The first of nine children, born in 1920 to a Swedish immigrant father and American-born mother, Dick Bong’s upbringing epitomized the values and expectations of that era – loyalty to his family and a deep sense of patriotism. Like all farm children, he had chores to perform and was expected to drive farm machinery at an early age. He hunted and fished in the surrounding woods and streams, played on his school athletic teams and sang in his church choir; as his 4H project he planted the extensive evergreen windbreak on the family farm, still in the family. At that time he modeled the ideal all-American boy.
Dick became enamored of flying as a small boy, watching planes fly over the farm carrying mail for President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House in Superior. As a college student he learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program; at the age of 20 he became a flying cadet in the US Army Air Corps, in time for the entry of America into World War II. Dick became 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 Congressional Medal of Honor.
Dick was ordered home for his safety and married his sweetheart, Marge, in Superior. Six months later he was killed test piloting the first Lockheed jet fighter plane. His death at the age of 24 occured the same day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, yet he received banner headlines in the national newspapers.
Thousands attended Dick’s funeral services in Superior, and many more lined the funeral route to the Poplar cemetary, where he was buried in the family plot. In 1955, ten years after his death, a memorial was dedicated to Dick Bong in his hometown of Poplar, Wisconsin.
In 1944 Dick Bong was awarded the nation’s highest honor by General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all U.S. Army units in the Far East, who 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 brave, the wearers of the Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States.”
Dick Bong, a hero in an era of heroes, represents a generation of young men and women who willingly left their farms, villages, and cities to defend their country’s freedom. They carried out the work that had to be done – and did it well.
Bong was the first fighter pilot handpicked by General George C. Kenney in the fall of 1942 for a P-38 squadron designed to strengthen his Fifth Air Force in Australia and New Guinea. Dick Bong loved flying and the P-38 was the ideal fighting plane for the combat techniques he mastered: swooping down on his targets and blasting them at dangerously close range, then pulling up fast. His own aircraft was damaged in battle in several of his missions, once so badly he had to crash-land.
General Kenney pulled Dick Bong out of combat when his score reached 40 and sent him home to “marry Marjorie and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes.” Dick and Marge Vattendahl were married February 10, 1945 in Superior, an event attended by 1,200 guests and covered by the international press.
The couple honeymooned in California for several weeks before reporting to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where Dick began training for a new assignment in Burbank, California: testing the plane that would take the Air Force into the jet age – the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
Dick Bong was intrigued by the new jet fighter and enthusiastic about his assignment. On August 6, 1945 (the day the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima) Dick Bong was killed when the P-80 he was testing stalled and crashed on take-off.
General George C. Kenney described reactions to his tragic death:
“On August 6, 1945, I was on my way to take off for Headquarters of the Southwest Pacific area in Manila when a radio telegram which had been relayed there was handed to me by my signal officer. Right then, I stopped thinking of the atom bomb which had wiped out Hiroshima that morning, stopped speculation about the effect of the coming entry of Russia into the Pacific War, even stopped thinking of the capitulation of Japan which we all knew was about to take place in a few days. Wherever I landed, I found that the whole Fifth Air Force felt the same, that we had lost a loved one, someone we had been glad to see out of combat and on his way home eight months before. Major Richard I. Bong of Poplar was dead…
“You see, we not only loved him, we boasted about him, we were proud of him. That’s why each of us got a lump in our throats when we read that telegram about his death. Major Bong, Ace of American Aces in all our wars, is destined to hold the title for all time. With the weapons we possess today, no war of the future will last long enough for any pilot to run up 40 victories again.
“His country and the Air Force must never forget their number-one fighter pilot, who will inspire other fighter pilots and countless thousands of youngsters who will want to follow in his footsteps every time that any nation or coalition of nations dares to challenge our right to think, speak, and live as a free people.”
Others praised Dick Bong as well:
“Major Richard Bong was an example of the tragic and terrible price we must pay to maintain principles of human rights, of greater value than life itself. This gallant Air Force hero will be remembered because he made his final contribution to aviation in the dangerous role of test pilot of an untried experimental plane, a deed that places him among the stout-hearted pioneers who gave their lives in the conquest of sky and space.”
-Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I Ace
“Major Bong was a boy in years. A modest, unassuming boy who, in demeanor and aspect, could well serve as a model for the ideal American lad. But in the performance of duty, in his ability to assume and carry out tasks beyond the call of that duty, he was poised, mature, and gallant as that renowned mirror of knighthood of whom it was said he was a perfect warrior, ‘Without fear and without reproach.'”
-Los Angeles Examiner, August 9, 1945
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-hp liquid-cooled engines, the plane had a top speed of 414 mph. It had twin tails and a center fuselage pod housing the pilot. When it was introduced in 1939, the Lockheed design immediately made every other fighter aircraft obsolete. Its price in 1941 was $134,284. The value of the Bong Heritage Center’s restored, non-flyable P-38 is close to $1 million.
The P-38 was the first fighter to feature a tricycle landing gear, first with an all-metal flush riveted skin, first to have power-boosted controls, and the first turbo-supercharged fighter aircraft to enter squadron service. At the time it was the fastest and longest-ranged fighter in the world.
Preserving and providing appropriate shelter for the P-38 Lightning on display outside the Bong Memorial Room in Poplar, Wisconsin became the inspiration for the Richard I. Bong WWII Heritage Center. Between 1994 and 1997 volunteers at the Minnesota Air National Guard in Duluth carefully removed the vintage plane from the pylons to start the lengthy restoration project. To the volunteers the restoration was a labor of love and an important community project. Lt. Colonel Bill Bordson was the project officer. Master Sgt. Bill Ion was the project NCO who coordinated the work of volunteers from the Air National Guard and civilian volunteers.
Sgt. Ion also was in charge of locating missing parts, with the help of a maintenance manual and information from a set of plans owned by Bob Carden of Middlesboro, Kentucky, who got them from the Smithsonian Institution. Carden is part of the team that restored “Glacier Girl” – a P-38 found under the Greenland Ice Cap on August 1, 1992 – part of the “Lost Squadron.”
“There is a whole network of P-38 buffs and people who collect them out there,” Sgt. Ion said during the restoration project. “The more you get into this the more contacts you make. Some parts are simply not available and we have to make them. Many people are helping us find them. Bob Carden is giving us a nose landing gear he had sent from England. An instrument panel is being sent from California, and we’re sending the cockpit frame to another place in California that will put the glass in. When we do have to buy parts, people are giving us a decent price because the plane is going into the Bong Heritage Center.”
Volunteers Bob Hinz of Hibbing and Al Samsa of Chisholm drove the three-hour round trip from Minnesota’s Iron Range each week to work on the restoration project. They said they would love to have been able to do more. Samsa, a former Air Force pilot in World War II and Korea, and an anchor pilot in Vietnam, put in a total of 23 years in the service. “I wasn’t fortunate enough to fly the P-38, but I wanted to,” he said. “So did everyone else. This was the baby. It could carry long-range tanks, so you could get home if you got one engine shot out. It could outdive the Zeros.”
Bob Hinz was a mechanic in the service, attached to the 345th Bomber Group. He served in Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines and an island off Okinawa. “For me to get my hands on a P-38 is really something,” he said. ” I didn’t work on them much during World War II.”
To Colonel Bordson, restoring the P-38 and building the planned Bong WWII Heritage Center was extremely important. “The younger generation may have read about the war in history books, but they probably don’t know anything about Major Dick Bong and others who served. It’s important to build the Center before the veterans are gone. I think kids from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin will take field trips to the Center to learn about World War II.”
The War in the Southwest Pacific
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, had crippled the American Pacific Fleet and knocked out two-thirds of Hawaii’s Army planes. Stringent military budgets throughout the decades following World War I had kept the Army Air Corps short of planes and personnel.
In 1939, as Germany threatened Europe and Japan invaded China, Congress had appropriated $300 million to help the Air Corps develop fighter planes such as the twin-engined Lockheed P-38 and the single-engined P-47. (The P stood for “Pursuit plane,” a dated term for “fighter.”) The funds also hastened the production of smaller attack aircraft and medium bombers. In December 1941 the Air Corps had only 1,100 planes fit for war service.
During the first year of the war, men of the newly rechristened Army Air Forces held on grimly with inadequate equipment while the training schools and the aircraft industry hurried desperately to produce planes and skilled personnel necessary to fight two different air wars in two far-distant theaters, Europe and Asia. Produce they did. By 1945 the Air Forces numbered 2.4 million men; between 1940-45 more than 229,200 aircraft were delivered.
One of the nucleus of Air Corps officers who had flown in World War I was General George C. Kenney, who in August 1942 would become Air Commander under General Douglas MacArthur in Australia and New Guinea. Kenney planned to attack the Japanese ring menacing Australia. He was most concerned with the airfields on the northern coast of New Guinea that threatened the Allied foothold in the Port Moresby area on New Guinea’s southern coast.
With a small band of men and insufficient and often worn aircraft, General Kenney attempted to cut the Japanese forces in New Guinea “off the vine” by blasting New Guinea-bound cargo vessels and by attacking their big supply base at Rabaul. His planes also gave support to the small forces of Australian and American infantrymen under General MacArthur’s command (including the 32nd Wisconsin Division in New Guinea). The infantrymen were inching their way across the Owen Stanley Mountains and through the jungles of New Guinea, painfully pushing the Japanese from the outposts that most threatened Port Moresby and Australia.
The arrival of 50 P-38 Lightnings in August and September bolstered Kenney’s forces and helped turn the tide. The new fighter plane proved to be a far more lethal adversary of the Zero than the P-40 or P-39. Although not as agile as the Zero, it could outclimb and outdive it and had plenty of firepower (a 20 mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns).
General Kenney’s Fifth Air Force, with Australian and American ground troops, would push the Japanese out of the largest of the islands, New Guinea, and from New Britain before going on to Morotai in the Moluccas on a southerly route to the Philippines. Kenney’s campaign called for a step-by-step advance along the rugged 1,200-mile northern coast of New Guinea. The area around Buna and Gona had been captured in January 1943. The next targets were the Japanese airfields and ground installations around Salamaua, Lae and Nadzab, 150 miles to the west.
In October 1944 Kenney and his Fifth made the leap from New Guinea to Leyte in the Philippines. The long, exhausting push from Port Moresby to Luzon was a triumph, but it had been costly. The Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces lost 2,494 aircraft and 6,594 men.
Among the fallen were some of General Kenney’s favorite “kids”, including Aces Neel Kearby and Thomas Lynch, one of Dick Bong’s best friends. One fighter pilot who came close to reaching Bong’s record was Major Thomas B. McGuire, who shot down 38 enemy planes before he was killed in the crash of his P-38 in January 1945.