For over 50 years, a memorial to Richard I. Bong was in place in Poplar, Wisconsin, about 15 miles east of the Twin Ports cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. It honored Dick Bong of Poplar, America’s leading Ace of all time, who piloted a P-38 Lightning through more than 200 missions over the Southwest Pacific in World War II and destroyed 40 enemy planes – the most by any United States pilot before or since.
After Major Bong’s death a group of businessmen and residents of Poplar formed the Richard Ira Bong Memorial Foundation, Inc., with the goal of raising funds for a memorial which would include a Lockheed P-38 Lightning like those flown by Dick.
Memorial funds were raised with the help of the Veterans of Wisconsin and other interested groups and individuals; the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post #435 acquired a P-38 from the Air Force and donated it for the memorial.
Funds raised, however, were not sufficient to construct a separate building, and the Bong Foundation merged resources with the expanding school district and the Village of Poplar to build a new gymnasium, a cafeteria, and an adjoining small Bong Memorial Room honoring Dick. The aircraft portion of the memorial was completed and dedicated in 1955 by General George C. Kenney, Dick’s commanding officer in the 5th Air Force.
People from all over the nation and many foreign countries visited the site to pay respects to the modest Wisconsin farm boy who became a legend in the skies of the South Pacific Theater. In 1957 the State Historical Society of Wisconsin erected an historic marker along highway 2:
As Northern Wisconsin’s weather began to take a toll on the memorial’s P-38 the Bong P-38 Fund, Incorporated, replaced the Foundation in 1988, with a goal to restore and preserve the Lightning. The aircraft was removed from the pylons and taken to the Minnesota Air National Guard Base at Duluth for restoration and the Bong Memorial Room was eventually closed when the school building was sold to private interests. The State Historical Marker commemorating Dick Bong is still in place on Poplar’s Main Street but now only the mounting pylons for the aircraft remain at the site of the old school. (Also, many items from the original Memorial Room collection are now in the collections of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.)
While the Board of the Bong P-38 Fund was planning a permanent shelter for the plane, the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII was celebrated and the inherent interest in honoring our nation’s WWII veterans led to the concept of a World War II Heritage Center, named to honor Dick Bong but which would commemorate and educate the service of all who served-and those who remained on the home front and worked and waited-in the cause of defeating tyranny and preserving democracy. From this intention was born the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center which opened to the public on September 24, 2002, on what would have been Dick Bong’s 82nd birthday.
The Center quickly established itself as one of the popular attractions of the Twin Ports (Superior and Duluth) as well as an annual stop for many schools within the region. World War II Veterans and their families quickly took to the Center and Veterans from other eras soon began asking if the Center would ever be able to tell their story too. Eventually, the requests for the Center to encompass the story of veterans beyond WWII led the board of directors to adopt a new name for the facility, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, and a broader Mission
A Message from Marge
In late August 2003, Marge Bong Drucker dictated the following message to go on the Bong Heritage Center web site. Just a month later, we sadly announced her death on Saturday, September 27. After a six-year battle with cancer, Marge died in Superior, Wisconsin, with her family at her side.
“World War II was a time in history that saw probably the most patriotic outpouring that the average citizen felt. Young kids tried to sneak into the service; they wanted to defend their country. It is a kind of patriotism that I think hasn’t shown up in a long time.
“Many people went through World War II and experienced all of this. They are alive today, and they can pass their stories on to the younger generations. They can share these through many channels, and the Bong Heritage Center is an important one in our midst where they can do this.
“I watch vets bringing in their children and grandchildren, many of whom didn’t know much about the war. They are now being educated, passing information on to their friends and families. The heritage center is truly an educational complex.
“People have often asked me what Richard would have thought about the heritage center. I always explain that I think he would have been very upset if this was just for him. But the heritage center brings in all veterans, all aspects of the war. Dick’s favorite phrase was ‘we are just doing our job.’ Well, with the heritage center we are doing our job by providing a very fitting tribute to all the heroes who came out of World War II.
“We have done our job for them, and I am very proud.”
Marge Bong Drucker
The Mission of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is to preserve and honor the memory of Major Bong and all veterans of World War II as well as subsequent conflicts and to provide educational resources for the Twin Ports area community and beyond.
- Hayes Scriven, Executive Director
- Briana Fiandt, Curator of Collections
- John Gidley, Education Outreach Coordinator
- Randy Freeman, Facilities Manager
- Gift Shop, Sandy Harty, Bryce Mattson, Casey Peterson, and John Vaski.
Terry Lundberg, Chairman
Tim Sauter, Vice-chair
Joe Fischer, Secretary
Knute Pedersen, Treasurer
- Ryan Kern
- Mark Casper
- Rod Campbell
- John Bremer
- John Manion
- Toby Marcovich
- Dave Podratz
- Earl Rogers
- Judy Weber