard I. Bong Heritage Center in Superior, Wisconsin, which features many exhibits about Dick Bong as well as a refurbished P-38 on display. (see below)

And, last but not least, his memory is preserved at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area, a popular camping site in southern Wisconsin, a place which I hope to visit some day.